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Badilisha Lugha KISWAHILI

Blackout for Lake Natron Soda ash project

9th October 2011

Any reservoir of hope for government approval and subsequent takeoff of the proposed project for construction of a plant to extract Soda ash from Lake Natron, in Arusha, looks dead following a statement from high level office that nothing could compromise scientific findings on environmental matters.

Lake Natron is a breeding site and home to 70 percent of the world’s bird species, Lesser flamingo due to special conditions that make these birds flourish in that place, some of which include wilderness, breeding habitat and food chain.

The Director of Environment in the Vice-President’s Office, Dr Julius Ningu, told The Guardian on Sunday in an interview that the government was of the opinion that it should preserve sustainable use of natural resources.

“The government position for this particular site is to maintain ecological system so that flamingos continue to breed for the benefit of natural vegetation at the area, that is why we have prohibited any human activities at the area,” he noted.

Dr Ningu added: “When we talk of sustainable use of natural resources, we mean for the benefit of current and future generation, now extraction of soda ash for sure can’t be beneficial to the future generation.”

President Jakaya Kikwete directed last March that the project be speeded up for country’s economic benefits as Kenya benefits from the same project at Lake Magadi. Soda ash is a basic raw material used in the processing and chemical industries.

But the directive could serve little to have the project implemented because the investors, Tata from India, and site developer, the National Development Corporation (NDC), could not meet set conditions on technical matters.

Delays emanating from failure to getting environmental clearance, compounded by anti - campaigns from local and international conservationists led to Tata’s abandonment of the project in 2009.

It had planned to build the plant on the shore of Lake Natron, with a projected investment of $400million to extract estimated 500,000 tonnes of soda ash from the lake per annum and expected to employ 1,200 construction workers and 152 permanent employees.

Dr Ningu expressed further that although he knew that the matter of extraction of sodium carbonate from Lake was cross-cutting to a number of ministries he was sure that finally the scientific findings would prevail against other minor benefits. Ministries involved are Energy and mineral, Industry and trade as well as President’s Office - Investment and Empowerment.

“I know there is this issue of project’s economic benefit and investment attraction, well but any benefit which overrides research and findings from scientists should not be allowed to stand, every key point raised should be dealt properly and if the current investor loses patience then we can have another.”

NDC was quoted in October 2010 as saying it had picked the Institute of Resources Assessment (IRA) of the University Dar es Salaam University to carry out social and environmental impact assessment. NDC Managing Director Gideon Nasari then said the assessment would have assisted to clear the air over the project.

However, the National Environmental Management Council (NEMC) told this paper last July that it was yet to receive the ordered second assessment report, almost 12 months down the line.

NEMC’s Director of environmental impact assessment, Ignas Mchallo, said that the council had not received any environmental impact assessment report after the first one adding that there were also other things like ecological aspects that both the developer and the government needed to acquire in-depth understanding of ahead of development interventions.

On the second EIA, NEMC said that four specific factors were to be made clear in the second assessment as follows; Key plant process issues such as the chemistry, quality and quantity of the products (both the commodities and wastes) and related type and significance of impacts.

The second factor was the project components which were not covered in the first EIA studies like the access roads, the food chain, the hydrology, the lake water chemistry and the socio-economic structures of the communities living in that area.

Other two key factors are: sitting of the plant and its other establishments considering impacts of lighting, noise, discharges and other pertinent features as well as cost-benefit analysis to include the tourism potential in the long term. It is estimated that there are 2.5 million of Lesser Flamingo at Lake Natron, which is the only regular breeding area in East Africa. They feed on a blue - green algae, known as spirulina.

The lake has a shallow depth of less than three metres (10 feet) and varies in width depending on its water level which changes due to high evaporation, leaving high levels of salts and other minerals.

The extraction of soda ash would among other thing involve construction of a factory, during which it would be pumping a large amount of water from lake to the factory and adding fresh water to the lake, a fact raising fears among environmental scientists, activists and wildlife conservationists of affecting the lake’s level of salinity and eventual foreseeable expulsion of flamingo.

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