Voice of America (Washington, DC)

Ethiopia: Kenya, Ethiopia Mediating Omo River Water Controversy

Washington — An environmental controversy surrounding the construction of Gilgel Gibe III Dam in Ethiopia's Highlands appears to be close to resolution. Kenyan authorities have raised concerns about the dam because it is being built along Ethiopia's Omo River which is the major source of water for Kenya's Lake Turkana.

The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) has been working with Kenyan and Ethiopian governments on developing a joint project on sustainable development of the basin.

An agreement between the two water ministries may be signed in November, said an official for UNEP in Nairobi. The draft agreement proposes joint management of all natural resources in Lake Turkana and its river basin which extends upstream into Ethiopia.

Lake Turkana defenders in Kenya anticipate an agreement could save the lake.

At issue is the question of whether Ethiopia's Gilgel Gibe 111 dam will drain upstream waters to irrigate large plantations on the Ethiopia side of the border, a move that Kenya fears will critically damage Lake Turkana, 675 kilometers downstream. More than 80 percent of the Kenyan lake's waters come from the Omo in Ethiopia and water levels in the lake could drop by as much as 10 meters once the dam is operational. Lake Turkana is also a World Heritage site where some of earliest evidence of man has been found and is currently home to thousands of fishermen and others who use the lake waters for their livestock.

"Our big concern is the water levels of Lake Turkana," said Thomas Wildman, Horn of Africa director for Oxfam Great Britain. "The big question is whether Ethiopia is going to release all the water from the dam once they've drawn it for hydro or if they're going to keep any of that water."

Irrigation a major concern for Kenya

The Gilgel Gibe III is the third of three dams to be built on the Omo River and its tributaries that run south and empty into Lake Turkana across the Kenyan border. Recent Ethiopian proposals to divert Omo waters for irrigation of a major sugar plantation in the basin have alarmed officials in the administration President Uhuru Kenyatta.

"For the first time this year, the president of Kenya actually accepted that the dam has an impact on Lake Turkana," said Akil Angelei, president of The Friends of Lake Turkana. "After years of back and forth, UNEP is trying to convene meetings to look at a way forward on the issue."

As part of its development strategy Ethiopia is seeking to become a major source of global sugar. It is building 10 new refineries and devoting another 5 million hectares to growing sugarcane. South Omo is to host six of those factories and half of the plantation lands.

Oxfam said the Omo River dam construction - originally identified as a hydroelectric project - is now viewed as "quite a large-scale irrigation project which could really reduce the levels and create an ecological impact on the fish populations which are a primary sources of livelihood for the people on the lake and on the floodplain for livestock."

"We know that Ethiopia's main drive had been not just hydro but irrigation," said Angelei, "so we are trying highlight that we need them to look at what the entire basin needs."

Thousands displaced by the dam

Another issue of concern surrounding construction of the Gilgel Gibe III dam is the displacement of people. Claudia Carr at the University of California at Berkeley reported that large numbers of Mursi people in the north of the basin and Dasanech groups along the eastern shore have already been removed by the Ethiopia government. The Dasanech occupy the northern and eastern shores of the lake and straddle both countries. Gabbra and Turkana groups live to the south and west of the lake.

More than a dozen indigenous tribes have lived in the basin for centuries, raising cattle and goats and fishing the lake. Some estimates say that beyond the 20,000 who depend directly on the lake's waters, more than 200,000 Kenyans and Ethiopians would be impacted by a drop in lake waters.

Cattle raids and tribal clashes are frequent among the tribes such as the Rendille. Many who study the region are concerned that reduced water flows will increase competition for water and lead to increased clashes. Rights groups have reported that in Ethiopia many villagers been removed to provide up to 300,000 hectares in South Oromo for proposed sugar and cotton plantations.

An early champion of Lake Turkana, Kenyan paleoanthropologist and conservationist Richard Leakey said four years ago that the Gilgel Gibe III was based on flawed studies and "the dam will produce a broad range of negative effects, some of which would be catastrophic to both the environment and the indigenous communities living downstream."

The ongoing debate focuses on an under-populated desert region where the borders of Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan - and the disputed Ilema Triangle - meet. Recent news of the satellite-based discovery of a vast network of subterranean aquifers holding 250 billion cubic meters of fresh water could boost the fortunes of this drought-prone corner of Kenya but will not impact the future of Lake Turkana. Now the fate of the region depends on the ability of Kenya and Ethiopia to jointly manage the waters of the Omo River in the Turkana basin.

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