African Lake Natron salt ash plans, anti-flamingos

In this video, Imogen visits Lake Natron in Tanzania.

From The Nation (Nairobi), in Kenya:

Country Should Oppose L Natron Project

12 August 2007

Francis Mwaura

The migratory flamingo is one of the high-value bird species in Kenya’s tourism industry. All flamingo species in the world are listed in CITES Appendix II for species that need protection.

The Rift Valley lakes of East Africa are home to a large population of greater and lesser flamingos. The lesser flamingo, which is probably the most spectacular, is also listed by IUCN as “near threatened” with extinction.

The flamingos usually operate in a wide range of saline water environments which include lakes Nakuru, Bogoria, Elementaita, Magadi, Logipi Swamp and some coastal sites especially Mida Creek and Rasini Bay in Kenya and lakes Natron, Manyara, Eyasi, Burungi, Bahai and Empakai Crater in Tanzania.

Lake Natron in northern Tanzania at the border with Kenya has remained the only breeding site for the lesser flamingos in East Africa for many years. Lake Natron (850km2) is a shallow (0.5m) closed basin soda lake on the floor of the Rift valley with no direct outlet, which means it can easily suffer accumulation of contaminants.

The flamingo tourism in Kenya and Tanzania is connected to the environmental security of Lake Natron because the lake is probably the world’s most important breeding site for the lesser flamingo, hosting over 75 per cent of the total population in East Africa between October and December every year.

As a result, Tanzania in 2001 designated the lake as the country’s first Ramsar Site or a lake of international importance. Kenya has five such sites, with Lake Nakuru as the oldest having been designated in 1995. Any interruption of the environment at both Lake Natron and Lake Nakuru is likely to seriously affect the regional population of flamingos in East Africa and ultimately birdlife tourism.

Kenyans and indeed the whole world should therefore demand that Tanzania reconsiders the proposed large-scale commercial production of soda ash in Lake Natron by Tata Chemicals Ltd, which is an affiliate of the largest industrial conglomerate in India, which will jointly undertake the project with the Tanzanian Development Cooperation in a 60-40 per cent share arrangement.

Soda ash or sodium carbonate is a common cleansing and bleaching agent and is also usually mixed with sand and lime for glass making. The full details of the environmental impact assessment of the project, which, ideally should have adopted a transboundary approach in accordance to the East Africa Community (EAC) guidelines is not clear. But it is quite clear that the project has the potential of destroying the flamingo tourism industry in the entire region.

The proposed project is planning to establish a soda ash processing plant initially with a capacity of 500, 000 metric tonnes per year, which will later expand to 1,000,000 mtpa. The soda ash production will consume over 500 cubic metres per hour of critical flamingo-supporting brine from the lake and introduce heavy industrial machinery at the lake, including a 11.5 MW coal-fired thermal power station and a sizeable residential complex for staff.

It is said that the Lake Natron project may eventually try to introduce a hybrid shrimp into the lake to increase lake salinity and improve soda ash yields. This could eventually transform the ecological profile of the lake.

Kenyans have several reasons to petition the project but five of them are seriously important and urgent. The first is the project’s proximity to the Kenyan border as well as the huge dependence of Lake Natron on Kenya’s Uaso Nyiro River. River Uaso Nyiro, originates from the Mau Forest and contributes about 23,207km2 of the total drainage basin for Lake Natron.

There is also a likelihood that Lake Naivasha, whose annual 55 million cubic metres southward out-seepage is feeding into the Magadi-Natron system. The long-term destiny of the Lake Natron ecosystem is therefore dependent on Kenya’s efforts towards good environmental stewardship and state of watershed environment in the Uaso Nyiro basin.

The second reason is that large-scale soda ash production can lead to significant environmental pollution through the release of solid, liquid and gaseous wastes. The expected solid wastes include packaging scrap, refractory brickwork from calciners, plastics, waste metal and wood.

These are less serious compared to the effluent gases and dust. The expected effluent gases include carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide mainly from the combustion of coke inside the lime kilns as well as the decomposition of limestone. The others are nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides, ammonia and hydrogen sulphide.

The emission of nitrogen and sulphur oxides can escalate the risk of localised acidification of rainfall which can affect extremely sensitive environments like Lake Natron where the correct water pH is critical for process of flamingo breeding. Studies have shown that dust from soda ash production is 0.1-0.2 kg for each tonne of soda ash. This translates to 50-100 tonnes per year for the proposed project.

The third reason is the high likelihood that the project will affect the life of breeding flamingos. Flamingos are very sensitive to disturbances especially by visitors in their breeding sites. Their choice of nesting sites has very stringent requirements of soil and water chemistry, all of which have been interfered with in most other soda lakes either by industrial pollution or heavy siltation.

The fourth reason is that the giant Tata group of companies have a dismal environmental record elsewhere in the world as experienced in a few cases back in their home country.

Tata Consulting Engineers were involved in construction of the infamous Union Carbide’s factory which eventually caused one of the world’s most shocking industrial disasters in Bhopal, India in December 1994 and exposed almost 500,000 people to a leakage of lethal methyl isocyanate and other deadly gases.

About 20,000 of the victims have since died and 120,000 others continue to suffer devastating health effects. In 2003, an effluent spill from Tata Chemicals’ soda ash factory in Mithapur, Gujarat, encroached over more than 150 acres of the sea in the Kutch Marine National Park. According to the National Institute of Oceanography of India, about 10km of the marine protected area has been considerably degraded due to effluent from the factory.

Finally, both Tanzania and Kenya are parties to treaties and conventions for the protection and conservation of critical environments and natural resources including birdlife. The designation of Lake Natron and Lake Nakuru as Ramsar Sites was undertaken in this spirit.

Dr Mwaura is a senior lecturer in the Department of Geography, University of Nairobi and an environmental consultant.

The impressive lake Naivasha, an official Ramsar site of normally 30,000 ha in size has turned into a shallow mudpool. The lake is at risk of vanishing completely during the current drought ravaging eastern Africa; especially the Horn of Africa, Kenya and Tanzania.

Lake Naivasha news: here.

Heavily polluted and shrinking, Lake Naivasha is in dire trouble. Environmentalists say the cause is clear: flower farms. Some 60 flower farms line the entire lakeside, growing cut flowers for export largely to the EU. While the flowers industry is Kenya’s largest horticultural export (405.5 million last year) it may have also produced an environmental nightmare: here.

Common carp and Louisiana red swamp crayfish are some of the most invasive species on the planet yet how they interact has been poorly understood until now. Scientists investigated their relationship in the waters of Kenya’s Lake Naivasha over eight years: here.

Scientists analysed the behaviour of red swamp crayfish in Kenya’s Lake Naivasha and found that when the water level of the lake was low, the crayfish found additional food sources on land. The study was published in the journal PLoS ONE today (3 August 2012): here.

February 2011. A renowned University of Leicester ecologist who has spent over 30 years researching wetland conservation at Lake Naivasha in Kenya has warned that the country is being “bled dry” by the UK’s demand for fresh flowers. He called on UK supermarkets to show more concern about the health of the natural environment that the flowers come from: here.

5 thoughts on “African Lake Natron salt ash plans, anti-flamingos

  1. Pingback: Kenyan tea workers win strike against Unilever corporation | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Pingback: Save Tanzania’s lesser flamingos | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  3. Pingback: Jellyfish eggs, new research | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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