Kenya, Tanzania risk confrontation over soda ash project

Kenya and Tanzania are headed for further confrontation after Kenya restated its previous position that the planned construction of a soda ash and salt extraction factory on the shores of Lake Natron …

Kenya and Tanzania are headed for further confrontation after Kenya restated its previous position that the planned construction of a soda ash and salt extraction factory on the shores of Lake Natron is an economic assault. A new environmental impact assessment report submitted to the governments of the two nations by the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) calls for the halting of the project to produce half a million tonnes of soda ash a year from the lake. A NEMA official, Martin Shimba, said on 3 September 2008 that Kenya would not relent in its push for abandonment of the project being undertaken by Tata Chemicals Company of India. The agency wants to save the region“s tourism resources and the biodiversity shared by the two countries. The Indian firm is also the majority shareholder in Magadi Soda Company Ltd, which owns the Lake Magadi Soda Ash factory in Kenya. “Lake Natron is a key factor in east Africa“s tourism industry. Construction of a factory would upset cross-border biodiversity”, Mr. Shimba, the head of environmental impact assessment at NEMA, said. However, the matter, which Kenyan newspaper The Standard reported on 6 September 2008 as being dealt with at departmental level, has not attracted the full attention of the central governments. In the confrontation over the Lake Natron project, Mr. Shimba said Kenya has the support of fellow flamingo range states Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda, as well as Tanzanian and international environmental groups that want Dar es Salaam to halt the progress of the project. The project, which includes the construction of modern roads and an airstrip, will cost an estimated KES 50 billion (USD 729 million). Kenya“s minister for East African Community [EAC] Affairs Jefa Kingi said although he was aware of the dispute, the matter had not been referred to the regional council of ministers. “We“ll wait and see if it will be brought before us during the next council of ministers next months. If it does, we shall intervene, but the way matters stand at the moment is not within our jurisdiction. I cannot say much on the matter”, Mr. Kingi said on 3 September 2008. The minister said that although the council of ministers, a senior decision making organ for the executive branch of the regional body, meets in Arusha in October 2008, the dispute is not on the agenda. “I think the matter has been deliberately kept out of the EAC agenda to give respective ministries of environment in the region to sort it out. That is as good as it should be or else it would create a negative impression”, said the minister, alluding to the persistent mutual mistrust and suspicion between the two countries. The minister played down fears that the issue would result in a diplomatic rows. In Tanzania, the issue has become sensitive following pressure by the opposition and civil society. They have appealed to the government not to approve the project. Forced to respond to the allegations that the government had given the green light for the project to proceed, Environment minister Batilda Buriani warned the potential investors they risked heavy penalties if they failed to settle environmental and social fears. Tata Group has responded to the minister“s threats by announcing that it would move to an alternative safer site. However, the move has failed to reassure Kenya. Mr. Shimba expressed concerns that opening up the ecosystem to mining would escalate the impact of environmental destruction. Lake Natron is the nesting site for lesser flamingos following pollution on Lake Nakuru, north-west of Nairobi. The flamingos attract thousands of tourists to Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia. Mr. Shimba noted that the threat to Lake Natron“s survival comes at time when the Kenyan government is embroiled in controversy with communities that have encroached on Mau Forest, in south-west Kenya, the main water source for the ecosystem that covers Maasai Mara National Park in Kenya and the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. In its most recent assessment of soda ash and salt extraction project, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said the shared ecosystem links to key protected areas in both Kenya and Tanzania. The NEMA official said the areas around Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, and Maasai Mara National Reserve and Amboseli National Park and the Loita Forest in Kenya are under serious threat unless the Lake Natron project is halted. Opposition parties in Tanzanian and environmental lawyers have broken ranks with the government, which until 2007 accused Kenya of campaigning against the project to maintain its hold on soda ash business in the region. Tanzania“s Lawyers Environmental Action Team, led by their chair Rugemeleza Nshala, threatened to refer the matter to East African Court of Justice for arbitration if Dar es Salaam insists on proceeding with the project. Tata Group announced in August 2008 that it would move to an alternative site, but both environmental activists in either country are unyielding in their insistence that the plant would put the region“s natural resources at risk.