Trouble Ahead – Lake Turkana shrinks – Climate Change and Ethiopian Dam

In February 2017 the SMA Justice Office issued a short informative case study on the impact of Climate Change and the Ethiopian Gibe 111 Dam projects on Kenya’s Lake Turkana.

The case study may be accessed by clicking here.

Lake Turkana from Space

The lands bordering Lake Turkana have been a mission territory of the SMAs and other Irish missionary societies for decades. As the biggest desert lake in the world, it has been a source of employment, food and enterprise for generations of African tribes since time immemorial, as well as a place of rich bio-diversity. Yet, Lake Turkana’s very existence is now under threat from two sources: Climate Change and the massive hydroelectric dams built along the Omo river in Ethiopia, that flows into the Lake. 

Benedict Moran, a freelance writer and filmmaker, has published a report on the IRIN website (23 May 2017) that substantiates everything the SMA Justice Office has covered in our February case study.  As a filmmaker, Moran’s article is augmented with short films he has made that examine the environmental damage and, especially, the human impact. The SMAs case study and Moran’s report are worrying and indicate there is trouble ahead, unless steps aimed at limiting damage are taken soon.

Moran’s IRIN article is entitled, “A way of life under threat in Kenya as Lake Turkana shrinks.” He writes:

“Lake Turkana is the largest desert lake in the world and has existed in some form for nearly four million years. Ancient hominids, like the contemporaries of Turkana Boy – the nearly complete skeleton of homo erectus discovered in nearby Nariokotome – fished and lived along its shores.

Now, the lake itself, along with the populations that depend on it, are increasingly vulnerable.”

Almost 90% of Lake Turkana’s freshwater inflow comes from the river Omo in neighbouring Ethiopia. However, in 2016, the Ethiopian Government announced plans to build Africa’s tallest hydroelectric dam, as well as a number of sugar plantations along the Omo which are, already, significantly diminishing its southerly flow.

Cattle being watered along the southern approach of the River Omo

It takes little effort to work out the potential consequence of strangling the source of Lake Turkan’s water supply and the consequent impact on the livelihoods of the communities, numbering, as the SMA case study states, some 500,000 persons, who have lived off its generosity for millennia.

Climate Change is another source of worry, particularly with rising temperatures causing lake evaporation which is not now being replenished by an adequate inflow of fresh water, due to the Gibe 111 Dam and sugar plantations. The situation is, warns Moran, “only expected to get worse.”

This is not only a potential manmade disaster in the making for Africa, but it is also a cause that calls for international intervention from the United Nations. Ultimately, if Ethiopia continues with its plans, and the Lake continues to shrink, conflict with Kenya may be inevitable.

In an article for National Geographic in December 2015, Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project and Freshwater Fellow of the National Geographic Society wrote:

Gibe 111 Dam under construction

“Without question, Ethiopia needs water and energy development to move more of its people out of poverty. But the government should cease the filling of the Gibe III reservoir until it has remedied the hunger, destitution and displacement being wrought upon the tribal people who have lived sustainability in the Omo Valley for centuries.

It should also work with river scientists to develop a strategy for the dam’s operation that will secure the river flows tribal people depend on for their crop production and livestock grazing.”

In her article Postel called for international intervention, especially by donor governments, in pressurising the Ethiopian Government to act responsibly towards its own people downstream who depend on the Omo River, and also the devastation the dam Gibe 111 dam is delivering to Lake Turkana in northern Kenya.

Clearly, from Moran’s IRIN report, little has changed in the past 18 months. The full IRIN report may be accessed by clicking here here.

Sandra Postel’s article in National Geographic may be accessed here.