Tensions are building around Lake Turkana in north-west Kenya over the depleting lake’s scarce resources. The Gibe III hydroelectric dam, 600 kilometres up the Omo River in Ethiopia and inaugurated in December 2016, has been met with widespread criticism over its environmental impacts on downstream waters. The Omo River provides 90 per cent of Lake Turkana’s freshwater inflow and, mainly due to the construction of the dam, the lake’s water level has already fallen 1.5 metres. Gibe III is also expected to divert up to 32 per cent of the water from the Omo River into a large-scale sugar plantation irrigation system on the Ethiopian side of the border. Lake Turkana is predicted to shrink to 42 per cent of its current volume and its water levels will decline by up to 22 metres. An International Rivers report describes the dam’s societal and environmental impact as ‘potentially catastrophic in the longer term’. In recent months violent clashes have increased between the Turkana and Dassanech people over the lake’s scarce resources. These clashes have occurred amid increasing instability in Kenya leading up to the federal election in August.
The livelihoods of 300,000 people depend on Lake Turkana. Tensions will rise as the water levels drop and the lake’s fish stocks continue to diminish. There is a long history of conflict between the tribes around Lake Turkana, which worsen during times of growing food insecurity. The Omo River provides the northern end of the lake with an inflow of nutrient-rich freshwater, which then flows towards the south. The Gibe III dam decreases the Omo River inflow, causing nutrients required for fisheries to become concentrated in the northern areas around the Omo Delta. Turkana fishermen, as a result, are increasingly clashing with Dassanech tribes as they move north to compete for scarce resources.
The humanitarian consequences of Lake Turkana’s depletion are severe. In Turkana County in north-west Kenya, 46 per cent of the population are below the age of 14 and nine out of ten people live below the poverty line. Displacement of people increases regional tensions with a serious potential to lead to armed conflict. If the lake’s water level falls by over 20 metres, the northern end of Lake Turkana will shift southwards by up to 40km. The Dassanech people would then be very likely to migrate south, increasing tensions between Turkana and Dassanech fishing communities. Villagers might also be forced to migrate into the Ilemi Triangle, an unstable area claimed by both Kenya and South Sudan on the Ethiopian border. The combination of poverty, displacement, scarce resources and a high concentration of arms is highly concerning for the stability and security of the cross-border region. In the long term, these conditions will be worsened by the effects of climate change.
Conflict over Lake Turkana’s resources comes amid growing instability leading up to the Kenyan elections in August. Ethnic tensions often increase during election periods, as political ideology is frequently ethnicised to secure tribal support. The disputed election in 2007 contributed to political and ethnic violence, resulting in 1,200 deaths and the displacement of 350,000 people across the country. President Uhuru Kenyatta and Deputy President Willian Ruto were charged by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity following the political violence. The charges were later dropped.
President Kenyatta’s re-election is set to be more challenging than in 2013. Under Kenyatta, Kenya is experiencing high food inflation, a slowing economy and widespread corruption. Kenya’s ‘electoral environment is extremely polarised, which increases potentials for political violence particularly at local levels’, according to the Washington-based National Democratic Institute. The Rift Valley, with Lake Turkana at its northern end, has experienced a rise in violent clashes. In February, two politicians were killed at a bar in Marigat, a town in the southern portion of the Rift Valley. The attack was the first political assassinations in Kenya in over ten years. As a key constituency that Kenyatta must win to remain in office, the Rift Valley is likely to remain tense.
Political tensions throughout the Rift Valley, in addition to violent tribal clashes over scarce resources in Lake Turkana, have the potential to escalate into a nationwide crisis. Fishers in Turkana County reportedly feel betrayed by the Kenyan Government for their years of neglect. As tribes continue to be internally displaced, further pressure will be added to volatile areas in and around the Rift Valley. The likelihood of widespread political violence will continue to rise in the lead up to the general election.