On June 28, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee added the Lake Turkana National Parks to the list of World Heritage in Danger. The move came in response to the increasing hazards confronting the world’s largest permanent desert lake and its ecosystem, especially with the damming of River Omo by Ethiopia in a development initiative with the potential of limiting Lake Turkana’s main water supply among other “unintended” outcomes.
Lake Turkana joined the World Heritage List in 1997, and was to be included in the list of the World Heritage in Danger in 2011. But the Ethiopian government delayed the intervention with repeated promises to conduct a Strategic Environmental Assessment of the Gibe scheme’s impact. In the meantime, the lake’s levels continued to drop precipitously, as Ethiopia filled the Gibe III dam and diverted River Omo’s waters towards newly established sugar plantations.
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The lake’s new endangered status is expected to act as the strongest message so far to the authorities in Kenya and Ethiopia. A wake up call to why the life threatening human activity in the lake, its water sources, and ecosystem must stop.
While UNESCO’s gesture has been largely informed by scientific facts, decades of agitation by local communities and consistent campaigns by civil society organisations, led by Friends of Lake Turkana, the responsibility to protect the life and treasures in and around the lake has now shifted to both governments.
It is worth noting that neither the Kenyan nor Ethiopian authorities have hitherto displayed a commitment to the conservation of Lake Turkana.
Having done little to stop the Ethiopian government from proceeding with the Gibe III Dam completion, the Kenyan government now has the opportunity to ramp up its diplomatic efforts to save Lake Turkana.
A “World Heritage in Danger” status calls for more effort and resources to be channeled towards the protection of the lake and its basin as a way of guaranteeing the existence and well-being of the parks.
The world is replete with cases where governments have taken the lead in turning around the fortunes of their natural and cultural resources upon similar moves by the World Heritage Committee. Kenya must follow suit.
Though the status bestowed on the lake by its very nature attracts goodwill from international actors, such drastic results like the long awaited unchecked damming activities on River Omo can only be achieved if the Kenyan government adequately invests the necessary diplomatic resources in engaging with Ethiopia and the international community at large.
Coincidentally, the voices against Ethiopia’s infringement on the rights of a significant chunk of the Kenyan population appear to be bolstered only at a time when Kenya’s oil exploration and production in the same basin has elicited questions around the place of the local population’s natural resource, environmental as well as community rights.
The oil discovery and subsequent production has opened the basin to unbridled commercial activity previously not witnessed in the region. The completion of the massive Lamu Port–South Sudan–Ethiopia Transformation Project (LAPSSET), meant to spur development in the region is another source of concern for environmental and cultural conservationists because it will invite further wanton destruction of natural and cultural resources in the lake and its basin.
The Kenyan government will need to conduct an accurate cost-benefit analysis as well as environmental impact assessment of all its major projects in the region and be bold enough to share the results of the same with the host communities. The local communities in Turkana County have remained suspicious of “massive investments” in the area and have repeatedly said they are too poor to shoulder the hidden costs as the benefits are carted away.
Even as the Government gets down to accelerating its diplomatic charm offensive with respect to the Gibe III Dam, and upholding existing land and environmental laws and community rights during its development incursions in the county, the other step that will go a long way in protecting Lake Turkana is committing public resources to research around the projects and their impact on local citizens.
Having worked with communities on conservation projects, we have come to learn that establishing conservation as a culture is a lot easier and more rewarding in instances where the authorities take lead.
This means that with Lake Turkana now as a “World Heritage in Danger”, the Kenyan government will need to show more commitment at home and abroad towards its conservation.
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Ms Ang’elei is the Executive Director, Friends of Lake Turkana