Lake Turkana in Kenya’s national parks

Kenya’s Lake Turkana added to world heritage list of endangered sites

A UNESCO panel on Thursday added Lake Turkana, a conservation site in Kenya and a candidate site for the birthplace of humanity, to its list of endangered World Heritage Sites.

The World Heritage Committee of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has expressed concern about the devastating effects of Ethiopia’s Gibe III “Downstream and Ecosystem” dam on Lake Turkana.

The impact “poses an additional threat to the site,” UNESCO said in a statement Thursday issued in Bahrain.

Lake Turkana, located in northwestern Kenya and known as the Jade Sea, is the saltiest lake in East Africa and the largest desert lake in the world.

Its islands are a nesting ground for the Nile crocodile, the hippo, and several species of snakes, while the lake itself is important for migratory birds.

The area is also the possible birthplace of mankind, housing the fossil deposits of Koobi Fora.

The remains of many early hominins have been found there, including Australopithecus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus and Homo sapiens.

“The Koobi Fora deposits, rich in mammalian, molluscan and other fossil remains, have contributed more to the understanding of paleoecological conditions than any other site on the continent,” says UNESCO.

“The geology and fossil record represent major phases of Earth’s history,” he adds.

The lake itself is 249 kilometers (155 miles) long and 44 kilometers wide, and the protected area, known as Lake Turkana National Parks, consists of three contiguous reserves – Central Island, South Island and Sibilo Parks, totaling 161,485 hectares (400,000 acres).

But the lake is threatened, mainly by Ethiopia’s construction of a hydroelectric power plant and an irrigation dam on the Omo River, which replenishes the lake seasonally.

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The dam threatens to destroy the seasonal floods that are necessary for the reproductive cycle of lake fish, with an estimated 300,000 people depending on the Turkana fishery for their livelihoods.

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The irrigation project is expected to significantly reduce the total amount of water flowing into the lake.

Many fear that the two Omo River projects will lead to a drastic reduction in the lake level – by several tens of meters (tens of feet) – a repeat of the ecological disaster previously seen in the Aral Sea, in Central Asia, which dried up after its fodder was set aside for irrigation schemes.

UNESCO opposed the Gibe III dam, Africa’s tallest at 243 meters (800 feet), which opened in late 2016 and also serves to exploit huge new sugarcane plantations.

“The impact of the dam on lake levels is already becoming evident,” UNESCO warned.

“The data presented show an overall rapid decline in water levels since January 2015, when the Gibe III reservoir began to be polluted, and that seasonal fluctuations have been severely disrupted.”

UNESCO lamented the lack of proper environmental assessments and warned of “potential impacts on the (Lake Turkana) environment, such as reduced water flow and pollution from fertilizers and pesticides.”

“Although the scope of the project has been reduced, it will probably increase the consumption of water from the Omo River,” he added, meaning that the water does not reach the water.

Ethiopia’s southern Omo Valley is also a World Heritage Site.

In Kenya, Richard Leakey, a noted paleoanthropologist and conservationist, welcomed the endangered list, but doubted it would save the lake.

“I think the more attention we can get for Lake Turkana’s plight, the better, but I don’t think UNESCO can do anything for Lake Turkana,” Leakey told AFP.

“UNESCO declared it a world heritage site years ago (but) the situation in Turkana has continued to deteriorate no better,” he said.

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