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.

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. 

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.

The Kenyan government, which would benefit from a new source of electrical power, has been quiet about the project. But In August 2011, the Kenyan parliament passed a resolution demanding the suspension of dam construction pending environmental assessment studies.

In June, UNESCO World Heritage Sites committee rejected an appeal by the Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to place Lake Turkana in the list of world sites in danger, a development that outraged environmental conservation groups.

“The lake needs all the protection it can get against the vagaries of climate change, Gibe III, and the thirsty sugar cane and cotton plantations that Ethiopia is developing along the Omo River,” said Angelei.

Chinese company Dongfang Electric Corp. has been contracted to carry out construction work, according to reports, as the country searches for more funds to complete the dam. Two-thirds of the work reportedly is already done. The Italian construction company Salini Costruttori is the primary construction contractor, while Dongfang will be responsible for the hydromechanical and electromechanical part of the project, the chief executive of the state-owned Ethiopian Electric Power Corp., was quoted as saying by Ethiopian news organizations.

Environmentalists also are angry at the World Bank, which declined to fund the Gibe III dam project itself, but did approve a $684 million loan to build a 1,000-kilometer (621-mile) transmission line from the dam into Kenya. For them, this is an endorsement of the massive dam and its associated irrigation projects, which affects the food security of thousands. The bank argues that the transmission line will connect Ethiopia's overall power grid with Kenya's to create a power-sharing arrangement between the two countries, reducing energy costs and promoting sustainable and renewable power generation. 

Ethiopia plans to sell 60 percent of the electricity generated to Kenya through the transmission line. Ethiopia will also use the dam to help irrigate large swaths of land for cotton and sugar-cane cultivation.

In addition to environmental concerns, the dam project has drawn criticism from human rights groups, who want the donors to ensure their funding is not supporting activities that amount to an abuse of people’s rights.

“Ethiopia’s desire to accelerate economic development is laudable, but recent events in the Omo Valley are taking an unacceptable toll on the rights and livelihoods of indigenous communities,” said Ben Rawlence, Human Rights Watch's senior African researcher, at a recent news conference.

The Turkana basin is also an important archeological site. Archaeologists and scientists in August discovered three new fossils near the lake that indicate previously undocumented early human species.

“This means Turkana basin is of global importance to the origin of mankind,” said Dr. Leakey, whose Turkana Basin Institute led the recent fossil discovery.

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