Ethiopia Water Grabs: Creating ‘East Africa’s Aral Sea’?

January 17, 2013 in Ethiopia Water Grabs

Lori Pottinger

Editor of World Rivers Review and Africa Campaigner


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 topurchase 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.

Egypt starts to weak up seeing her water share dwindling by dams in the Nile Basin

January 15, 2013 in Water Crisis

Water ministry rejects new Nile agreement

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Treaties ensure Egypt receives 55.5 of the 84bn cubic metres of water that flows through the Nile annually
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The Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Mohamed Baha’a El-Din said on Saturday that Egypt will not be signing the Entebbe agreement with other Nile-Basin countries as the agreement in its current form is not suitable for downstream countries such as Egypt.
According to the State Information Services, the minister told the official Chinese news agency Xinhua that the Entebbe agreement is useless without Egypt and Sudan’s signatures.
China is investing in water development projects across several Nile Basin countries. Baha’a El-Din told China that any water project they fund must not have a negative effect on Egypt.
Historically Egypt has always had the largest share of the Nile water. In 1929 Egypt was ensured the lion’s share of the water by Britain and in 1959 Egypt and Sudan signed an agreement which guaranteed 55.5 billion cubic meters of water to Egypt annually, of the estimated 84 billion cubic metres.
The irrigation ministry spokesperson Khaled Wasif said that Egypt actually needs another 7bn cubic metres to cover a water shortage. The Entebbe agreement, Wasif said, does not touch the issue of water but nevertheless there are three contentious issues which the nations have not been able to resolve .
The first issue surrounds how decisions are made. The upstream nations want decisions to be taken by a majority vote, whereas Egypt is demanding consensus.
Wasif said: “Second, we need everyone to respect previous agreements. We have had our share of the water for thousands of years and we need to respect previous agreements made by Italy, Belgium, England and other countries that occupied Egypt and the Nile Basin countries.”
The third issue raised by Egypt surrounds the construction of water installations along the Nile: “We need to be informed before other nations install any water structure.” Wasif added that Egypt did not have to approve the construction, but it would need to be kept informed in order to determine what effect the construction could have on the water quota.
When the colonial agreement which guaranteed a majority of the water for Egypt was made, Egypt’s population far surpassed that of its upstream neighbours. Now however, countries such as Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) rival Egypt’s population, with an estimated 91m and 71m people respectively, although the DRC relies mostly on the Congo River.
Ethiopia, which supplies most of the Nile with its water, is technically not guaranteed any water from the colonial agreements. In an effort to deal with the unequal water distribution, the Nile Water Basin agreement was set up in 1999 by nine of the countries that share the Nile, including Egypt and Sudan. To further combat the monopoly on the water guaranteed by colonial treaties, a new agreement was drawn out in 2010, which Egypt and Sudan have not recognised.

Egpt’s Nile quota too lowy

: Minister – Economy – Business – Ahram Online Spokesman at water resources ministry says Egypt requires extra 7 billion cubic metres of water than it takes from Nile River each year Bassem Abo Alabass, Monday 14 Jan 2013 PrintSend


Egypt faces an annual 7 billion cubic meters of water (Photo: Reuters)

Egypt will need almost 50 per cent more Nile water by 2050: Experts

Egypt’s quota of water from the Nile River is not enough, a spokesperson at the water resources ministry told Ahram Online by phone on Monday.
Khaled Wassif confirmed what Water Resources Minister Mohamed Bahaaeddin said on Saturday in an interview with the Chinese news agency Xinhua.
Wassif told Ahram Online that Egyptians currently consume roughly 62 billion cubic metres of water per year from the Nile River, but the official quota is 55.5 billion cubic metres.
“We are handling the 7 billion cubic metres gap in annual water consumption through water-recycling methods,” he explained.
In May 2012, the Egyptian National Planning Institute stated that Egypt would need nearly 50 per cent more Nile water by 2050 to cater for an estimated population of 150 million people.
According to Xinhua, Bahaaeddin repeated Egypt’s refusal to sign the Entebbe agreement with the Nile Basin countries regarding the reallocation of Nile water.
“The Entebbe agreement is useless without the signatures of Egypt and Sudan,” the State Information Services has quoted the minister as saying telling Xinhua.
Egypt is a member in the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), a partnership of Nile states aiming to share the river’s socio-economic benefits and promote regional security.

