Water Heroes: Ms. Ikal Angelei and the FoLT

Welcome to another edition of Water Heroes.  Today we’re meeting Ms. Ikal Angelei who is the Founder and Director at the Friends of Lake Turkana (FoLT) organization.  The organization’s main purpose is to stop the construction of the Gilgel Gibe III Dam which is upstream of Lake Turkana and threatens the lake, the surrounding environment, and the area’s people.  They are doing this by educating the public, the government, diplomatic missions and the public about the possible dangers that this dam project pose as well as fighting for the rights of the people in the courts.  Throughout the world dam projects are a constant topic of scrutiny due to their negative impacts on the surrounding area, and this is another great example of people standing up and fighting for their homeland.

Although this post goes under the umbrella of Water Heroes because I would like to spotlight the great work that Ikal is doing, it’s really going to be about the work the organization is doing and the impacts of this dam project.  However, since Ikal is the founder of the group and outspoken opponent of the dam writing about the organization is just like writing about her.  So let’s start by taking a look at the dam project.

The dam is a 243 meter high hydroelectric dam that sits on the Omo River in Ethiopia and is slated to be completed during the summer of 2013.  This is one of five dam projects on the Omo, two of which have already been completed.  The project has almost completely funded by the Ethiopian government, but it has recieved other funding from the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation, and the Chinese ICBC bank.  The main purpose of this dam, as with most other dams, is to provide electricity.  Half of the power is meant for Ethiopia, and the rest is meant for Kenya, Sudan, and Djibouti.  It’s worth noting that Kenya is the only country that has signed on to buy electricity from the dam at this point, so hopefully Sudan and Djibouti will bow out which would leave the project without a future funding source and lead to the halt of construction.

In order to see what FoLT is fighting for lets look at the issues.  With dam projects there are always two sides of the story.  Let’s start by looking at the pro-dam side of the coin.  The argument has been made by Seleshi Bekele, a senior researcher with the International Water Management Institute that to go against this dam is “dangerous and irresponsible” And that “we should not glamorize the rural lives of those dependent on the river, most of whom remain poor, deprived of basic needs and vulnerable to the droughts and floods”, reports the LA Times.  But who is Mr. Bekele to say what is best for the people living there?  They have been there for centuries living this way and now their traditions and way of life is going to be uprooted, and for what?  Some electricity (or a lot of money for a certain few people)?  I understand that populations are growing and with that so do the need for things like electricity, but there are a number of other options besides basically killing an indigenous people’s way of life.  He also says that this will stop drought.  If someone can explain that to me I would appreciate it because I don’t understand how cutting off the flow of water would help with drought.  There were a number of studies done on the impacts of the dam on the surrounding area and downstream of the dam, but they were done by the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (you can read them here www.gibe3.com.et/Environmental.htm).  Hmmm…do you think you can trust a report done by the corporation that would directly benefit from the dam? I don’t.

Lake Turkana
Lake Turkana

So now let’s see the other side of the coin; the arguments against the dam.  A report by the Friends of Lake Turkana shows a very different picture of what effect this dam will have (this report and others can be found at www.friendsoflaketurkana.org).  One of the first ecological consequences of the dam is the disruption of the natural cycle.  The report links the reproduction of plants and animals in the region directly to the timing of the yearly flooding.  The flooding washing nutrients into the water and provides the aquatic life with the food they need to live.  Another benefit of the floods is that they cause shallow areas of water to form along the edges of the lake and river.  These are used by young animals as a way to get water but not get eaten by predatory animals that are in the main body of water.  The vegetation of the area is also dependent on the annual floods, and would be drastically affected if the floods stopped.  Weird, the people that want to build the dam say the floods are bad, but the people that actually live there say they’re good.  Continuing, if you read my review of Blue Gold that I posted earlier this week you will remember me noting that someone in the movie compared a river to veins in our bodies.  If you stop the blood flow in our bodies we will die.  Well the same thing happens in rivers if the flow of sediment and organic matter stops, and that’s another point that this report makes.  Also, as the lake recedes due to the dam it modifies the makeup of the water and its ecosystem, leading to poor conditions for fisheries, algae populations, and water quality. They make two other points about the ecological effects, one being that fish need to move up and down the river freely to complete their lifecycle, and the other is that when water is stored in a reservoir its temperature is changed.  Small animals and plant life are very sensitive in changes of temperature so if all of the sudden a bunch of cold water is let loose from the dam there’s a good chance many would die.  And this is only one report!  There are others that have even more information than I listed here (if interested check out this report bit.ly/IAFmOR).  Let’s move on now and talk about the social and economic implications of the dam.

There are 300,000 people in the area around the lake that would be affected by the dam.  The lake is a huge part of their lives and they depend on it everyday for everything from livestock grazing, and food gathering on the shore to irrigation, and fishing.  Entire communities could be destroyed by the affects of the dam.  When water flow from the river slows or stops due to the dam the salinity of the lake will increase, which will lead to the destruction of ecosystems and loss of potable water for the human as well as animal populations surrounding the lake.  All of the sudden these people will be without a way to make a living and survive so they’ll have to look for new land, and when people are forced to look for new land conflict can erupt.

This area is already knows for its cross border raids between Ethiopia and Kenya over livestock, water and grazing area.  If the dam displaces people it will only lead to more conflict and death.  It gets even more complicated because part of the lake is in Ethiopia and part is in Kenya, and there are already longstanding disputes on these border areas regarding where the borders actually are. Ethiopia considers the delta to be within their borders so what will happen as the lake level drops and the delta grows?  Another area that could be affected is called the Elemi Triangle which is an area of land approximately 5405 square miles that covers sections of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Sudan.  Historically this area has been shared by five different communities, however if the people around Lake Turkana need to leave and find new land this is one of the closest places they could go.  There are only so many resources available, and there is a good chance that fighting would erupt as people got desperate for land and food.  In the end you’ll have people’s lives being destroyed by the dam, and then these people will be forced to go destroy others’ lives because they can no longer survive where they have always lived.

So that’s the two sides of the story.  Which one do you think sounds better?  Good thing Ikal and the FoLT is working hard to educate the communities about what is going on as well as winning them rights to have a say in what happens to their land.  I recently had the chance to ask Ikal what has been going on in the last 6 months or so, and it sounds like things are going great for them.  Right now they are in court against the government for violating the people’s rights by signing agreements with Ethiopia over the dam without community consultation.  She hopes that the court proceedings will be complete by the end of April.  They are also talking with China’s ICBC Bank, who is now the only remaining major funder of the project, and at the same time putting pressure on aid agencies and development partners to pay more attention to where their money is going because some of it is finding its way to the dam project.  They were successful in getting their Parliament to pass a motion that the cabinet should halt all projects on the Omo River until Environmental and Social Impact Analysis’ can be done by unbiased parties.  That was the first hurtle, and now they’re pushing the Implementation Committee to implement it.  Overall it sounds like they’re on the right path.  Other than that Ikal has been continuing to spread the word about the dam as well as working as a Program Coordinator at another organization, the Turkana Basin Institute, whose website promotes it as a “research institution supporting scientific projects in the Turkana Basin”.  It sounds like things are going great for Ikal, and I can’t wait to see what happens with FoLT over the upcoming months.  Check back in a couple of months and hopefully I’ll have an update for you.  Thank you to Ikal for all her hard work, and thank you for reading.  If you’d like to send FoLT a donation or just check them out the website is www.friendsoflaketurkana.org/. As always, please leave a comment letting me know what you thought.

Water Heroes: Ms. Ikal Angelei and the FoLT
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