15 January 2013

Kenya: Impact of Ethiopia's Gibbe Dam Project

Photo: Stelios Comninos
Sunset over a section of the Nile River (file photo).


We are species of self-professed fixers: our forbears domesticated plants and animals and liberated our kind from hunting and gathering; when natural capacity waned the genius of Haber and Bosch gave us inorganic fertilizers; Louis Pasteur advanced the germ theory and revolutionized microbiology and medicine.

In keeping with the tradition of our progenitors, the Ethiopian government is determined to fix chronic poverty and end decades of economic stagnation.

According to the African Development Bank Ethiopia's growth is strong with real GDP growth at or near double digits in six successive years. The Ethiopian leadership sees itself as engaged in an African rendition of the "Great Leap Forward".

Ethiopia's Agricultural Transformation Agency is on course to transform a country that just two decades ago was the face of famine into Africa's breadbasket.

And Ethiopia's investment in hydropower is further changing the equation. Ethiopia is on track to complete mega dam projects, which will enhance its dominance on the East African Power market.

Gibbe III Dam on the Omo River will be critical to driving and sustaining Ethiopia's economic renaissance. It is one of the biggest hydroelectric projects in the world with the expected capacity to generate 1,870 Mega Watts of power.

There are plans to export 400 megawatts to neighboring Kenya. It is the dominant view of Ethiopia's political that areas like the Lower Omo Basin can only be transformed by replacing traditional pastoral systems with large-scale irrigation to support large-scale agro-industries.

A new study published by International Rivers and endorsed by a galaxy of leading academics and experts warns that the Gibbe III Dam project could transform one of the world's oldest lakes into Africa's Aral Sea.

Drawing from a sound scientific evidence base, the report, "The Down Stream Impacts of Ethiopia's Gibbe III Dam: East Africa's Aral Sea in the Making?" could trigger an avalanche of inexorable hydrological, ecological, socio-economic and political impacts.

The Omo River contributes about 90% of the inflow into Kenya's Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake. Moreover, the Omo River inflows are critical for regulation the chemical composition and maintenance of the rich biodiversity of the Lake Turkana and the Lower Omo Basin, culture, livelihoods and economy of some 500,000 indigenous people in Ethiopia and Kenya.

The downstream consequences of the Gibbe Dam III project are complex and potentially irreversible. The International Rivers Report outlines four critical impacts, which demand urgent national, regional and international consideration.

Given it location in the Omo Basin, Gibe III Dam will capture about 67% of the total river inflow. Hence, about two-thirds of the annual flood cycle, sediment and nutrients would be curtailed during reservoir filling.

Moreover, the scale of irrigation to drive the agro-industrial development will reduce Lake Turkana's volume by 58%, lower the lake level by 22m while doubling its salinity. Moreover, climate change could exacerbate the hydrological impacts of the dam.

Gibe III Dam will disrupt regular cycles of flooding, destroying the network of swamps vital for fisheries. The swamps also provide forage and browse for wildlife and livestock, support flood-retreat agriculture, and are valuable habitat for water birds that use the lake for their annual migrations between Eurasia and Eastern Africa.

The Gibbe III Dam will cause the decimation of large mammal populations on a trans-boundary scale owing to habitat lose. Wildlife populations of the Omo floodplain migrate seasonally into South Sudan. Wildlife on the Kenya side depends on the seasonally flooded areas around Lake Turkana.

The disruption to the land, water, ecology and livelihoods of communities in Lower Omo Basin will have immediate and far-ranging political consequences.

Local groups displaced from their livelihoods and homelands are likely to generate conflict as they seek resources on the neighbors' lands in the Kenya-Ethiopia-Sudan borderlands. Well armed, historically polarized and often divided by support from different states, these conflicts can be bloody and protracted.

The report argues that the "Aral Sea" outcome is avoidable. What is needed is a raft of simultaneous and sustained interventions, including: action by the EU and the US to stop budgetary support to the Ethiopian government; challenging Kenya's acquiescence of the Gibbe III Dam as an integral plank of its national energy security strategy; flagging the regional security and political stability consequences of the Gibbe III Dam; underscoring the vital ecological capital of the greater Omo Basin, especially the role of functional ecosystems in enhancing resilience to climate change; advocating the rights of indigenous peoples with regard to resources and livelihoods, including the significance of World Heritage Sites and the place of the larger Omo Basin in the human evolutionary story.

Dr. Awiti is an ecosystems ecologist based at Aga Khan University, Nairobi.

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