2 March 2009-(credit to BIC)
Requestors argue that the Gibe III Dam is set to deplete Lake Turkana with dramatic impacts on downstream communities in Kenya, and in the absence of public consultation.
On February 4, Friends of Lake Turkana, a Kenyan organization representing indigenous groups in northwestern Kenya whose livelihoods are linked to Lake Turkana, filed a formal request with the African Development Bank’s (AfDB) Compliance Review & Mediation Unit (CRMU) - the AfDB's internal accountability mechanism - to investigate and intervene in the Bank’s plans to finance the Gilgel Gibe III hydroelectric project in Ethiopia.
Gilgel Gibe III (known as “Gibe”) is part of a continuing series of projects on the Omo River and its tributaries in southwestern Ethiopia. Construction on the third portion of the project began in 2006, but the request for funding to the AfDB was only made recently. The project has become problematic for public funders because the Ethiopian government did not follow standard procedures in awarding the main contract to an Italian firm, Salini, without any bidding procedure. The World Bank has declined to offer financing because of this flaw, as has the Italian government. The European Investment Bank also seems to be leaning against any funding, on the same grounds. The AfDB’s procurement guidelines likewise prohibit it from funding the main contract, but the loan currently under consideration uses a loophole – financing through a sub-contract – to evade the rules.
With so many potential public funders turning away from the project, and with private financiers like J.P. Morgan Chase withdrawing support because of the financial crisis, the AfDB’s contribution becomes more important – even vital - if the project is to be completed.
Unfortunately, judgments about whether procurement rules have been violated do not fall within the CRMU’s mandate. The request filed by FoLT instead focuses on the impact of the project on Lake Turkana. The Omo River supplies roughly 80 percent of the water in the lake, which is the world’s largest permanent desert lake. The contemplated impact of the dam could reduce the lake’s depth, it is estimated, by between 7 and 10 meters. Such an impact would have serious repercussions on the chemical balance of the lake, which is highly alkaline, and therefore on the biodiversity supported by the lake. Lake Turkana hosts the world’s largest group of Nile crocodiles – over 20,000 – as well as many other species of fish, bird, hippopotamus, etc.
A serious impact on the lake would also have a serious impact on the riverine forest and the lands around the lake used for flood-recession agriculture. Most of the peoples living in the area are pastoralists who supplement their diet with seasonal cultivation; a damaged lake would seriously compromise their food security and way of life.
The Ethiopian government approved its Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) on the project in July 2008, nearly two years after construction began, in a blatant violation of Ethiopian law. The ESIA barely acknowledges any impact on Lake Turkana, and provides unrealistically rosy scenarios to claim that the project will actually improve conditions at the lake, such as by “reducing evaporation” – indeed, if there is less water, there is less evaporation. Little effort has been made to consult with affected peoples, and no effort whatsoever has been made on the Kenyan side of the border.
Northwestern Kenya is one of the most arid and resource-deprived parts of Kenya, and conflict among its various people has been chronic. The impact of the Gibe Dam on Lake Turkana would very likely lead to increased violent conflict.
Although Ethiopia is chronically short of power, most of the power produced by this project would, ironically, be sold to Kenya. That power would be very unlikely, however, to benefit the peoples of northwestern Kenya, but instead go to the metropolitan areas such as Nairobi, further south. The arrangements between the Kenyan and Ethiopian governments have not been transparent, and there is now jostling in Parliament and the Kenyan coalition government to ascertain what has been agreed to and whether the interests of the people around Lake Turkana have been taken into account.
Friends of Lake Turkana is careful to acknowledge that while they are fighting for the interests of the people on the Kenyan side of the border, there are hundreds of thousands in Ethiopia who stand to suffer even more disruptive impacts. The Omo River Valley is populated by a very diverse assortment of indigenous groups, also prone to conflict over scarce resources. Consultations with them have been minimal. But the Ethiopian government’s record of repression, and new laws it has recently passed to further limit the activities of civil society groups, have effectively discouraged groups in Ethiopia from organizing explicit opposition. Nonetheless, expatriate Ethiopian groups, together with NGOs with an interest in the region, plan to file a request to supplement FoLT’s in the coming weeks that will outline in more detail the potential problems in Ethiopia.
The AfDB board was originally scheduled to discuss the project on February 25, but that date was delayed shortly after FoLT’s request was filed. There is now no indication when the project will be formally considered, but efforts are being made within the Bank, both through the CRMU and through other contacts, to slow down the process and make sure that adequate consultations and studies are done before any decision is made.