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The ‘damned’ lake of Turkana!

Bernard Gitau @benagitau

It is the world’s largest alkaline as well as permanent desert lake. It went by the name Lake Rudolph from 1888 but is also known as the Jade Sea for its greenish-blue colour and notoriously strong desert winds. It is lake Turkana.

However, controversial construction of Gibe III and Kuraz Sugar Project across the border in Ethiopia are threatening to turn the Unesco World Heritage Site into a bowl of dust and misery. In fact, Unesco has listed the lake among the world’s most endangered sites.

So serious is the threat that the government of Kenya lodged complaints during a recent Unesco summit in Paris over the negative impact the projects have on Lake Turkana.    

“Both the government and county governors are concerned that’s why we brought this issue up. We want to protect not just the lake but also the inhabitants around it,” Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Kamau Macharia told People Daily.

He said it was with Kenya’s concurrence and that of Ethiopia authorities that the Lake is given special status for protection.

“It is not just about construction of the dam and sugar irrigation project but the management of water (trans boundary resources),” he added.

Lake Turkana, gets 90 per cent of its water from the Omo River which Ethiopia is using to generate power for both domestic use and export.

“The water flow into the lake has reduced drastically and the shoreline is receding a metre annually, it’s a serious cause for alarm,” Kenya Marine and Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) scientist researcher Casianes Olilo said. Besides raking in Sh500 million annually for the country, 300,000 people are at risk of losing their heritage and source of livelihood.

“The temperature is equivalent to a boiling environment and if water flow is restricted, the worst scenario will see the lake break into two, with small section breaking off and becoming a lifeless, salty pool of algae,” said Olilo.

A conservation expert with Unesco, Guy Debonnet, added that Ethiopia is planning two new dams on the Omo river which will only make the situation worse. “We are concerned that these projects will have implication on the local communities who depend on the lake for fishing and for their livelihood,” he said.

The latest to be commissioned was the Gibe III on river Omo, with a generating capacity of 1,870 MW.  Ironically, Kenya is said to be a major purchaser of Gibe III’s power.

The dam was inaugurated in December 2016 and will cost the government of Ethiopia up to USD$1.75 billion (Sh175 billion).

Already, fishermen are beginning to feel the pinch, according to Kalokol Impressa Beach Management Unit chair Stephen Lekwo.

“Kalokol in Turkana means “sea of many fish” but catches are declining because of changes in water levels and overfishing,” he said.

Martin Etebo, a fisherman for more than 30 years, said the lake supplied fish to markets across Africa, including as far as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“It’s not the same today, dozens of boats sit idle on the shoreline, some with their bottoms rotting out,” he said.

Fishermen are now forced to spend at least two nights in the Lake to make any catch, mostly Nile Perch, and still, the haul is underwhelming, he adds.

“We are forced to poach fish because our territories have been depleted. We sail more than 60 kilometres into the Lake which is not allowed by Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS),” he said.

Deputy President William Ruto during a recent tour of Turkana, however, assured leaders of the government’s commitment to resolve the issue.

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