Images of Ferguson Gulf Fish Market, Kenya

Kenya’s Lake Turkana is the terminus of Ethiopia’s Omo River, one of the 6 NWNL case-study watersheds. This January a NWNL expedition spent 4 weeks in Kenya investigating serious upstream threats (of dams and irrigation needs for massive new agricultural plantations) to Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake. The impact of these new schemes could drastically reduce the levels of the lake by half, or more, thus killing off Kenya’s largest fishery.

NWNL returned from this expedition with compelling imagery and interviews from the Lake Turkana’s Ferguson’s Gulf fishing villages; commercial fishing ventures in Kalokol; and Lodwar, Turkana County’s capitol – all on the western shores of Lake Turkana. Ferguson’s Gulf is the major Nile tilapia breeding ground in this lake of 47 fish species, but these shallow waters will quickly dry up when Ethiopia starts filling the reservoir of its Gibe III dam next year.

NWNL spent two days with Ikal Angelei, Director of Friends of Lake Turkana, and her colleague Billy Kapua, visiting various sites for interviews with locals and filming opportunities for NWNL.

“We want people to focus on this region’s ecological dependence on this lake, the conflict potential if water levels fall and the national pride for this resource-rich lake that produces 30–40 tons of fish per year for Kenya,” stated Ikal Angelei.

Angelei and Kapua shared with NWNL the most up-to-date details of the challenges facing Lake Turkana, as well as possible actions that could prevent the lake’s water levels from dropping, thus protecting the livelihood of 1/2 million people in the Lower Omo Basin and Lake Turkana Basin. On a broader level, the loss of Lake Turkana’s fisheries would significantly impact the fish-market economy of Kenya. And furthermore, displacement of local indigenous communities from agricultural plantations will cause over-crowding and most likely great conflict in the Ilemi Triangle on the borders of Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya. In this region, where boundaries have never been demarcated, over 12 tribes are dependent on access to water and green grazing lands for their livestock.

To study alternative options for the local indigenous pastoralists and fishermen, NWNL visited development projects west of the lake in Kapenguria and along Muruni River (a tributary of the Turkwell River which flows into Lake Turkana). CABESI projects, visited with directors Rolf Gloor, Mercy Kinyapyap and Paul Losute, included bee-keeping for many honey products, camel husbandry as a more drought-appropriate replacement for cattle and goats, and wild silk production from moths on local acacia. However, if the Lake Turkana water levels drop, that could affect weather in the entire region, adding to the increasing droughts being caused by climate change – and all of these alternative livelihoods depend on at least some water! No Water – No Livelihoods!

Photos taken on NWNL’s recent Omo River Basin Expedition.

All images © Alison M. Jones for

Can this baby hold onto its culture?

Ethiopia: Omo River Basin, Kundama Farm, a Duss tribal farming community, a 2-day-old Karo baby with its mother
Ethiopia: Omo River Basin, Kundama Farm, a Duss tribal farming community, a 2-day-old Karo baby with its mother.
© Alison M. Jones for NWNL.

Southwest Ethiopia is arid; but monsoon rains in Omo River highlands have sustained generations of indigenous people downstream. Over many millennia, stable cultural systems have emerged from patterns of interaction with the perennial Omo River. Here, Nyangatom men are fiercely proud; Karo children are playful and creative; Hamar women are strong; swaddled Mursi babies are loved; and Dassanech elders are wise.

Survival in the Omo Valley requires heavy workloads for men and women; but this is counter-balanced by plentiful water, fish and flood nutrients. Using the Omo as a case-study watershed, No Water No Life has documented environmental and cultural impacts of freshwater availability and usage. Men and boys herd livestock down dusty riverbanks for water. Maize, sorghum and beans are planted on inundated riverbanks and plains as annual floods recede. Women and children carry water to nearby villages. Riverside vegetation is collected as fodder for cattle and goats. Grains are winnowed and ground. To escape floods, homes are moved off the river – and returned when it’s time to plant a year’s worth of food on moist banks and floodplains.

These timeworn routines leave little need for the ubiquitous AK-47s handed down from the Derg Regime, other than to recapture stolen cattle or protect crops from marauding monkeys. Reliable resources have fostered creativity and festivity. Villagers paint elaborate patterns of river clay on their bodies. They celebrate successful harvests with dances and rites of passage such as bull jumping.

Annual floods and riverine forests sustain these communities. Omo Valley pastoralists and farmers have never stood in food-aid lines. Even though global climate disruptions threaten cultures elsewhere, the Omo practices of flood-recession agriculture and moving to higher ground during flooding mitigate effects of extreme water-level fluctuations.

It is other pressures that threaten the Omo cultures, cause anxiety and incite anger. Two of five proposed mega-hydro dams have been built upstream on the Gibe River tributary. If the third dam goes online, waters will be held back for two years to fill its reservoir; and thereafter, annual flooding will be ended. The environment and people around Kenya’s Lake Turkana, which is 90% filled by the Omo River, will also be devastated.

A highway to transport Sudanese oil to Kenyan ports will soon cross the Omo River. This will bring truckers’ needs and transient lifestyles into Omo communities, affecting their health and values. Additionally, as global food and cotton prices rise, Ethiopia is giving Omo lands to foreign investors and farmers. This takeover, like the dams, will destroy riverine forests and displace villages.

These irreparable changes are spawning local tensions and resentment over being ignored as development plans progress. Violence is increasing. If the upstream Gibe dams are built, 1-1/2 million people will lose their livelihoods. Guns will soon determine water access rights as river flows are reduced.

Omo cultures could probably survive the incursions of a highway and foreign farming; but hydro-dam reductions of Omo River and Lake Turkana water levels will be too great to overcome. Ethiopia’s government says it will move these people elsewhere. But history suggests people will be resettled in arid lands with few or no wells. No Water No Life interviews with “dam victims” in Canada’s Columbia River and Uganda’s Nile River tell of broken promises and resettlement to barren lands.

No Water No Life is collaborating with groups working to halt the Gibe Dams. American, European and African banks have withdrawn their funding; however China has stepped in. If the dams are built, then the world must hold Ethiopia accountable for guaranteeing these cultures access to clean fresh water and a means of sustaining themselves.

Check out NWNL’s Photo Set “Life in the Omo Valley” on Flickr.

The photograph above was nominated in the ‘People’ category of the Sixth Annual Photography Masters Cup, selected from 8,521 international entries.

Your T-shirt and water consumption

Cotton in bloom, TX, Mississippi River Basin
Cotton in bloom, TX, Mississippi River Basin, © Alison M. Jones

Did you know that the total usable freshwater supply for ecosystems and humans is less than 1 percent of all freshwater resources?

How the world uses freshwater:
• about 70 percent for irrigation
• about 22 percent for industry
• about 8 percent for domestic use
Source: World Water Assessment Programme (WWAP)

Did you know that the t-shirt on your back has a major impact on the planet? Producing it took approximately 710 gallons of water, plus it takes a lot of energy to get it from the cotton fields to your closet. But some of your t-shirt’s biggest impacts are in how you care for it. WWF and National Geographic ask: ‘How much stuff do you need?’ Here’s how you can help reduce its effect on the environment.

– Posted by Jasmine Graf, NWNL Associate Director