Concern mounts over Ethiopia dam project while border tensions with Kenya are addressed
(16 August 2011)
Ethiopia has rejected calls from UNESCO in August 2011 to halt construction of the Gibe III dam project located on the Omo river in southwest Ethiopia. Set to be Africa's tallest dam when it is completed, possibly in 2012, the Gibe III project will double Ethiopia's electricity generation capacity, much of which will be exported to neighbouring states around East Africa and possibly across the Red Sea. However, the Omo river is a key feeder river into Lake Turkana, the world's largest alkaline and permanent desert lake situated along the Ethiopia-Kenya boundary. Many environmental groups argue that a reduction in the seasonal water flow from the Omo river is likely to affect the fragile ecosystem of Lake Turkana. UNESCO has recognised several of Kenya's national parks around Lake Turkana as being a World Heritage site. On 10 August, Kenya's Parliament passed a motion demanding that Ethiopia stop construction of the dam until the environmental and social impacts could be studied more comprehensively.
The Gibe III project may also further excacerbate cross-border tensions that have recently exploded between local communities in the borderland region. Since May, the Merille tribe in Ethiopia has been accused of cross border raids on the Turkana community in neighbouring Kenya just north of the Lake Turkana shoreline. Most recently, the bodies of fourteen women and children were found in the Todonyang area of Kenya on 9 August after a suspected raid by Merille militia. This followed reports of over 20 people killed in fighting between the two communities on 5 August.
The Merille herdsmen have been accused of crossing tens of kilometres into Kenya in search of pastures for their cattle, sparking disputes with local Turkana. The tension has also affected commercial fishing on the lake as fishermen move to escape the violence. On a visit to the area in May, Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Odinga pledged to have beacons erected along the boundary to make it more visible and to assist Kenyan security forces. New Kenyan police posts have been established in the Todonyang area and a Kenyan survey team met with Ethiopian officials in Addis Ababa on 9 August to discuss beaconing. Kenya's Rift Valley Provincial Commissioner Osman Warfa expected that demarcation would begin by the end of August. It is reported that the new beacons will be placed in the lake, although it may be necessary to place beacons along dry sections of the boundary north of the lake.
If the Gibe III dam does significantly affect water flow into Lake Turkana once completed, it is possible that the lake surface will be reduced, placing sections of the former lake boundary on dry land. A similar situation occurred on Lake Chad where the retreating lakeshore left former lake boundary sections between Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria on dry land. Part of the Cameroon-Nigeria boundary dispute that was adjudged by the International Court of Justice in 2002 concerned the status of villages that had settled on lands once covered by the lake and crossed the former lake boundary.
Sources: 'Kenya-Ethiopia will resolve border row, assures Saitoti' The People (Kenya), 15 August 2011; 'The Merille are still in Kenya' Mathew Ndanyi, The Star (Kenya), 10 August 2011; 'Kenyan parliament seeks to halt construction of Ethiopian power dam' Kenya Broadcasting Corp (BBC Monitoring), 10 August 2011; 'Kenyan team in Ethiopia for border talks,' Daily Nation Kenya (AllAfrica), 9 August 2011.