Water levels drop at Kenya’s Lake Turkana owing to Ethiopia’s Omo valley projects

An Ethiopian mega-dam and agricultural project is endangering fragile fish breeding areas and food supplies in Kenya’s Lake Turkana, a rights group said this week, citing data on water levels and satellite photos of the lake’s shoreline.

Ethiopia’s Gibe III dam, which began filling its reservoir in 2015 while still under construction, has blocked seasonal floods that previously replenished lake levels. Ethiopian authorities have released at least one artificial flood to help replenish Lake Turkana, but activists say it was not enough.

Overall, as of January 30, 2017, lake levels were approximately 1.5 meters lower than they were two years earlier, according to publicly released data by the United States Department of Agriculture.unnamed-7

The water is being used in Ethiopia to fill the dam’s reservoir and also as irrigation for booming sugar and cotton plantations in the Omo valley.

Citing satellite imagery, Human Rights Watch estimates that approximately 19,500 hectares of land has been cleared on the east bank of the Omo river for sugar plantation development in Ethiopia. An additional 10,500 hectares has been prepared for irrigation on the west bank.

The rights group says that Ethiopia is ignoring the needs of downstream communities in its rush to develop its resources. It says that its research shows that the shoreline of the lake has already receded as much as1.7 kilometers in the Ferguson Gulf since November 2014, calling this a “critical fish breeding area, and a key fishing ground for the indigenous Turkana people.”

Ethiopia’s government says that the benefits of the Gibe III project include regulated flood levels and a year-round supply of water from the dam reservoir for downstream irrigation projects. Another benefit is an electricity-transmission line from Ethiopia to Kenya that is meant to be finished in 2018.

Gibe III cost more than a billion dollars to build, financed by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and built by China’s Chengdu-based Dongfang Electric Corp.