Uncovering the ill intent behind HRW's article on Lake Turkana

Human Rights Watch (HRW) published an article on this week, repeating its claims that the Gilgel Gibe III Dam and the ongoing plantations along the Omo River Valley were negatively affecting the water levels of Lake Turkana and the livelihood of people residing in the Omo River basin and around the Lake. HRW's claims that the development of the dam and plantations in Ethiopia's Lower Omo Valley threaten the livelihood of half a million people, a figure plucked out of the air, are based on incomplete information, misapplied or partial studies and manipulation of data.  HRW alleges that the Gilgel Gibe III hydropower dam and the plantation projects in the Lower Omo have resulted in Lake Turkana's water levels by approximately 1.5 m since January 2015. It goes on to speculate, without any evidence that further reductions are likely, and it then claims that the further drop in lake levels that it predicts will seriously affect food supplies in the area. These comments are, as it notes, no more than mere speculation and it produces no evidence to support them.

It might be added that HRW, as usual in its comments on Ethiopia's developmental approach, apparently deliberately, refuses to acknowledge any of the efforts Ethiopia, either independently or with Kenya, has made to mitigate any possibly negative impact from the developments in the Omo Valley or on Lake Turkana. HRW ignores the evidence from a whole series of other relevant studies conducted by dependable institutions, apparently on the grounds that these do not agree with HRW. In fact, with HRW allowing its determined dislike of Ethiopia's development efforts to color its thinking, its comments are inaccurate, erroneous and seriously misleading.

Ethiopia, since the inception of the projects in the Lower Omo Valley, has taken great care to take any possible impact on Lake Turkana into consideration. It has conducted detailed feasibility study and Environmental Impact Assessments on the basis of both the requirements and guidelines of the Environmental Protection Authority of Ethiopia and of international Standards and policies. The documentation has included an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA); an ESIA Additional Study on Downstream Impact; the Gilgel Gibe III Impact on Lake Turkana; Public Consultation and Disclosure Plan; Relocation Action Plan (RAP); Environmental Management Plan; ESIA and RAP for Transmission Lines; and Archaeological Studies. The draft documents were reviewed by environmentalists, sociologists, and other professionals and various organizations including the AfDB, USAID and the World Bank. The findings of these studies have been confirmed by other relevant studies conducted by other institutions, including the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and Studio Gally Ingegneria (SGI).

UNEP, using multi-source satellite-based data and a robust modeling approach, published a report on the Gilgel Gibe III dam in 2013. This report was specifically written to evaluate the hydrologic impact of the Gibe III Hydroelectric Dam on Lake Turkana water levels. According to this detailed study, after the initial impoundment period, with the Gibe III dam moderating the flow, peak flows into the lake would be reduced and dry season flows increased, to produce a dam-moderated average flow rate of 640 cm3/s. This amounts to only 10 m3/s less than the average lake inflows without Gibe III. The study notes that Lake Turkana normally experiences seasonal variations in its water level of 1-1.5 meters over a year and has a long-term natural variability of between 5 and 10 meters. The drop in the water level claimed by HRW, of 1.5 m over a two year period falls well within these normal variations.

Similarly, the study carried out by Studio Gally Ingegneria of Italy during the Gilgel Gibe III reservoir's first impounding found that the level of Lake Turkana would be slowly reduced by no more than 1.5 meters. It also concluded that such a reduction would be temporary. It also fell within the 5-10 meter natural fluctuations of the lake as measured over the last 20 years. These studies, in fact, make it quite clear that there is no causal link between the current drop in water levels and developments in Ethiopia. They also show that the fall in water level is well within the normal, natural variation in lake levels.

