Future wars could be fought over lakes, rivers
Posted Thursday, January 21 2010 at 18:49
Water is one of the most sought after natural resources in Africa. Many wars, especially among pastoralist communities, have been fought over it while global warming and reckless human activity have taken a heavy toll on the continent’s major lakes in the past decades.
A UNEP-produced Atlas of African Lakes shows the drastic depletion of the continent’s major water bodies by comparing and contrasting past satellite images with contemporary ones. Complicating matters further, some of the biggest natural lakes in Africa are usually spread across national borders, which means the responsibility of ensuring there is a sustainable usage of their waters is shared between nations.
But more often than not there is a sort of scramble, with the countries involved selfishly trying to outdo each other in siphoning the lacustrine resources without giving much thought to a common and sustainable operating policy. Where agreements are drawn they are rarely honoured.
The state of Lake Chad is probably the best illustration of this madness. Once Africa’s largest fresh water body supporting the livelihoods of about 30 million people in Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria and Niger, the lake has shrunk by 90 per cent from 25,000 square kilometres in the 1960s to less than 1,300 square kilometres today.
Reduced rainfall, increased irrigation, the southward march of the Sahara and heavy damming of Logone and Chari rivers, the two major sources of the lake, are cited as the main causes of this ecological catastrophe. There are occasional conflicts involving Nigerian fishermen on one side and Chadian and Cameroonian authorities on the other as the Nigerians venture outside their shallow waters for bigger catches.
This dying water mass has forced many of the 30 million people who live around it to abandon fishing for menial jobs or farming on the exposed lakebed using the scarce lake water or relying on erratic rainfall. Environmentalists warn that the lake will be a mere pond in two decades, prompting regional governments to think of channelling water from Oubangi River in the Central Africa Republic.
Lake Turkana dying
Thousands of miles away from the dying Lake Chad on the Kenya-Ethiopian border is Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake, which according to environmentalists is also on its deathbed. With about 500,000 people in both countries depending on the lake directly or indirectly for their survival, activists are bitterly opposed to Ethiopia’s plan to build the Gilgel Gibe III hydroelectric dam, the second largest in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Situated 600 kilometres up the Omo River valley, the dam is a monolithic piece of architecture, with its wall soaring 240 metres high and holding back a 150 kilometre-long reservoir. Critics are complaining that the $2 billion (Sh150 billion) power project will interfere with the flow of the river that provides 80 per cent of water to Lake Turkana.
Although authorities on both sides of the border say the dam will only moderate but not change the total amount of water flowing into the lake, an independent collection of European, American and East African scientists under the African Resources Working Group (ARWG) insist the dam will have a catastrophic impact on Lake Turkana and its people since it will retain 11 billion cubic metres of water, enough to reduce the level of the lake by as much as four or five metres.
“It is unclear how much the Gibe III will affect Lake Turkana,” says Paul Ikmat, a hydrologist. Nobody has really done the studies. But as a hydrologist I find it hard to see how it couldn’t have a significant effect. If the level falls any further, there is real danger that the water will become too alkaline to drink and damage the delicate fisheries.”
Over the years the lake has been gradually shrinking and becoming increasingly salty and highly alkaline, its water barely drinkable. Funded partly by European Investment Bank and African Development Bank (AfDB), the Gibe III hydro-plant is expected to generate 1,870 megawatts of electricity in 2013, a fact that is bound to benefit Kenya and other electricity-hungry neighbouring countries.
Ethiopia says that besides power generation the dam will also reduce River Omo’s devastating floods that killed at least 360 people and thousands of livestock in 2006. Activists have accused the government of Kenya of remaining indifferent to the issue since it stands to benefit from the surplus power to be generated from the dam.
Kenya is bound to benefit from the more than 500 megawatts earmarked for export from Gibe III to neighbouring countries. This will help meet her electricity demand that is expected to rise to 2,000 megawatts in the next five years, double the present installed capacity.
Against a backdrop of intensive protests from various lobby groups, a delegation of Kenya government officials led by the Director of Water Services, John Nyoro, gave the project a clean bill of health after a two-week fact-finding mission in Ethiopia in June 2009. The receding of the lake was due to unrelated upstream development, they said.
“This dam does not consume water. The water passing through it will only be used for the purpose of turning the turbines after which it will be released downstream,” said Nyoro. To gain more say in the management of River Omo, Kenya has been pushing for a Co-operative Framework Agreement (CFA) with Ethiopia.
The CFA is supposed to provide the legal framework for the establishment of a Basin Commission that will act as a clearing authority for any developments in Lake Turkana basin, besides compelling Ethiopia to consult Kenya in case of any future changes in water use of Gibe III Dam. However, Ethiopia has adamantly turned down this proposal saying its own monitoring system is sound.