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Ethiopia responds to UNESCO's World Heritage Committee on Lake Turkana

UNESCO's concerns about the impact of the Gibe III dam and irrigation development on Lake Turkana are 'one sided and highly biased', says the Ethiopian Government.
Ethiopia responds to UNESCO's World Heritage Committee on Lake Turkana

Lake Turkana: Central Island National Park (Guy Dubbonet, 2012)

One of the decisions made by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee at its 35th session in June 2011 concerned threats posed by the Gibe III Dam to Kenya’s Lake Turkana World Heritage Site. The decision was based principally on information contained in a letter of concern from the NGOs International Rivers and Friends of Lake Turkana and in a report commissioned by the African Development Bank on the hydrological impacts of the Omo Basin on Lake Turkana water levels and fisheries.

The committee concluded that the dam is likely to ‘significantly alter Lake Turkana’s fragile hydrological regime’. It expressed its concerns about the potential cumulative impacts of large-scale irrigation in the Lower Omo Valley and of the Gibe IV and Gibe V dams, which are still at the planning stage. It urged the Ethiopian government to ‘immediately halt’ construction of the Gibe III dam and asked both the Ethiopian and Kenyan Governments to report back to it by 1 February 2012.


Comments on the Ethiopian response

In its response, the Ethiopian Government dismissed all the committee’s concerns. Even the statement that the lake ‘draws almost 90 per cent of its inflow’ from the Omo was described as ‘difficult to establish’, on the grounds that ‘there is no information about the Kenyan part of the Basin’ (p. 5). It has long been the established scientific consensus, however, that over 80 per cent of the inflow to the lake comes from the Omo-Gibe basin. This is indicated by the following quotation from Karl Butzer’s classic 1971 study of changes in the level of Lake Turkana (then known as Rudolf).

..most of the water of Lake Rudolf – in the order of 80 to 90% - appears to be derived from the Omo River. The Turkwell and Kerio [in Kenya], the only other affluents of any significance, are dry in their lower courses for most of the year...Consequently the seasonal and longer-term fluctuations of Rudolf must in large part be controlled by the duration and intensity of the rainy season in highland Ethiopia. (Recent History of an Ethiopian delta: the Omo River and the level of Lake Rudolf (University of Chicago Dept. of Geography, 1971, p. 37).

The Ethiopian government also accused the committee of failing to recognise the contribution of the proposed ‘controlled flood’ to (a) maintaining the lake level (p. 6), (b) boosting the nutrient needs of the lake (p. 8) and (c) providing a ‘reliable and timely water supply for recession agriculture’ (p. 10). These points would have been worth making, if the controlled flood were indeed to become the major ‘mitigating measure’ it was described as in the 2009 Economic and Social Impact Assessment, commissioned by the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation. It now seems clear, however, that this was never the intention.

In the first place, a press release issued by the dam builder, Salini Costruttori, in March 2010 revealed that the controlled flood was intended as a temporary measure only, which would ‘enable the local people to have a transitory period of a suitable duration when it is deemed opportune to switch from flood-retreat agriculture to more modern forms of agriculture.’ In the second place, the large-scale irrigation development in the lower basin which was announced by the Prime Minister in January 2011 will rule out a controlled flood of any kind, whether temporary or not.

This leads to the most baffling aspect of the Ethiopian government’s response to the WHC, namely the way it seeks to dismiss the committee’s concerns about the impact on Lake Turkana of irrigation development in the lower Omo.

The Omo Basin has long been seen as offering substantial opportunities for large scale irrigation, provided the highly seasonal flow of the Omo could be regulated. This will now be achieved, for the first time, by the Gibe III dam. As a result, the Ethiopian Sugar Corporation has already been allocated 245,000 ha. in the lower basin, of which 150,000 ha will be devoted to irrigated sugar cane production. At least another 150,000 ha have been leased to private investors for a variety of other irrigated crops. According to the AFDB study, ‘with the potential abstractions that might be implemented [through irrigation development in the lower basin] the lake could drop up to 20 metres’ (Executive Summary, para. 33, p. 5).

