A view of Lake Turkana. Notice how dry the land is in the arid area around the lake.

Lake Turkana in northwest Kenya is the 24th largest lake in the world and the largest permanent desert lake. As it has no outlet, all water loss is through evaporation in the hot climate making it the largest alkaline lake in the world. Three hundred thousand people live on the shores of the lake and depend upon it for fishing and drinking water.

This map shows the Omo River flowing in to Lake Turkana with Gibe III, IV, and V (diversion) dams. The green and grey areas are slated for irrigation with water from these dams.

The Omo River flows from Ethiopia into Lake Turkana and supplies 90 percent of the lake’s water. As you can see from the map above, only a small part of the lake is in Ethiopian while the vast majority of the lake is in Kenya. As a result Ethiopia has little concern for the environmental health of Lake Turkana.

Gibe I dam was completed in 2004 and has a capacity of 184 MW. Gibe II dam was completed in 2010 and has a capacity of 420 MW. These are relatively small dams.

Gibe III dam on the Omo River in Ethiopia at its inauguration in October 2016. Photo by Studio Masciotta which did some of the engineering work on the dam.

The major danger to Lake Turkana, though, is the Gibe III dam. This dam, the tallest in Africa, was completed in 2015 and cost $1.47 billion. It took two years to fill the lake behind the dam. During this time, Lake Turkana fell two meters (6½ feet). Since Lake Turkana has an average depth of only 30.2 meters (99 feet) and a maximum depth of 109 meters (358 feet), this lowered the average depth of the lake by 6.5%. The shoreline of Furgeson Gulf – see the red circle of the map above – retreated 1.7 kilometers (1 mile) at the maximum.

With a capacity of 1870 MW the Gibe III dam almost doubled the electricity capacity of Ethiopia. Since this is much more electricity than Ethiopia can now consumes, 400MW is planned to go to Kenya, 200MW to Sudan, and 200MW to Djibouti. The problem is that the expensive transmission lines to carry this electricity have not yet been built. Moreover Kenya now as its own surplus electricity capacity and has no need to import electricity from Ethiopia. It is possible that this dam will become uneconomical and a white elephant.

The drying up of Lake Turkana. 40 meters is 131 feet. Source ARWG; bathymetric base map from Hopson (1982).

If this were the extent of the damage from the dam, Lake Turkana would survive. There are also plans for two more dams on the Omo River. Gibe IV will generate another 1,450 MW of electricity, while Gibe V will generate only 500 MW because it is mostly a diversion dam. This is the more dangerous part of the project. As planned, 450,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) will be irrigated. See the green and grey colors on the map above. This is an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. The plan is to grow sugar and cotton, both of which are water intensive crops. How much will this massive amounts of water diverted for these crops lower the level of Lake Turkana? The Ethiopians claim it will not have much effect while the environmental group, Friends of Lake Turkana, claim it will mostly dry up the lake.

Unlike Egypt’s strong resistance to the Grand Renaissance Ethiopian Dam upstream on the Blue Nile, the Kenyan Government has made no objection to the building of the Gibe dams. One reason could be that, when Kenya was short of electricity, it wanted the benefit from the excess 400 MW from the dam. Now with the addition of wind, geothermal, and solar power, Kenya no longer has a need for additional electricity. A more likely explanation is that Turkana County to the west of the lake and Marsabit County to the east of the lake are large, arid counties with low populations. Both in colonial times and the fifty plus years of Kenyan independence this part of Kenya has always been neglected by the central government. In other words, the negative results from these dams on Lake Turkana is a very low priority of the Kenyan government.

Regardless if the lake completely dries up or not, as it becomes smaller, it will become more salty. The fish will begin to die and the people will no longer be able to drink the water. What then will happen to those 300,000 people living on the shores of the lake?

I am not certain how “wise” homo sapiens are. Due to humans’ deliberate actions the world is warming up, the oceans are rising, plastics are polluting the world, insecticides are killing off the bees, fertilizer is bringing algae blooms, animals, insects, and plants are going extinct, and so on. As is the case with Lake Turkana and the dams on the Omo River, we know not what we are doing.

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David Zarembka

Phone 254 (0)726 590 783
Reports from Kenya: www.davidzarembka.com

Email: davidzarembka@gmail.com 

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