Sean Avery is a man on a mission. The Kenya-based hydrologist and civil engineer is the leading authority on the hydrological workings of Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake, and he's extremely worried about its future.
The cause for his concern is a boom in river-crippling projects being built upstream in Ethiopia, on a river that is the primary water source for the lake. The huge Gibe III Dam and related irrigation developments now under construction in the Lower Omo Valley will regulate and divert large quantities of the lake's inflow into the lake, which could dry up a good portion of this ancient water body and forever change its ecological balance, its thriving fisheries, and the landscape around it. For hundreds of thousands of people who call the lake environment home, these changes could bring a slow death of their livelihoods and communities.
It is hard to believe that the planet could lose another of its big lakes from human hubris, but Lake Turkana is indeed set to become the next Lake Chad or Aral Sea, both of which lie near death from ill-conceived water diversions and dams. If the world allows Lake Turkana to become "Turkana Pond," we will lose a startling emerald jewel of a lake in a vast desert; rich biodiversity that borders on the prehistoric, and unique communities and cultures that reflect back on this distinctive place.
Dr. Avery, who's been visiting Lake Turkana for more than three decades, has spent the past few years steadily documenting how these upstream developments could lead to its ecocide. His latest report, "What Future for Lake Turkana", recently published by Oxford University's African Studies Centre, is a clear-eyed, unyielding, scientifically grounded cry for help.
The irrigation schemes are the wild card. If the government's grandiose plans come to fruition, the lake will certainly die. Avery notes that just one of the irrigated plantations being implemented in the Lower Omo is almost equal to the entire current irrigated area of Kenya, stating: "Irrigation development on this scale will require a huge rate of water abstraction from the Omo... up to 50 percent of the lake's inflow could be abstracted for irrigation alone." He calculates that such abstractions will drop the 30-meter-deep lake's level by 20 meters.
The state-run Ethiopian Sugar Corporation intends to develop 150,000 hectares of irrigated sugar plantations in the Lower Omo. Thousands of agro-pastoralist people are being pushed off their lands and into government villages for these developments, and being told to learn how to become sedentary "modern" farmers. Vast tracts of land have also been taken from existing protected areas. Other lands have been allocated to private investors. The Omo Valley has become the site not just of Ethiopia's largest water grab, but also a vast land grab, where well-connected Ethiopians and international investors are making moves to develop big plantations, mostly for export crops and sugar, while human rights abuses of local people escalate.
Because the consequences of these profligate irrigation abstractions were not mentioned in any of the environmental impact assessments commissioned by the dam builders, Dr. Avery began assessing them in a detailed 2010 report for the African Development Bank. Next he wrote a lengthy and detailed update to this, having gotten new, more shocking information about the extent of irrigation planned for the Lower Omo. Like many strong but "technical" scientific reports, his past reports have not had a wide audience. His new report is targeted for the rest of us: written for non-scientists, shorter, graphically beautiful. It's time for the rest of us to pay attention.
Where to from here?
Sean Avery is not alone in his effort to try to turn this story around. Many academics and activists have been warning of the dire consequences these projects will cause if they continue as planned. A recent article in the Kenyan newspaper The Star quotes veteran archaeologist Dr. Richard Leakey on the risks: "This is a global disaster in waiting. Lake Turkana is going to dry up." Friends of Lake Turkana, a Kenyan NGO, has been campaigning for many years to register local peoples' concerns and stir political action from Kenya. Human Rights Watch, Oakland Institute, Survival International and my own organization are just a few that have been working to raise awareness on the situation in recent years. UNEP recently launched an effort to bring the two governments together to discuss how to share this important river.
All of these efforts would be nearly impossible without the careful work of the Dr. Averys of the world.
As we reach the knife's edge of decision-making on developments in the Omo, there is still time for Ethiopia to make changes that could save Lake Turkana.
A first step would be to undertake integrated water-resources management planning for the Lower Omo. This would establish the water needs of all stakeholders in the basin (including ecosystems), analyze the carrying capacity of the river in regards to future dams and plantations, and change development plans to meet these needs. Given the likelihood that Gibe III will be completed (it is about 75 percent complete now), the process could also review the potential for environmental flows -- a system for managing the quantity and timing of water flows below a dam to sustain ecosystems and human livelihoods that depend on them.
Such an ambitious basin-management process would require unprecedented cooperation and openness for these two governments. Yet the stakes are so high, the evidence so clear, that it's hard to imagine the impasse will continue, and the blinders will stay on. We'll be watching and waiting from the sidelines, with every hope that Dr. Avery won't, in the end, need to say "I told you so" about Lake Turkana.