Despite this, the government claims in its response to the WHC that irrigation development is not relevant to the committee's concerns, because it is 'not part of the Ghibe III Dam' (p. 9). On page 7 of the response, the following passage is quoted from the AFDB study.(1)

Development within the Omo-Basin, which removes water for consumptive use especially through irrigation abstraction, will impact the lake through reduced inflows and a reduction in lake levers [sic], [and] associated with this, there will be a reduction in the water table. Since irrigation is not part of the Ghibe III Dam, the assumed reduction will not happen [emphasis added]. However, the extent and effect of the reduced flows have not been fully assessed, and they are to some extent offset by increasing runoff due to catchment change.

No page reference is given for this quotation but it is nearly identical to a passage on p. 4-2 of the final version of the AFDB study in which, however, the  sentence shown above in bold does not occur.(2) Wherever this sentence came from, it is clearly meaningless. It could be made meaningful, however, by adding the words ‘ a direct result of the operation of the dam’. Any reduction in lake level due to large-scale irrigation development, in other words, will be an indirect, rather than direct result of the dam, since without the regulated flow sequence created by the dam, large-scale irrigation in the lower basin would not be feasible. The puzzling position of the Ethiopian government, then, appears to be that large-scale irrigation in the lower Omo should not be considered a danger to the Lake Turkana World Heritage Site, because it will be an indirect rather than a direct result of Gibe III.

The Ethiopian government’s response to international criticism of the Gibe III Dam project has, from the start, been highly defensive. Critics tend to be portrayed as enemies of Ethiopia who want to hold back economic development in the country and keep its citizens in a state of ‘backwardness and poverty.’(3) In the present document, the Ethiopian government not only describes the decision of the WHC as ‘one sided and highly biased’ but confesses itself unable to understand the reasons behind it, thereby hinting at ulterior motives (p. 10). This mode of response makes it difficult for a constructive dialogue to take place between the government and its critics and often makes it appear (as in this case) that government spokespersons are wilfully out of touch with reality.


The 36th Session of the World Heritage Committee.

Between 14 and 22 March 2012, a joint monitoring mission from the World Heritage Centre and the IUCN visited the Lake Turkana World Heritage Site, at the invitation of the Government of Kenya. The mission had meetings with various ‘stakeholders’, including the Prime Minister. Based on the mission’s report, a draft decision has been included in the provisional agenda for the 36th session of the WHC, which would add the Lake Turkana World Heritage Site to the ‘List of World Heritage in Danger’.

The draft decision repeats the committee’s concern about the ‘potential and ascertained cumulative impacts’ on Lake Turkana of the Gibe III dam and ‘related on-going and planned irrigation projects’; asks the Governments of Ethiopia and Kenya to carry out a ‘Strategic Environmental Assessment’ (SEA) to assess the ‘cumulative impacts of all development projects impacting on the Lake Turkana Basin’; and once again urges the Ethiopian government ‘to immediately halt all construction on the Gibe III dam and related irrigation projects until the SEA has been completed’ (Item 7B of the Provisional Agenda: State of conservation of World Heritage properties, WHC-12/36.COM/7B.ADD, pp. 10-16).

The 36th session of the committee will be held in Saint Petersburg between 24 June and 6 July 2012.



Posted by David Turton, 19 June 2012. Email: [email protected]

(1) Page references are to the pdf version of the response, accessible under ‘Related documents’ below. Note that the title page  is mistakenly headed ‘In response to the World Heritage Committee decision WHC 34 COM 7B.44’. This in fact was a decision taken at the 34th. meeting of the Committee (Brasilia, 25 July-3 August 2010) on the Rock Hewn Churches of Lalibela. This decision also called for a response from the Ethiopian Govt. by 1 February 2012.

(2) This passage reads: ‘Developments within the Omo Basin, which remove water for consumptive use, especially through irrigation abstraction, will impact the lake through reduced inflows and a reduction in lake levels, and associated with this, there will be a reduction in the water table. The extent and effects of the reduced flows have not been fully assessed, and they are to some extent offset by increasing runoff due to catchment change.’

(3) See the speech by the Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, in Jinka, 25 January 2011: ‘Even though the promoters of backwardness and poverty pretend to be environmentalists and to be concerned for pastoralists, we will continue to stay strong and stand by our development with our own resources’.


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