The destruction of the Aral Sea in Central Asia has been called the world's worst environmental disaster. It's not something we should be repeating, especially in a time of growing uncertainty about water resources on our warming planet.
So will the world stand by (and even underwrite the perpetrators) as Ethiopia builds projects that will suck dry one of Africa's largest lakes, and create "water refugees" in two countries?
A new scientific study published by International Rivers documents how hydrological changes caused by the Gibe III Dam and large-scale irrigation projects, both now under construction in Ethiopia's Omo River Basin, could turn Kenya's Lake Turkana into "East Africa's Aral Sea." The study describes how these projects will dramatically reduce the amount of water flowing into Lake Turkana (Africa's fourth largest), leading to a major drop in the lake's level, a collapse of local livelihoods, and increased conflict in East Africa.
Gibe III Dam is about half complete, and the irrigation projects are just getting underway. These projects' combined hydrological changes will harm fisheries upon which local people depend, reduce water quality, and have major implications for the region's rich wildlife, among other impacts.
In an area where water is precious and local people are well-armed and willing to fight for the use of natural resources like water and land, the changes to the lake and river could foment insecurity in an already conflict-ridden region.
According to the report's author:
If Ethiopia completes the Gibe III Dam, now under construction on the Middle Omo River, and continues to press ahead with large-scale irrigation developments in the Lower Omo Basin, the result will be a cascade of hydrological, ecological and socio-economic impacts that will generate a region-wide crisis for indigenous livelihoods and biodiversity and thoroughly destabilize the Ethiopia-Kenyan borderlands around Lake Turkana.
Lake Turkana gets 90 percent of its water from the Omo River. Filling the dam's reservoir will significantly reduce the lake's inflow for a number of years. The further impact of water diversions for large irrigated plantations being developed in the Lower Omo could lead to the lake level dropping by as much as 22 meters (the average depth is just 30 meters), the paper reports. The dam will also reduce the flow of sediments, which will "lead to the loss of the ecologically productive floodplain used by wild species, fish, domestic stock and agriculture," according to the report.
The Ethiopian government tried for years to raise funds for the multi-billion dollar projects on the Omo River from the World Bank, the African Development Bank, and other international financiers. None of these funders got involved. Only the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) stepped forward, eventually approving a loan for $500 million in turbines for the dam. In 2012, China Development Bank signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ethiopia Sugar Corporation for another loan of $500 million for the construction of sugar factories in the Lower Omo Valley.
The Gibe III Dam and the sugar plantations threaten World Heritage Sites in the Lower Omo Valley and near Lake Turkana. In June 2011, the UN World Heritage Committee called on the Ethiopian government to "immediately halt all construction" on the dam, and encouraged the Chinese financiers "to put on hold their financial support" until the Committee's next annual meeting. The Ethiopian government and ICBC both ignored this call.
David Hales, former Chair, UNESCO World Heritage Committee, and one of 16 prominent academics who endorsed the new study, states:
This paper raises fundamental issues that must be addressed urgently. It is time for the international community to pay serious attention to the impact on indigenous people in both Ethiopia and Kenya, and the potential loss of irreplaceable components of natural systems whose richness and uniqueness have been recognized as part of the common heritage of mankind through the World Heritage Convention.
There are many "wild cards" in this unfolding saga, but one thing is certain, says the author: "The destruction of Turkana, if it proceeds, will become as notorious as that of the Aral Sea, tainting all those who perpetuate it."
Perhaps the wildest card of all is that Kenya itself has tied its political fortunes to this project, despite the immense consequences to the lake. The Kenyan government has reportedly agreed to purchase power from the Gibe dam, and will benefit from a new World Bank/African Development Bank project to link its transmission system to Ethiopia's, which enables the sale of Gibe's electricity.
As Dr.William Oweke Ojwang, assistant director of the Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (another of the paper's endorsers), says: "The Omo-Lake Turkana ecosystem is a gift to our heritage. Lake Turkana fisheries have immense socio-economic importance to the country and the region. It would be suicidal for Kenya to ignore the impacts of these developments on this rich ecosystem."
A number of groups -- including International Rivers, Friends of Lake Turkana, Oakland Institute, and Human Rights Watch -- are calling for international attention to the land- and water-grabs that are going on in the Omo River Basin. The most immediate goal is a halt to dam construction and water withdrawals until there is a complete accounting of the projects' potential harm to Lake Turkana, and a plan to ensure the lake does not suffer a hydrological collapse.
Although not directly involved in funding these projects, the United States is Ethiopia's most important donor. U.S. support for essential services has helped free up government money to complete the dam and associated irrigation infrastructure. The time is now for Western donors to press Ethiopia to stem human rights abuses and end development projects whose long-term environmental damage fuels conflict.
We are also calling on China to withdraw its support for this manmade disaster in the making. The World Bank, too, must assume responsibility for its power-pool investment in the region, and acknowledge its role in enabling Gibe III to proceed. Finally, Kenya should withdraw from an agreement to purchase power from the dam, and work with its neighbor to plan sustainable energy systems that will not lead to local war.
Ethiopia faces major development challenges, and should be empowered to build development projects that reduce poverty. But when its projects will have such disastrous consequences on its neighbors as these developments, then the conversation must be expanded. Clearly, it's going to "take a village" to resolve this looming crisis.