The story of the drying Rift Valley Lake

Posted on 04 April,2017

Academics are warning of the possible drying of another lake in Ethiopia. One of the rift valley lakes is endangered mostly due to human intervention.

Lake Abiyata is one of the famous water bodies in the country known for being the home of flamingos and algae which is known for its super nutritional values: spirulina. Many other natural benefits can be mentioned here. However, according to academics of Addis Ababa University, the likely death of Lake Abijata is close to becoming a reality and, among other things, they advocate that preservation is the only remedy. One of these academics is Tadesse Fetahi (Ph.D.) who sat down with Birhanu Fikade of The Reporter to talk about dangers facing Lake Abijata. Excerpts:

The Reporter: Please tell us about yourself and what you do?

Tadesse Fetahi: I work and teach at the Addis Ababa University (AAU) at the College of Natural Sciences under the department of Zoological Sciences. My stream is Fisheries and Aquatic Science. I am a Limnologist – a profession related to aquatic ecology. Professionals in this field work on rivers, lakes, wetlands, ponds etc. In simple terms, they work in land water bodies away from the coasts.

Are you concerned about the fate of Lake Abiyata?

As a professional and an ordinary citizen, I am highly concerned about the fate of Lake Abiyata. Many people are also concerned about it. They have immortal memories of the lake. The beauty of the lake is particularly related to the birds it hosts. It is so magnificent and to add more, the lake is found in one of the national parks of the country: Abiyata-Shalla Lakes National Park. Unfortunately, the lake is dying or it is possible to say it is drying alarmingly. So I am concerned. We do have resources no doubt about that. The question is how we are utilizing them in a sustainable manner. We have the obligation to pass them to the next generation. We need to conserve them.

Before that what exactly is the clear danger facing Lake Abiyata?

We identified the lake as a terminal lake to indicate the inflow of water without experiencing any outflows. At least not a clearly known outflow of water is recorded from the lake. That makes the lake very sensitive and vulnerable to the changes in the ecosystem. Lake Abiyata has a major tributary river, called Bulbula. The river outflows from Lake Ziway situated on the upper stream. The lower stream of the water is the receiver of the outflow. Unfortunately, these days, it is alarmingly drying even in the major seasons of the year. The lake is extremely vulnerable to the irrigation systems. Look here, I am not against irrigation or development. But I strongly call for sustainable use of natural resources. For instance, there are about 2,000 pumps sucking water for irrigation purposes around Lake Ziway. Making it more dangerous, a dam is being constructed on river Bulbula. These practices are blocking inflows to Lake Abiyata. It is trapped.  No single drop of water is coming to the river throughout the year. There is a Soda Ash factory at the lake, where it employs costly and obsolete methods in such a way that they pump huge amount of water and store it in concentration ponds. Some 17 such ponds are dug by the factory. They fetch water from the lake but there is no way that they bring back the water to the lake. Let me give you a picture of the situation. Assume I have a bucketful of water. I may allow someone to take a litter per day. In a matter of time it will be over and I will end up with an empty bucket. That is exactly what is happening to Lake Abiyata because of the abstraction of soda ash. This is one of the clear dangers affecting the survival of the lake. Some 55 thousand people are settled inside the park. Per household there are some 33 domestic animals residing there. The households are involved in charcoal productions too. Moreover, some 40 of land has already been converted into farmland.

Then what makes the park a national park?

That is the point. People have inhabited the park. Animals graze inside the park. It should have been isolated from human and animal contacts. Some kind of economics is essential for the ecosystem to utilize it in a sustainable manner. No question that we have so many resources inside the park.

How long has academia been vocal about the issue and what are the measures that are needed to be taken to save the lake from extinction?

I have started involving myself very recently. So many people in academia, scholars and researchers have been working on the issue for some time now. I can roughly say it could be about 25 years. Professor Zinabu Gebremariam is one of the renowned and famous individuals to air and warn the possible extinction of the lake. He knew the fate of the lake many years ago. Professor Tenaelm Ayenew is the other well-known academic who has studied the lake more than 25 years. They have been alarming the dangers to the concerned bodies and decision makers.

 Are you saying that as members of academia you have engaging government officials on how acute the situations are for Lake Abiyata.  

There are some steps taken to bridge knowledge gaps between the academia and the decision-makers. For instance, our professors have discussed the issues of Lake Haromaya, and Lake Abiyata or rift valley lakes in general with the Oromia Regional State administrators. I believe the deputy president was contacted about the issue.

Are they well aware of the situation?

Yes, they are and they are concerned about it. When they hear about the extinction of Lake Haromaya they feel a similar fate is awaiting Lake Abijata. We can say they are more or less concerned about it. I have written a letter to President Girma Woldegiorgis as he is interested in and considerate of the environment. I also wrote a letter to the late prime minister regarding what can be done and how we can use our resources parallel with the green economy perspectives. I do not object to the utilization of resources we have. The point is we need to figure out ways of sustaining it.

