Above: Pylon being erected near Lake Elmenteita. Copyright Rupi Mangat
Published: Daily Nation 6 November 2019
In the name of ‘development’
It’s mid-morning by the salt-crusted shores of Lake Elmenteita. A flock of Great White Pelicans lift off the islands on the lake in animated ribbons, circling higher and higher on the hot air thermals to fly off to Lake Naivasha or Lake Nakuru. They will spend the day on the lakes on either side of Elmenteita and return at dusk to settle on the islands for the night.
It’s a phenomenal experience to stand under the circling pelicans and hear the ‘swoosh’ of the great birds alternating the ribbon from the black underside to the white above. For these enormous birds, Elementeita’s islands are vital to their very existence for it is one of the few places left in Africa and the only one in East Africa for them to lay their eggs and raise the next generation.
Following the flight path of the pelicans they have to manoeuvre their flight over the recently constructed pylons, a potential death hazard for the birds if they don’t get the required lift from the thermals.
Lake Elmenteita was until two decades ago a peaceful haven lying in the shadows of its two famous siblings in the Great Rift Valley, the fresh water Lake Naivasha and the alkaline Nakuru.
But with Kenya’s rapidly rising population, the area around Elmenteita is today morphing into a busy urban centre with hospitals, hotels, shops and Kikopey, the famous nyama choma eatery. Bush meat trade is rife.
With the increasing concerns about the lake’s welfare, Lake Elmenteita Wildlife Sanctuary measuring 2,534 hectares was gazetted as a wildlife sanctuary on 6th July 2010 and inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011 together with lakes Nakuru and Bogoria
as The Kenya Lakes System in the Great Rift Valley World Heritage Site because of their outstanding universal beauty, including hosting one of the richest bird life in the world amongst other critieria.
There are other accolades. In 2005, Elmenteita was listed as a Ramsar site because it is a wetland of international importance; In 2001 it was listed as an Important Bird Area (IBA) globally recognized as a stronghold for Great White Pelicans because it is one of the only breeding sites in Africa. It is also a flamingo stronghold and an important flight-path for over a 100 species of migratory birds flying from Europe and Asia to escape the winters. It’s also home to the critically endangered Ruppell’s vulture, White-backed vultures and the hooded vulture including the raptors.
Besides the birds, the wildlife sanctuary bordering Soysambu Conservancy is home to lions, leopard, the smaller carnivores, nocturnal aardvarks and a stronghold for the critically endangered Rothschild giraffe.
Elmenteita is also a vital dispersal area for wildlife moving across the three lakes in the Great Rift Valley namely Nakuru-Elmenteita-Naivasha.
Its vast grassland is also an important carbon sink and hence important for clean air that our lives depend on.
But the protected area is under pressure.
Since mid-2019 sky-rocketing pylons from Olkaria to Kisumu are being strung together with transmission lines in Kenya’s endeavour to supply electricity to the nation under the Vision 2030 development blueprint.
Unfortunately, many of these pylons and transmission lines are increasingly passing through protected areas as in the case of Nairobi National Park and now through Soysambu Conservancy of which a small portion is in the Lake Elmenteita Wildlife Sanctuary. It contravenes a moratorium issued by the National Environment Management Authority published in Kenyan newspapers on 9th September 2015 prohibiting any new development in the Lake Elmenteita Ramsar Site Ecosystem until the management plan that is being worked on by the stakeholders that include Lake Elmenteita Wildlife Sanctuary, Soysambu Conservancy, Kenya Wildlife Service, Lake Elmenteita Stakeholders and the community is completed and gazetted.
Flaunting the Moratorium
Cutting right through the Ramsar-listed Lake Elmenteita, the towering pylons are being erected by the Kenya Electricity Transmission Company at a lightning speed of almost one a day. Clearly visible during the day, the tall structures and the transmission lines are an intrusion in an area that is supposed to be left natural. At night, invisible to the migrating birds like flamingos and pelicans they are a death-trap when the birds get entangled in them.
According to reliable sources, there were alternative routes for the pylons that are strung 400 metres apart. Instead, the pylons cut across Soysambu Conservancy and then make a loop adding almost 30 kilometres of power lines for no apparent reason. A more direct route passing over largely inert volcanic landscapes, or along the Nakuru highway with little to no conflict with either bird life or the ‘outstanding scenic beauty’ or tourism operations had been discussed but ignored.
In Conflict with Wildlife Conservation and Outstanding Universal Value near Lake Elmenteita on Soysambu Conservancy
Nobody is against development and power is an essential commodity. Research shows that if power companies made adjustments and worked with people in the know, birds and other animals colliding into pylons and power lines could be avoided.
Soysambu and the Greater Lake Elmentaita Conservation Area (GLECA) undermine the two core values stated by the WHS criteria focussing on ‘an area of outstanding natural beauty and large bird numbers’ of which the Kenya government is a signatory too.
A recent letter dated 25 September 2019 from the Director of the Culture Sector World Heritage Centre Mechtild Rossler to Phylis Kandie Kenya’s Permanent Delegate to UNESCO expresses this concern. “ …the proposed electricity pylon construction in the vicinity of Lake Elementeita …may impact the integrity of the Kenya Lake System in the Great Rift Valley World Heritage Property. ..This line is about 500 meters off the riparian limit of Lake Elementeita and is placed directly in the flight way of pelicans and flamingos”.
Reasons for the Travesty
It’s a complex situation involving the different boundaries such as Ramsar and the WHS around Elmenteita. Nigel Hunter, chairman of the Soysambu board for Soysambu Conservancy explains the reason for allowing the pylons through the protected area.
“Lake Elementeita Wildlife Sanctuary has almost an identical boundary to the World Heritage Site boundary and therefore involves a very small portion of Soysambu Conservancy.
According to him, Soysambu management spent time successfully negotiating with KETRACO that the transmission line be relocated further away from the lake, such that the line is NOT located in the World Heritage Site or its buffer zone and hence avoids Lake Elementeita Wildlife Sanctuary.
“However, the line does traverse Soysambu Conservancy along the south side of the Kikopey-Elementeita village-Nakuru public road, which is not in breach of any moratorium relating to the LEWS or the WHS area,” he states.
According to Nature Kenya, Kenya’s foremost organization on natural history stared in 1909, the structures will increase collision. It recommends re-routing the power lines that will greatly reduce collisions and for KENTRACO to show the mitigation measures along the entire route of the power lines.
The fact is that this power line is part of the National Grid going to Kisumu but the sad truth is that after negotiations, the new routing was agreed on to avoid a compulsory purchase order that would leave even less room for reasoning.
There is concern that Lake Elmenteita Wildlife Sanctuary because of its close proximity to the pylons in Soysambu Conservancy, could be placed as a WHS in danger and eventually delisted.
It begs the question whether protection in protected areas means nothing in the name of development?
More Reading in Published Science Journals
Every research paper in regard of avian electrocution on power lines is a major conservation issue on a global scale and narrows in on the same concerns:
Power distribution line systems will likely always be a hazard for birds and it is unreasonable to expect that all fatalities will be eliminated as long as power line systems exist.
However, through the correct retrofitting of high-risk poles on specific portions of the power line, and with cooperation between biologists, managers, electric companies and the public, the number of electrocuted raptors can be reduced.
In the US, more than 170 million birds are killed by power line collisions. In Africa, with limited research the figures are estimates but of increasing concern.
Kenya is globally famous for its rich bird-life. But it can be jeopradized.