The confirmation of Ethiopia's own assessments by these reports was not enough for Ethiopia. As an additional safeguard measure to make sure that developments did not, and do not, affect the livelihood of people living in the basin whether in Ethiopia and Kenya, it made sure during the initial impounding period (from January to July 2015) that the Dam released water at the rate of 25-50 m3/s. This was significantly higher than the environmental flow or the historical recorded natural minimum mean monthly flows of 25m3/s for March. Equally, in order to minimize and mitigate the impact of the Gilgel Gibe III Dam downstream, Middle Level Outlet structures were incorporated into the Dam to release an artificial flood of 1000-1200 m3/s from the dam and 1600 m3/s at Lake Turkana.

The various studies and the additional measures taken by Ethiopia make it quite clear that the impact of the Gilgel Gibe III dam on Lake Turkana water levels fall within the natural variability of lake levels as observed since 1992. It might be added that other independent studies conducted by United States Geological Survey (USGS), Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) and SGI have shown the effects of climate change have had an impact on Lake Turkana long before the Government of Ethiopia launched the Gibe III Hydropower and Kuraz Sugar Projects. That was why the Governments of Ethiopia and Kenya, under the umbrella of United Nations Environment Program, launched their "Support to Sustainable Development in Lake Turkana and its River Basins: Environmental Assessment, Establishment of Management mechanism and Sustainable Livelihood" project, aimed at mitigating the impact of climate change on the livelihood of people living throughout the Omo Basin and Lake Turkana.

With respect to Lake Turkana itself, studies show the Gibe III Dam will dampen lake fluctuations and reduce them from 1.5 m to less than 0.5 m by releasing moderate water flows into the Lake. Any lake level variability caused by regulated inflows from the Dam after commissioning will fall within the natural variability of the lake. Gibe III plant regulation will reduce the annual oscillation of the water surface which will positively benefit the habitat with more regulated river flows and more stabilized lake levels. During the operating life of the Gibe III, the flow regulation will reduce the average seasonal oscillation from 1.0 m in natural condition to 0.3 in regulated condition. In recent years, annual loss due to evaporation over the lake has increased from an average of 2.2 m to 2.7 m, and over-the-lake rainfall has declined from an average rate of 6.5 to 4 mm/month by the end of 2009. The Dam will contribute to a sustainable flow and positive hydrological balance for Lake Turkana. The ESIA demonstrated that during the First Impounding that started in February 2015, the Lake Turkana level would gradually, and temporarily, reduce by only 1.5m, and this 1.5m drop is contained within the 5 -10m of natural fluctuations registered over the last 20 years. This would be gradually recovered from the reduced evaporation loss and the more regulated inflows to Lake Turkana. Evaporation from the Gibe III reservoir in comparison with the hot and arid climate of the lake region is negligible.

The benefits of the Gilgel Gibe III Dam include flow regulation and protection against unregulated catastrophic seasonal floods. The 2006 floods, for example, resulted in the death of hundreds of people and thousands of animals as well as the displacement of more than 15,000 people in Dasenech Woreda. Severe droughts in the mid-eighties caused famine throughout the Lower Omo region. Currently, the downstream river system has been suffering from extreme hydrological conditions characterized by extended drought periods resulting in minimum flows in the river system. The presence of the Dam, with two middle level outlets designed to allow the seasonal fluctuated flow to reach Lake Turkana but mitigating the impact of unchecked flood,  allows for continuous and regulated flows to the downstream ecosystem system, reducing the negative impact of drought and over flooding. The Dam will also provide reliable and timely water supplies for flood recession cultivation, and prevent cultivation being washed-away by any sudden or irregular flood. It will allow for the development of sustainable development schemesincluding fisheriesmodern livestock production, and similar projects.

Ethiopia and Kenya have, of course, been in regular consultation over the Gilgel Gibe III Dam and related development schemes, working closely to resolve any and all concerns. A Kenyan delegation of fifteen water and environmental experts, for example, made a five-day working visit to Ethiopia in May 2009. Another group made a working visit in January 2015 at the invitation of the Ethiopian government. An Ethiopian delegation made a working visit to the Kenyan side of Lake Turkana in November last year. These technical expertise exchange visits are part of the ongoing measures by both countries to address any issues that arise in a sustainable manner, setting an excellent example in the management of transboundary concerns.