Today, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee took the decision to officially inscribe Lake Turkana as a World Heritage site “in danger” because of severe impacts caused by the Gibe 3 Dam, constructed upstream on Ethiopia’s Omo River. The dam and associated sugar plantations have severely restricted flows into Kenya’s Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake.

“We applaud the decision taken by the World Heritage Committee,” states Dr. Rudo Sanyanga, the Africa Director at the non-profit International Rivers, which advocates for the protection of rivers and the rights of people who depend on them. “Ethiopia has knowingly and deliberately jeopardized the viability of Lake Turkana, which serves as a critical lifeline for half a million people in Kenya. This decision is long overdue.”Fishermen at Lake TurkanaJane Baldwin

Kenyan campaigners have led the opposition over the past decade to Ethiopia’s Gibe 3 Dam, which began producing power in 2016. Since then, lake levels have dropped precipitously as Ethiopia fills the dam’s reservoir and diverts the river’s flows toward newly established sugar plantations that require substantial water resources. This has led to significant hardship for the hundreds of thousands of people who subsist off of Lake Turkana, as they have seen fish catches plummet and are facing food insecurity. Further developments upstream could lead to the collapse of local livelihoods.

“The lives of local communities now hang in the balance given that their main sources of livelihood are facing extinction,” says Ikal Ang’elei, Director of Friends of Lake Turkana. “This decision by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee should serve as a notice to Ethiopia to cancel any further dams planned on the Omo River.”

Lake Turkana was previously proposed by UNESCO to be added as a site in danger in 2011, but Ethiopia has repeatedly avoided inscription by promising to conduct a Strategic Environmental Assessment of the Gibe scheme’s impacts. That study has still not begun, even while dam construction continued apace and sugar plantations expanded. Meanwhile, Ethiopia is aggressively pursuing further dam development on the river, having signed a contract with Italian construction firm Salini Impregilo to build an additional dam at the Gibe site, which would only compound the impacts on Lake Turkana.

“This decision represents a serious indictment of the government of Ethiopia, which has for years attempted to downplay the risks and used delaying tactics to prevent what amounts to an official reprimand for its conduct,” adds Ms. Ang’elei.

Lake Turkana joins a long and growing list of World Heritage sites threatened by dam construction. Tanzania’s plans to construct the Stiegler’s Gorge Dam in the Selous Game Reserve, a biodiversity hotspot for African wildlife, has prompted outcry from conservationists over threats to endangered species.

“While Lake Turkana is a glaring example of the impacts that dams have wrought on some of the world’s irreplaceable cultural and biodiversity sites, it has unfortunately become all too common,” says Dr. Eugene Simonov, Coordinator of the Rivers Without Boundaries Coalition. “Despite the precipitous decline in new hydropower globally, nearly a quarter of all natural heritage sites in the world are threatened by water infrastructure such as dams – and this share is rising.”

This concerning trend prompted the World Heritage Committee to pass a resolution in 2016 calling for a ban on dam construction within the boundaries of World Heritage sites, and for proposed dams that may impact World Heritage sites outside their boundaries to be “rigorously assessed.”

As the 42nd session of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee proceeds, civil society requests that the delegates pass a resolution calling for the protection of all World Heritage sites threatened by dams and other infrastructure so that current and future generations can benefit from the valuable natural inheritance upon which we all depend.

Media contacts: 

Dr. Rudo Sanyanga, International Rivers, +27 12 4302029

Ikal Ang’elei, Friends of Lake Turkana, +254 712 142901

Dr. Eugene Simonov, Rivers Without Boundaries Coalition

Photo: Fishermen at Lake Turkana | Photo by: Jane Baldwin