Ethiopia’s Gibe Dam Threatens Kenya’s Lake Turkana, and Why the Kenyan Government Doesn’t Care

Six hundred miles upstream from the northern tip of Lake Turkana in Kenya, the Ethiopian Gibe III dam is nearing completion. According to Africa Confidential the dam will produce 1860 MW, making it the biggest hydro-electric power plant in Africa.

No doubt the developmental impact of the Gibe projects will be huge. Despite doubling Ethiopia’s 2007 installed power generation capacity, the project will bring more than 150,000 hectares (about 580 sq. miles) of land under irrigation (this will be more than the total acreage under irrigation in the whole of Kenya as of 2011). In addition, the boost in power generation capacity will feed into the East African Power Pool, thus helping alleviate power problems in Kenya and beyond.

But will the benefits of the Gibe projects outweigh the potential human cost, especially considering externalities that will spread beyond Ethiopia’s borders?

screen-shot-2017-02-14-at-11-04-21-pmAccording to Sean Avery, the Omo-Gibe project intends to divert as much as 32% of the Omo River’s waters for irrigation and other uses upstream. But the Omo River is the main inlet of Lake Turkana, Kenya’s largest by area (Kenya owns the smallest bit of Lake Victoria) and Africa’s fourth largest lake.

Lake Turkana gets as much as 90% of its inflow from the Omo River.

In a new Oxford study, Avery notes that one of the planned Ethiopian irrigations schemes alone, the Kuraz Sugar Scheme, will gobble as much as 28% of Omo inflows into Lake Turkana at 70% efficiency and a whopping 40% if the project inefficiently uses water! The same study notes that construction of Gibe III may lower the water volume in Lake Turkana by as much as 41-58% (or an average drop in lake level of 22 metres) over a period of time. This will have a significant impact on the Lake’s salinity (being the biggest desert lake in the world) and suitability of its water for human consumption and agriculture. To put this in perspective, the average depth in the lake is 30 metres. Without proper water management upstream Lake Turkana faces hydrological collapse akin to what happened to the Aral sea or what is happening to Lake Chad.

These findings have been echoed in this Human Rights Watch report.

Screen Shot 2017-02-14 at 11.06.32 PM.pngAt this juncture you may ask, why isn’t the Kenyan government up in arms over the Gibe projects?

Well, the simple answer is that a confluence of factors have made it such that Nairobi does not have an incentive to care about the 170,000 odd people that will be adversely affected by a decline in water volume and economic viability of Lake Turkana. Three of these factors stand out.

  1. Turkana, being largely rural, sparsely populated, poor, and with a low literacy rate, does not make a fertile ground for pressure groups to form. Complaints over the potential impact of Gibe III have mostly come from academics and international NGOs that, lacking political salience, are very easy to ignore. Historical low voter turnout in the region also does not help matters. This has made it easy for the government to pretty much ignore the region over the years. Residents of Turkana often talk of “going to Kenya” whenever they venture into the southern regions of the country.
  2. A more important reason than the one above is perhaps that Gibe III will provide power to the Kenyan grid. Kenya’s Vision 2030 development plan includes a raft of projects that will require increased generation capacity in the next couple of decades that the country will surely not meet. Gibe III will be a much needed plug in the expected energy capacity gap. Notice that most of the projects will benefit the more politically powerful pockets of the Kenyan electorate to the south of the country, most of whom have never and will probably never hear of the human impact of Gibe III in Turkana unless it leads to something catastrophic enough to attract national media attention.

    Image

    Source: Gado, Daily Nation

  3. Oil. Oil. Oil! As if things could not get worse for residents to the north of Turkana county, commercially viable deposits of oil have been discovered to the south of the county. It goes without saying that moving forward most of the economic focus will be in that part of the county, at the expense of most other economic activities (and Turkana residents’ most pressing needs, see image) – including fisheries on Lake Turkana.

Admittedly, the fault here lies not with Addis Ababa. Ethiopia had to do what it had to do to meet its development needs. The fault is Nairobi’s for not having the foresight to strike a workable “Coasian bargain” with Addis on an arrangement that would be less harmful to residents of Turkana. This post has attempted to sketch some of the reasons why this is the case.

In an ideal world Nairobi would have negotiated with Addis Ababa for a discount rate for power from Gibe III and pledged to invest the difference in compensating residents of the Lake Turkana basin who will be adversely affected by the planned projects on the other side of the border. Unfortunately, for the three reasons stated above and others, I doubt that this happened or will happen in the near future.

To paraphrase a famous quote from a couple of millennia ago, in the world we live in those with political power get what they want and those without suffer what they must.

How to achieve energy security for growth in Africa

This post originally appeared on the AfDB’s Integrating Africa Blog where yours truly is a regular contributor.

According to a recent survey by Ernst & Young, 44% of businesspeople in Africa identified inadequate infrastructure as one of the key constraints to doing business in the region.  This means that as Africa continues to grow in the next two decades, infrastructure development must top the investment agenda. General infrastructure development will be especially crucial as African economies undergo structural transformation from being primarily resource-driven to having bigger manufacturing and service sectors. Indeed Ernst & Young estimates that in 2012 43.1% of investments in capital in Africa went to manufacturing as opposed to 12% that went to the extractive sector. 

