Sacrificing Human Rights for Development on Lake Turkana

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Selina Akiru, pastoralist

Selina Akiru, pastoralist.
International Rivers

“Whoever is cutting off the source of water to the lake is being selfish and wants to benefit alone. We [in Turkana] will die of starvation”

Selina Akiru

Pastoralist and firewood seller

The hot sun rises on another long day in scorching Turkana county. Meanwhile the rays graze over the greener, but also marginalized, Marsabit county. These two counties sandwich Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake, nestled in the Cradle of Mankind and containing three national parks that are World Heritage Sites. The lake is a sparkling gem and source of life in the dry northern deserts of the beautiful country of Kenya.

The lake is in dire and immediate danger, however, along with the human rights of 300,000 Kenyans who depend on it for survival. Developments on Ethiopia’s Omo River, which provides the lake with 90% of its water, are threatening its existence. A large hydropower dam, the infamous Gibe III, has been built – without consideration for the impacts it will have across the border in Kenya. Not only will the dam be used for hydropower generation, but large-scale irrigation too – the planned sugarcane and cotton plantations will occupy almost as much land as all the irrigated land in Kenya. Considering how water-thirsty these crops are, imagine how much water will be sucked out of the river – and not make it to Lake Turkana?

The last time something like this happened, the world’s 4th largest lake went from looking like this…

The Aral Sea in 1989

The Aral Sea in 1989
NASA satellite image

… To this.

The Aral Sea in 2014

The Aral Sea in 2014
NASA satellite image

Hydrologist Sean Avery has warned of a similar predicament for Lake Turkana, whose levels may drop by at least 20 metres and shorelines may recede by at least 40 km, potentially reducing the lake to 2 pools of water.

What do the people of Turkana and Marsabit have to say about the dam that is threatening their human rights?

The Right to Food and Livelihood

“We fish at night, we fish during the daytime, to feed our families. Now if they take all the waters, what are we going to do? There will be no life along the lake.” – Hon. John Lolimo, MCA Kalokol Ward

“When the lake overflows then recedes, grass grows on the lake shores, and we take the animals there to feed.” – Esther Epoet, Inlaw of MCA, Nakurio pastoralist village

The inhabitants of Turkana are either fisherfolk or pastoralists. Many pastoralists already struggle to find food to eat, some barely surviving on meagre seeds and fruit that are bitter and cause stomach pain. As the water levels of Lake Turkana drop, there will be insufficient suitable water for livestock, while fish breeding will be severely affected (breeding peaks during seasonal floods). This will kill people’s access to food and a source of livelihood.


The fisher-folk of Lake Turkana.

The fisher-folk of Lake Turkana.
International Rivers


The Right to Water

Many locals of Turkana and Marsabit drink from the lake, which is saline. As water levels reduce, the salt concentration will only increase. The recently discovered aquifers in Turkana contain water that is too salty to drink. Fluoride levels in the lake water are already above acceptable health limits. The large farms in Ethiopia may add significant chemical pollution to the river and lake. The effects could already be manifesting – from a recent Human Rights Watch interview. 

“The water that came recently, when the children drink from it, their chest problems increase.” – Teacher from Kalokol School

The Right to Health

According to a report released in October by Human Rights Watch, “many children become sick because their families are unable to provide them with sufficient food and safe water.” There is only “one under-resourced health clinic [in Turkana] serving a geographically dispersed population.” The effects of the dam will only exacerbate these issues.

The Right to Security

“Lake Turkana has provided separation between conflicting communities from Ethiopia and also locally between Turkanas and the Rendille on the eastern side of the lake.” – Kisike Fabio, high school science teacher

Reduction in lake levels will intensify existing conflict over a very scarce resource, especially in the form of deadly cattle raids.

Ban on Discrimination (Article 2, Universal Declaration of Human Rights)

Perhaps the main reason the Kenyan government has not spoken up for the rights of the communities around Lake Turkana is the significant amount of exported hydropower Kenya will be receiving from the Gibe III Dam. However, locals of Turkana and Marsabit know they will not be benefitting from that electricity.

Lydia E. Kamar, nurse at Lodwar District Referral Hospital

Lydia E. Kamar, nurse at Lodwar District Referral Hospital
International Rivers

“People are living a poor life . . . What can you do with electricity in a local house like this? You can’t use it, you don’t have electronics to use.”

Lydia E. Kamar

Nurse at Lodwar District Referral Hospital

Sacrificing the rights of the marginalized people of one area to benefit others is blatant discrimination.




Right to Life 

Peter Kataboi, Chairman, Natogo Fresh Fish

Peter Kataboi, Chairman, Natogo Fresh Fish
International Rivers

“This dam will kill us.” – Peter Kataboi, Chairman, Natogo Fresh Fish

No need to say more. 

Is it worth sacrificing people’s human rights in the name of development? Given the vast possibilities of wind and solar energy in East Africa, let me rephrase: Is it worth sacrificing people’s human rights in the name of unnecessary development?

Join the #SaveLakeTurkana movement in Kenya today!