Battle Lines Drawn over Lake Turkana

By Kabukuru, Wanjohi | African Business, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Battle Lines Drawn over Lake Turkana


Kabukuru, Wanjohi, African Business


Lake Turkana, also known as the Jade Sea, in Kenya's arid northwestern border with Ethiopia has turned into a battleground between conservationists and energy providers. ft has the potential to become an energy hub for the continent through hydro, oil and wind generation but the environmental cost, according to some, could be catastrophic. Wanjohi Kabukuru travelled to the area to report first-hand on the latest situation there.

ON THE HOT AND SANDY NORTH-western fringes of Kenya is Lake Turkana, which borders Ethiopia. A welcome breeze brings some relief in what is otherwise an extremely humid region. Philip Ewoton, a fisherman on this lake, has seen numerous changes taking place in his area in the last decade.

"Ever since they began building the electricity darn on River Omo in Ethiopia, we have experienced a decline in fish catch and reduced water levels," Ewoton says. "Now we have oil exploration in the lake."

The electricity dam that Ewoton is referring to is the famous, yet controversial, soon-to-be-completed Gibe III Hydro-electric Power Dam on River Omo in Ethiopia. And the oil exploration he mentions involves Tullow Oil exploration works.

River Omo, the main tributary of Lake Turkana, is right at the delta which delineates the Kenyan-Ethiopian border and supplies the lake with 90% of its water. River Turkwell, which snakes near Lodwar town, is the other tributary that finishes its course into Lake Turkana. At the moment Gibe III, which is 190km away from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, is one of Ethiopia's largest infrastructure development investments and expected to commence operations in 2014.

Lake Turkana, also referred to as the "world's largest desert lake", is a stunning water mass that early European adventurers called the Jade Sea, thanks to its welcome fresh gusts of wind and deep shade of the colour jade in a semi-desert environment. The Turkana region is famous for its human origins discovery-that of the 1.6m-year-old skeleton of the eight-year-old 'Turkana Boy'. Recently, this region is being seen as the subregion's potential energy hub.

Other than hydroelectricity, there is the proposed wind power farm and oil exploration within the lake's basin.

Oil exploration is currently being undertaken within the lake and all across its basin. The discovery of oil in the Ngamia-1 well in Block l0BB in the southern tip of the lake near the town of Lokichar, which is 130km from Turkana's capital of Lodwar, in March this year has raised the profile of this region, referred to as the Turkana Rift Basin. "The net pay encountered so far in Ngamia-1 is more than double that encountered in any of our East African exploration wells to date," Tullow Oil Plc exploration director Angus McCoss says.

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In oil exploration language, the entire lake basin bringing together the Omo River riparian region is found in three oil blocks namely Block 10BA and Block 10BB in Kenya and in Ethiopia, the South Omo Block. These, together with Block 10A, Block 13T and Block 12A are all operated by Tullow Oil Plc, which farmed into these oil and gas exploration blocks in 2011, partnering with Lion Energy, Africa Oil, Afren Plc, Centric Energy and Agriterra.

Largest single investment

Joining oil and hydropower is the $88im Lake Turkana Wind Power (LTWP) project. LTWP is billed as Africa's largest wind-power venture and also "the largest single private investment in Kenya's history", expected to produce 310MW and occupying some 40,000 acres of land in the Turkana Rift basin. This project, in development for the last seven years, was expected to begin in June 2012 but has been delayed after the World Bank said it was unwilling to offer guarantees to the financiers of the project.

"After extensive discussion between the World Bank Group and the project, the Bank has reached the conclusion that the project, as currently proposed, is not good for it," the World Bank's letter to the government of Kenya and the project's financiers, signed by WB country director for Kenya, Johannes Zutt, reads in part. …

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