Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement this week on the impact of dams and plantations in Ethiopia’s lower Omo Valley on Lake Turkana.
Put together with consecutive years of poor rain, an ongoing drought, the exploitation of oil reserves, a long history of retaliatory raids with neighbouring Pokot, an increasingly tense border dispute, and increased competition for county seats, the report underscores how Turkana is facing a particularly challenging context.
According to HRW, since the reservoir behind Ethiopia’s Gibe III dam began filling in 2015, water that had “previously flowed unimpeded into Lake Turkana” has been held behind the dam. As a consequence, water levels have fallen by approximately 1.5m, and the lake has receded by as much as 1.7km in Ferguson Gulf. The latter constituting “a critical fish breeding area”.
However, it is likely that worse is yet to come. According to researchers from the University of Oxford, if Ethiopia’s Omo Valley development plans are fully carried out, water levels in the lake could fall by up to 20m. Given that the average depth of the lake is 30m, Lake Turkana – as Ken Opalo reminded us back in December 2013 – “faces hydrological collapse” without proper water management upstream.
The situation is further exacerbated by underdevelopment, climate change and drought. According to a 2013 report of the Commission for Revenue Allocation, Turkana is the poorest county in Kenya. For a region that has grappled with several years of poor rains, such underdevelopment means residents enter this year’s drought with their capacities to cope with ecological and economic stress at breaking point.
In this context, oil and devolution have brought some real economic growth, but they have also exacerbated local intra- and inter-communal tension. Thus, the discovery of oil has raised difficult questions about who should benefit from associated opportunities. This includes resentment against non-Turkanas employed by Tullow Oil, but also tension between different clans on whether all Turkana should benefit equally from this new resource, or whether those who have historically grazed on the oil fields should gain more.
Oil has also aggravated long-standing tension with neighbouring Pokot. As some Turkanas have been pushed closer to their neighbours, and some Pokots claim large swathes of Turkana County as part of their traditional grazing lands, and insist that the boundary should be modified in line with colonial maps. In this context, some Turkanas allege that cattle raids are being used to foster insecurity along the border area and thus open them for Pokots to occupy and use, and, perhaps, ultimately become the “locals” that benefit from the spoils of oil.
Anger over local insecurity is then heightened by a sense that security forces are willing to come in with a heavy hand when the oil sector is targeted, but do little to protect local Turkana and their cattle.
As in other areas, devolution has heightened political competition, with many eyeing the governorship and County Assembly positions. However, the stakes in Turkana are particularly high. At one level, there is the promise of future oil resources and the fact that the county receives the second highest allocation of devolved funds after Nairobi. At another level, there is a reality in which many of the pastoralist areas have become a battleground for potential swing voters between the two major alliances.
In this context, a local by-election in Kalokol ward last October was marred by violence when shots were fired at the ODM aspirant’s car, while two of the man’s daughters were injured when gunmen attacked his home. At the time, the Turkana Governor Josephat Nanok – who is also in ODM – blamed members of Jubilee for the violence.
To complicate matters further, poor communication and infrastructure in the county ensure that the logistical challenges of introducing new technology – such as the electronic transmission of votes – are particularly high.
The reality is thus difficult and demands attention. As fish stocks are likely to decline further if water levels fall; years of poor rains have stretched people’s ability to respond to drought; and oil and devolution have heightened political competition and communal tension.
Gabrielle Lynch is associate professor of comparative politics, University of Warwick, the United Kingdom.