Nine countries are involved in the initiative: Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Bahaaeddin said the Egyptian government was looking forward to the partnership with Ethiopia regarding the $4.1 billion-Grand Renaissance Dam along the Nile River in the western Benishangul-Gumuz region, which will be completed by 2015 and generate 6000 mega watts of electricity.

Lake Turkana Threaten by Ethiopian Dictatorial Dams

January 15, 2013 in Damming, Turkana Drying

A new report documents how a dam and series of irrigation projects being built in Ethiopia threaten the world’s largest desert lake, and the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on it. It describes how hydrological changes from the Gibe III Dam and irrigation projects now under construction in the Omo River Basin could turn Lake Turkana in Kenya into East Africa’s Aral Sea (the infamous Central Asia lake that almost disappeared after the diversion of rivers that fed it).

The environmental impacts, which include a huge drop in the lake’s level, could lead to a collapse of local livelihoods, and foment insecurity in the already conflict-ridden Horn of Africa.

Lake Turkana gets 90% 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 report’s author states that the impacts to regional peace and security are likely to be severe, and could have global consequences: “The disruptions to the lands, waters, ecology and livelihoods of the peoples in this region will have immediate and substantial political consequences. Local groups displaced from their livelihoods and homelands are likely to seek out resources on the neighbors’ lands in the Kenya-Ethiopia-Sudan borderlands … Well armed, primed by past grudges, and often divided by support from different state and local governments, these conflicts can be expected to be bloody and persistent.”

International Rivers and Friends of Lake Turkana are calling for a halt to construction until there is a complete accounting of how the dam and irrigation projects will harm Lake Turkana, and a plan to ensure the lake does not suffer a hydrological collapse.

Gibe III Dam is about half complete, and construction on the sugar plantations is just starting. Hydrologists are calling for a plan to ensure adequate river flows to support Lake Turkana (called “environmental flows”). Jackie King, professor emeritus of the Institute of Water Studies at the University of Western Cape, says: “It is not yet too late to complete a transboundary environmental flow assessment that will allow both countries to see the costs and benefits of a number of options for designing and operating this dam (including a no dam option). The two countries could then negotiate a future development pathway based on these options that both could accept. It would have to be done very soon, before the dam is completed.”

The report describes political interventions that could change this tragedy in the making. For example, China could withdraw from the project to avoid driving a wedge between Kenya and Ethiopia. In July 2010, China’s largest bank, ICBC, approved a loan of $500 million for Dongfang Electric Machinery Corp., a Chinese state-owned company, which intends to provide equipment for the Gibe III project. China Development Bank has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Ethiopia Sugar Corporation for a loan of $500 million to finance two sugar factories in the South Omo region. The two Chinese banks are the only international financiers for the dam and sugar projects, which have stirred international condemnation.

Despite the impacts to its own people and the lake, Kenya has agreed to purchase power from the dam, and the World Bank and African Development Bank have both agreed to fund the transmission line that will bring the dam’s electricity to Kenya.

Ikal Angelei, founder of Friends of Lake Turkana and a 2012 recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, said: “We are calling on the government of Kenya to respect the rights of its people and halt its involvement in power purchases from Gibe III Dam. We call on the bilateral agencies to recognize the destruction that the dam and large plantations will bring on Lake Turkana, and withdraw budget support for Ethiopia that will underwrite destructive infrastructure.”

Although not directly involved in funding these destructive projects, Western governments do support Ethiopia with aid (it is estimated to accounts for at least half of government spending).

Lori Pottinger, Africa campaigner for International Rivers, says: “Ethiopia could not have built the Gibe III Dam without the budget support it receives from Western governments and the World Bank. These donors have a responsibility to intervene, and help stop the unfolding disaster in the Omo river basin.”

There are many “wild cards” in this saga (including the problem of climate change), 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.”