Kenya: Lake Turkana Ecosystem - Development for Ecology?

Nairobi — The 290 kilometre long and 32km wide Lake Turkana is the world’s largest desert lake. It has 12 inflowing rivers (all seasonal except the Omo in Ethiopia that accounts for 90 per cent of all inflows) and no outlets. The two main seasonal rivers are the Turkwel and Kerio in Kenya.

With a volume of 203.6 cubic kilometres, an inflow of 19 cubic kilometres per year is required to keep the lake levels steady.

Lake Turkana has about 48 fish species, three of which – tilapia, Nile perch and catfish – make the core of the lake’s fisheries with a potential of up to 30,000 tonnes per year.

The lake’s location in a fragile environment makes it particularly prone to climate change.

A more immediate threat though is the latest dam on the lake’s permanent inflow, the Gibe III.

Electric power generation is the main expected output.

According to the World Bank, Ethiopia’s main sources of electricity in 2006 were oil and hydropower, catering for 0.3 per cent and 99.7 per cent respectively.

Kenya’s were similar, but catering for 30.5 per cent and 50.6 per cent.

Per capita electricity consumption for 2006 was 38kWh and 145kWh for Ethiopia and Kenya respectively.

The two countries need affordable electricity now, if they are to develop their economies.

But development must sustainably benefit all stakeholders, especially the local communities living in ecosystems exploited for power generation.

No lessons learnt

One would hope lessons learnt from past projects in the Turkana ecosystem would point to better crafted development initiatives this time round.

The 1980s Norad funded Kalokol Fish Factory on Lake Turkana, and the 1990s Turkwel Gorge hydropower project have not contributed much to the development of these fragile, “voiceless,” marginalised regions and lack of all-encompassing feasibility studies, including cost-benefit studies, have left the locals short.

The Gibe III is the third project in a planned series of five dams on the Omo River.

Gibe I was developed between 1986 and 2004.

About 3,000 people were relocated during the construction of this facility that boasts a production capacity of 420MW.

The Gibe II was meant to use water from Gibe I directed through a 26km tunnel to a steep part of the Omo valley.

Originally scheduled for completion in 2007, it was inaugurated on January 13.

Unfortunately the channel collapsed just 12 days after inauguration.

Work on Gibe III commenced in 2006 even before feasibility studies were conducted or funding secured.

The official explanation was that Ethiopia was faced with “an emergency electricity shortage.”

Ethiopia’s largest project and Africa’s tallest reservoir, planned specifications include a 240m high reservoir, 11.75 billion cubic metre capacity, and 1,870MW power output.

This is more energy than Ethiopia requires.

According to International Rivers, the surplus will be sold to neighbouring countries.

Indeed, in 2006, Ethiopia and Kenya signed a power purchase agreement for 500MW.

Sadly there was no parallel agreement on the use of the Omo and Lake Turkana.

Energy generation will most probably not benefit the immediate marginalised communities.

These are the 500,000 people downstream of the Gibe III on the Ethiopia part, and 300,000 in the Lake Turkana area of Kenya – communities who will live with any likely impacts of the $2.1 billion project.

It is estimated that the filling of the Gibe III reservoir will likely take two or more years, cutting the Omo inflow by 50 per cent and reducing the lake level by seven to 10 metres.

In all the three Omo dams, there have been no above-board feasibility studies.

For instance, construction has been awarded to Salini of Italy, in a no-bid manner against laid down procurement procedures.

In a way, the contracts somehow exempt the company from geological risks.

The Italian Development Co-operation (IDC) provided funding for both the Gibe I and Gibe II in violation of Italian law that requires both a feasibility study and the required environmental permits.


The IDC together with the African Development Bank (AfDB), European Investment Bank, and JP Morgan Chase are possible financiers of Gibe III.

In 2009, the African Resources Working Group gave a damning report on Gibe III, predicting devastating impacts downstream.

They also cited the loss of cultivation in the seasonally flooded Omo Delta, loss of riverine forests and wetlands the length of the Omo River, the site location on an earthquake fault line, possibility of landslides from the clay rich soils, and possible resource use conflicts and destabilisation in the disputed Ilemi triangle in the Omo Delta region.

The lower Omo valley is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and has two national parks. There are three parks in the lake too.

The alkaline Turkana waters are potable but not palatable.

Increased alkalinity will not only affect humans — but it is also not known what the effects on biodiversity will be.

Though the Gibe III will impact 800,000 people, the only “voice” championing the cause for conservation from the region is Friends of Lake Turkana in Kenya.

The Ministries of Water, and the Development of Northern Kenya and Arid Lands are yet to issue official positions on the matter.

Other activist groups include Anak Justice Council (US), Bank Information Centre (US), the Italian World Bank watchdog – Campagna Per La Riforma Della Banca Mondiale, and Survival International (UK).

Their collective action has resulted in two petitions in March and April 2009, submitted to the AfDB’s Compliance Review Mechanism Unit to investigate Bank compliance in the project preparation.