Have you ever presented the scientific proofs you have to the public officials? Did you tell them the “hard facts” as you academics presume to say?

I am not sure there was that formal platform to communicate them about the findings we have. However, they have been communicated formally or informally about the likely happenings of environmental crisis. Lake Abiyata is not the only lake on the verge of extinction. Several wetlands have either been converted into places for human settlement or turned into farmlands. Rivers or streams are drying these days. I believe they have heard such things as many academics have been trying to show the hard facts. Everybody is crying about the lake.

Tell us how critical the condition is to the surrounding ecosystem in relation to the extinction of Lake Abiyata?

Let me tell you again that the blocked water from river Bulbula due to the dam and water abstraction activities in the lake is severely affecting the normal lifecycle of the river. More painfully, the soda ash factory is planning to produce 2,000 tons per year. That requires 30 million cubic meters of water need to be fetched from the lake. This amount of water can serve the population of Addis Ababa for over 70 days, if our calculation is based on a consumption pattern of 110 liters of water per day per capita. That is a lot to be consumed just by a single and costly factory. Do not forget that Lake Haromaya dried and became extinct due to deficit balance between inflows and outflows of water. The deficit was registered to be around 600 thousand cubic meters. Here we are talking about 30 million cubic meters. You can see the danger there. Because of that many academics have projected the lake might completely dry and disappear by the next 20 to 50 years unless we change the course of actions.

What exactly do you mean by losing the lake? Is it in terms of its economic or the ecosystem values?

I want to put it from the perspective of doing things in a sustainable manner. I can list the economic benefits simply by letting the lake as it was. We can start from the tourism industry. The lake is situated in the heart of the country, very near to the capital. It is also adjacent to other tourist attraction sites like Langano, Hawassa and Arba Minch. The lake is too close to the highways. Abiyata is richly known for its bird population; the flamingo birds are abundant there. Other migrating birds take refuge at the lake. It is a vital place for lucrative tourism. The number of visitors and the revenue generated by comparison to other parks is greater in value. Unfortunately, the national park is severely damaged and has got nothing of tourist-centered services in place. However, it is a breathtaking gift of nature. The lake was once a place for algae, known as spirulina. It is known for its highest nutritional values. In Ethiopia it can be found in only three lakes. Lake Abijata, Lake Arenguade and Lake Chittu once were the richest places for having algae; but I am afraid we may not find it in Abijata and Arenguade lakes any more. In 2003, China earned some USD eight million from the export of spirulina. By the next year they increased the production into 60 thousand tons per year and secured their earnings of USD 16 million. That shows how lucrative the resource we used to have was. Due to our failure to preserve and protect patent rights, some citizens of Thailand have taken it without Ethiopia’s recognition. They are making lots of money out of it. The only good thing that can be mentioned is that they sell it by the name of “Arenguade” derived from its birth place, Lake Arenguade. This all can tell you how economically significant the lakes are. Even if it is not yet well studied, Lake Shalla, the deepest of all we have (260 meters in depth), is believed to generate Methane gas. The government of Rwanda generates electricity directly from Lake Kivu. No need to disturb the ecosystem by any means. The same holds true here too. We can do that. In 2009, they valued the electric power generated from the lake to be worth some USD 5.5 million. The soda ash factory that we have is not generating more than a million dollars. The total level of production is decreasing over time. They have higher rates of overhead costs. Making things worse, I hear that they run on the basis of subsidies. However, many local factories are not supplied with the soda ash and they are importing relatively huge amounts. Even if the government follows the path of green economy, we are experiencing a soda ash factory in one of the most naturally gifted lakes in the country. That is not what the green economy is all about. By comparison, the very profitable natural resource is lost while we are doing nothing to preserve it.

So you are questioning the policy too?

The policy is out there. The question is how to implement it.

In what sense is restoration possible while you say some 30 of the lake has already dried up?

It is like human nature. You might get sick for some reason. If you can get the appropriate treatment and medicine, you might be able to recover. The same can apply to Lake Abiyata or other ecosystems. If we appropriately manage manmade interventions in the lake, I believe restoration is possible. The people residing around the lake need to be relocated to other settlement areas. And other measures similar to that will help to bring back the lake to a better state, even if it is difficult to restore it to its original state.

Both manmade and natural factors affect the lake. Which one is the most dangerous for the survival of the lake?

Actually this needs an investigative research. A natural phenomenon cannot be avoided. Saltation and evaporation of the water cannot be avoided. Yes, both natural and anthropogenic factors are hampering the lake. However, we can manage the effects of the later. Let us do what we can do regarding the irrigation and the soda ash production schemes and then witness the changes.

What is your professional advice for what must be done in the near future?  

We have formed a taskforce made up of various stakeholders under the umbrella of Ethiopian Fishery and Aquatic Science Association (EFASA). I am the president of the association and also assigned to chair the task force. At first what we are going to do is make a list of all the major stakeholders to bring them together and hold  discussions with decision-makers. I am quite sure that they will favor efforts of saving the lake.

by:  Berhanu Fekade