Tribes around world’s largest desert lake fear Ethiopia dam

Posted on December 20, 2011

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Michael Irgiena strongly doubts if his ten children will be fishermen like him, or have any future living at the shores of world’s largest desert lake Turkana in the barren border region of Ethiopia and Kenya, home to the Dasanech and Turkana tribes.

Michael, a Dasanech living in a small village in northern Kenya, has been a fisherman for 26 years and, like his fellow tribesmen, fully depends on the salty lake for his livelihood.

The semi-nomadic desert tribes often fight bloody battles over scarce water and pasture. They share the lake’s waters to fish, fetch drinking water and graze their cattle at the grasslands around the lake.

“I was shocked when I heard the news about Ethiopia’s dam on the radio,” Michael says while sitting on his bed in his dusky dome-shaped hut at the shores of Turkana.

“What came to my mind very quickly was: what about the lake I am fishing in? What about my children?

I a push for development Ethiopia builds one of Africa’s largest hydropower dams in the Omo River that flows into Lake Turkana and provides 90 percent of its water.

The two billion dollar dam called Gibe III is said to nearly double the East African nation’s power capacity and transform its southern wilderness into highly productive cultivated farm lands, irrigated by the dam’s regulated outflow.

Ethiopia says domestic and foreign investors will grow sugar cane and other cash crops on large-scale farms in the south, an area known for its numerous indigenous tribes.

It will develop the region and end a “backward lifestyle”, its government says.

But the modernization project will reduce water levels of Lake Turkana, Michael says, and there hasn’t been any consultation with his largely illiterate community about the problems that would cause.

He says he expects more bloodshed among tribes, as the Dasanech and Turkana will be forced to move into neighboring tribes’ territory in search of water and pasture.

“The water will be too salty, so there will be no fish living in the lake,” he says. “And all the animals we have, all the cattle, will die. If there is no water, there will be no grass.”

While Ethiopia denies that its dam will reduce water levels, a group of scholars from the United States, Europe and East Africa back Michael’s worries.

In a 2009 study the Africa Resources Working Group estimated that water levels could drop ten to twelve meters drying up fish stocks and potable water.

The United Nations has called upon Ethiopia to cease construction of the dam because it would destroy Lake Turkana, listed as a U.N. world heritage.

But Ethiopia said there is “no way” that the project will be stopped, claiming its own studies, which have been rejected by international hydropower experts, show that Lake Turkana’s water level would increase and the dam’s regulated flow would put an end to drought and floods.

Michael admits that development would be good for the tribes living around Lake Turkana, a drought-stricken area without roads or electricity and with only a few schools and hospitals.

But his hopes are far from high. The lands around Lake Turkana are too dry for large-scale farms like the sugar plantations being set up in southern Ethiopia, he says, so it will be difficult for former fishermen and cattle herders to find new jobs.

“Both will be sitting in their huts, without any job”, he says.

The approach of Ethiopia that moved forward with its project without informing the people it will directly affect and Kenya that has never cared much about its northern tribes is not very promising either, Michael says, adding that speaking out could be dangerous for him.

“If you do something without informing people, you know it will have an effect,” he says. “It would be better if we all sit together and negotiate about what they are going to do for our people.”

A slightly shorter version of this story has been published on the website of Radio Netherlands Worldwide on December 20, 2011

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