A key area that will require greater and smarter investment to fuel the region’s economic growth will be the energy sector. 

Everyone knows about the energy woes of many an African country – from Nigeria’s infamous generators to the total lack of functional national grids in some African states. A few countries have initiated plans to boost their energy sectors through investment in power generation (Ethiopia’s 6000MW Great Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile), oil refining (Angola’s planned 200,000 bbl/day refinery in Lobito), and aggressive prospecting for fossil fuels (especially in eastern and southern Africa). Despite these national efforts, for African states to ensure energy security for their growing economies, they must also think regional (and to some extent continental) when developing their respective energy sectors. As intra-Africa trade grows in the next two decades, there will be pressure to integrate energy markets as well. 

The reasons for a regional/continental approach to energy sector development are twofold. Firstly, investment outlays in energy infrastructure development are often prohibitively expensive (because their viability relies on economies of scale), thus necessitating the pooling of resources. Ethiopia’s newest dam, for instance, will cost $4.7 billion. Not many African countries can afford such massive investments on one project. 

Secondly, there is the issue of markets. With 12% of the world’s population, Africa consumes a meager 3% of the world’s electricity. Of this 75% takes place in North Africa (33%) and South Africa (45%). The remainder is shared out among the rest of Sub-Saharan African states. Furthermore, electricity connectivity on the continent remains relatively low, with rates averaging 43% (North Africa stands at 99%, with the other sub-regions between 12-44%).

This means that for projects like Ethiopia’s to make sense, access to international markets must be guaranteed. A key part of the Ethiopian project is the planned interconnector line linking the power station to the Kenyan grid. Joint investment and taking advantage of economies of scale will also help lower the cost of power in Africa. At present the average tariff per kilowatt-hour in the region is US $0.14, compared to US $0.04 in Southeast Asia. It is estimated that investing in regional grids and hydropower will save the region up to $2 billion annually. This is music to the ears of sugar millers, cement manufacturers and many small factory owners across the continent. 

Existing and Planned Power Pool Connections in Africa

Source: Niyimbona, P, UN Economic Commission for Africa; Note: There are additional planned lines connecting Ethiopia to Sudan and Kenya, respectively, not shown on the map.

With this in mind, African states have begun the process of integrating their power sector infrastructure, via regional power pools (see map above of existing and planned power interconnector links). The South African Power Pool (SAPP, established in 1995); North African power pool (COMELEC , 1998); West African Power Pool (WAPP, 2000); the Central African Power Pool (CEAPP, 2003); and the East Africa Power Pool (EAPP, 2005) are all initiatives to establish regional power markets and help harmonize energy policy. 

The COMELEC sub-region (27.4 GW, largely thermal, in 2009) has the highest connectivity and the best infrastructure. The region is also linked to the Middle East via the Egypt-Jordan interconnector line and Europe via the Morocco-Spain line (part of the future Mediterranean Electricity Ring, MEDRING). SAPP, with a capacity of 50GW (78.4% coal; 20.1% hydro; 4% nuclear and 1.6% diesel), is next in terms of infrastructure development.  The remaining pools have 13 GW in the WAPP; 29 GW in the EAPP. There is a plan to link the EAPP to states outside of East Africa as part of COMESA. The 19-state COMESA bloc has an installed capacity of 52MW (69% thermal and 30% hydro) and has since 2009 initiated a process to harmonize regulation and energy policy.   In terms of regional (intra-power pool) trade in power, SAPP is ahead with 7.5%, WAPP 6.9%, NAPP 6.2%, EAPP 0.4% and CAPP 0.2%.  Clearly, there is a lot of room for improvement in levels intra-pool trade in power. 

All these developments are encouraging. But a lot more needs to be done. For starters African states must work harder to harmonize their energy policies. This will necessarily involve greater liberalization of their power sectors, especially with regard to power generation and distribution. There is also an urgent need to invest in interconnector infrastructure to ensure that power can be transmitted efficiently to market. In the Day Ahead Market (DAM) of SAPP, for instance, trading is limited by between 40-50% of the potential level due to lack of efficient transmission capacity. Lastly, there will be a need to connect the regional power pools. This will reduce their overreliance on regional “anchor” economies (the best example of this is SAPP’s overreliance on ESKOM of South Africa, which has its own integrated resource plan). It will also create even bigger markets, including potentially the Middle East and Europe.  

Ultimately, whether or not the dream of regional and continental power interconnectivity is achieved will depend on politics. Unfortunately, so far things do not look good. Almost a decade after the idea of regional power pools set in, governments are yet to harmonize their power sector regulatory policies. In many countries state monopolies dominate, with attendant inefficiencies. And across the continent power supply master plans are still very nation-centric and under the tight control of local vested interests. Moving forward, the challenge will be to convince governments and stakeholders (private sector and consumers alike) of the benefits of having an Africa-wide power market – which will necessarily require the liberalization of national power sectors. The alternative will be more roundtable discussions and promises of policy harmonization that never get fulfilled.