Lake Turkana under threat

Narissa Allibhai Environment Leave a Comment

The world’s largest desert lake lies in north-western Kenya. This World Heritage site is a breeding ground for Nile crocodiles, hippos, and various snakes, and part of migratory birds routes. The beautiful “Jade Sea” is 249 km long and has a surface area of 7 million ha. [^1]


Lake Turkana. Photo owner: International Rivers. Photographer: Christophe Cerisier. Source: Flickr.

Sites around the lake have yielded important archaeological, paleontological, and geological finds. For example, The Turkana Boy is the most complete prehistoric human skeleton ever discovered.


Cropped from a photo by Neil R on Flickr.

The harsh semi-desert around Lake Turkana has called for extreme resourcefulness by the people living around it. Tribes living in the basin include the Turkana, Pokot, Samburu, Rendille, El Molo, Gabbra, and Dassanech/Merille. Approximately 300,000 people manage to survive by depending on the lake, as a source of fish and/or water for themselves and their animals. Since 2006, the Gibe III dam has been under construction on the Omo River in Ethiopia. Due to be completed in May 2015, it will be the highest dam in Africa at a towering 243m. The dam will be used to generate hydropower for Ethiopia and for export. There are also plans to use the dam to irrigate large sugarcane plantations in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley. An acceptable ESIA (environmental and social impact assessment) of the Gibe III dam’s effects has not been carried out. The only ESIA from 2009 has been critiqued due to not being carried out by an independent source, and for not including the huge impact of the irrigated agriculture projects nor the effects on Lake Turkana. [^2] Lake Turkana gets 90% of its water from the Omo River. An amount equivalent to water used by Nairobi 40 times over will be abstracted from Lake Turkana’s inflow [^3]. According to hydrologist Sean Avery, water levels will drop by at least 20 metres just for the irrigation project. The lake’s average depth is just 30 metres. His more realistic estimates project the water levels reducing by 45 metres, splitting the lake into two and spelling ecological and social disaster. [^4]


Projected lake recession possibilities. Source: Carr 2012.[^5]

How will this tragedy manifest?

  • Collapse of Lake Turkana’s unique ecology
  • Loss of a precious world heritage site
  • Destruction of fisheries
  • Reduced grazing areas
  • A rise in salinity of water already barely drinkable (for people and livestock)
  • Impacts on national parks and tourism
  • Increased food insecurity and famine
  • Escalation of armed conflict due to competition over even scarcer resources

Finally, clarifications on 2 rumours about Turkana:

  1. The aquifer discoveries do not mean all water issues will now be magically resolved. Questions remain on the cost of extracting and transporting the water, on the weak recharge rate of the groundwater, and on the quality of the water itself.
  2. Oil discovery and developments do not mean that Turkana locals will be boosted into prosperity. Ensuring that local communities reap benefits does not happen automatically. Here’s a Standard article on the same.

Water and oil could mean great things for Turkana, but as these developments gradually play out, it is vital to conserve the essential resource that is Lake Turkana. In a projected situation with exacerbated conflict, oil-drilling companies could even pull out due to the insecurity. Regardless of potential promising developments, we must protect this lake that is the sole reason for the immediate survival of 300,000 people.


Flamingo Crater, Central Island, Lake Turkana. Photo taken by Narissa Allibhai.

For more information on developments on the Omo River and their impacts, see International River’s video. For details on human rights abuses in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley, see Human Rights Watch’s report. For more details on the impacts of water abstraction on Lake Turkana, see study by hydrologist Sean Avery. For a discussion on climate change maladaptation risks of Gibe III and Kuraz Sugar Plantations, see report by Narissa Allibhai. [^1]: [^2]: [^3]: [^4]:

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