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China's role in funding Ethiopian dam draws ire

Ethiopia says construction of a dam along the Omo River will create needed electrical power for itself and Kenya, and channel water for food production. Environmentalists worry it could drain a Kenyan desert lake central to people's livelihoods.

By Correspondent / August 16, 2012



Nairobi, Kenya

Kenyan environmental activists want the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China to hold off on a promise to invest $500 million in Ethiopia’s $1.7 billion Gibe III Hydro-electric Dam, which they say threatens Lake Turkana – the world's largest permanent desert lake, and a crucial source of water for half a million people. 

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The controversial dam is being built on the Omo River in eastern Ethiopia, which supplies the lake in northwestern Kenya with 90 per of its water. Once completed, the dam will affect the livelihoods of some 200,000 in the river valley and 300,000 more near the lake, the activists warn.

Friends of Lake Turkana – a Kenyan organization representing indigenous communities in northwestern Kenya whose livelihood depend mainly on the lake – had earlier estimated that that Gibe III could shrink the lake, which straddles the Kenyan-Ethiopian border, by 10 meters (about 30 feet). This could cause an increase in salinity in the lake’s water, making it undrinkable for indigenous groups who live around the lake with their animals. Recently, resource-related conflicts have ignited between the nomadic pastoralist communities, and are expected to increase if the dam is completed.

“Lake Turkana is home to large number of some of the most massive Nile crocodiles, hippos, and other large animals, all which would find it hard to survive without the lake,” said Dr. Richard Leakey, a renowned Kenyan conservationist and paleoanthropologist.

There are also a wide variety of unique birds and other wildlife all of which would find it hard to survive without the lake or if the water nutrients were to change as drastically as studies have predicated will happen if Gibe III is successfully completed, according to the groups.

The lake's survival hangs in the balance as China decides whether to fund the dam project, says Ikal Angelei, founder of Friends of Lake Turkana and the winner of the 2012 Goldman Environment Prize for Africa.

“The lake is in the danger of drying unless the Kenyan government and international agencies step in to stop the unsustainable development both within and outside Kenya,” said Ms. Angelei at a news conference in Nairobi.

“While many would-be financiers have withdrawn ... China still holds [to its] promise,” she added.

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