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A case for Lake Turkana: the Chinese connection

Concerned Kenyans led by the Friends of Lake Turkana (FoLT) – a community trust based in Kenya mandated to speak on behalf of Lake Turkana communities – are petitioning the Chinese Government to stop two Chinese companies from investing in the Gilgel Gibe 3 Dam project in the Omo River in Ethiopia, which if completed will destroy the fragile Lake Turkana ecosystem as well as the livelihoods of close to half a million indigenous people.

A lone Acacia tree on the shores of Lake Turkana

The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) is underwriting a $500 million contract awarded May 13 to Dongfang Electric Corporation for the dam’s turbines and electro-mechanical works. Although ICBC has not publicly announced the loan, an official confirmed on September 8 by email that the financial agreement between ICBC and the Ethiopian government was signed in July.

The Friends of Lake Turkana (FoLT) believe that the ICBC has committed to funding this destructive project without doing a proper assessment of the project and its impacts.

“We would like you to compel your government to reconsider sponsoring this project until we obtain a fair hearing and authoritative legal conclusions about shared waters under international law,” says FoLT in the petition addressed to the Chinese ambassador to Kenya.

No independent, comprehensive assessment of the environmental and social impact from the Gibe III Dam has been undertaken.

Gilgel Gibe 3 Hydropower Dam is the largest investment project ever implemented in Ethiopia. Once completed, at 240 meters high and with a capacity of 1,870 MW, the dam will block the south-western part of the Omo River, creating a 150 km long reservoir.

The filling of the reservoir, which will take several years, and the termination of the natural flood cycle during dam operation will alter the river system and reduce downstream flows.

If the natural flood with its rich silt deposits disappears, subsistence economies will collapse, leading to food shortages and insecurity for the hundreds of thousands of people now living in the Lower Omo Valley – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – all the way down to the world’s largest desert lake, Kenya’s Lake Turkana.

The Omo River flows into Lake Turkana, the only large water body in the arid region of northwestern Kenya, and a source of survival for six Kenyan communities. The six communities – the Turkana, Elmolo, Samburu, Gabbra, Rendille and Daasanach – have been marginalized by the Government of Kenya for decades.

While the Ethiopian communities on the Omo delta depend on the waters for food production, all the indigenous communities at the Omo basin both in Ethiopia and Kenya are dependent on the lake for their livestock grazing and watering, and fishing.

Any impacts to the lake’s ecosystem would thus disrupt the economy, leading to an increase in conflicts in the area. Considering the unstable state of peace in northern Kenya, such damage to the local economies would invoke a threat to regional stability.

If completed, the Gibe III will be the catalyst to further reduction of the already limited resources, and therefore escalate armed conflict in the region. The FoLT will be presenting these and many more arguments against the construction of the dam to the Chinese Ambassador with the petition.

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