Water, energy and food: These are three essential resources for human wellbeing and they are increasingly put under pressure. As we need to manage them sustainably, it is necessary for us to understand how these three are connected by their usage and their importance for ecosystem services. The Omo-Turkana Basin in Kenya and Ethiopia is nowadays place to an intense pressure on these resources and displays high complexity within its natural resource system.   

The past decades indicated what is about to happen with our water, energy and food resources. All three have been increasingly demanded due to multiple reasons. In some regions of scarcity, these resources are even more pressured, and their use is faced with a growing level of conflicts of interest. Especially water, in its basic and essential function not only for human beings, is named by several authors as the future reason for, even violent, conflicts. Concerning energy production and demand, experts see an increase of 50% while water withdrawals are estimated to increase on average by 10% until 2050. Moreover, an exponentially growing world population, according to the FAO, needs to be translated into a 60% increase in food production production until the year 2050.

In addition to the pressure on resources, resource sectors are increasingly interconnected. Connectivity, consequently, also influences the level of complexity in these multi-resources systems. On the one hand tradeoffs and conflicts of interests arise on the use of these resources. On the other hand, the connectivity gives more chances to use synergies among the resources and to enable a more efficient resource allocation and consumption. Frameworks for resource management are, nowadays, even more important to consider complexity and connectivity. Back in the days, state or national resource managing agencies (too often) ignored interrelations and instead governed resources in isolation. These so called “silo-thinking” approaches led to negative consequences on socio-ecological systems as they failed to ensure water, energy and food security. Still today, thinking silo is often a predominant approach in large parts of the developing world (though it can also be found in industrialized countries).

Considering these recent developments, resource management research has come up with the concept of the water-energy-food nexus. A “nexus” itself is quite an abstract structure which describes relations between multiple variables while stressing the complexity and impacts generated by these connections. For the water-energy-food nexus, a specific nexus type, it refers to the already described, complexity and interrelations of the three vital resources. In the water-energy-food nexus, the compromised credo to ensure sustainable management refers to: dynamics between the nexus variables need to be captured, analyzed and understood.

Omo Turkana Basin

Springing off in the Ethiopian highlands, the Omo River starts its journey southwards to Kenya. At the Kenyan-Ethiopian border the Omo transitions into a delta and finally into Lake Turkana. Roughly, the border marks the transition point from river to lake as the vast majority of Lake Turkana is on Kenyan territory. As the primary tributary to the lake, the Omo is the vital and indispensable source of freshwater inflow. It sustains the complete ecosystem and related ecosystems services and livelihoods. According to a study by Horne and Mousseau (2011), around 300.000 people’s livelihoods are dependent on the ecosystem of Lake Turkana. Around the banks of the Omo River, about 200.000 are assessed as dependent according to the same research. Communities surrounding Lake Turkana live in an insecure: considering past decades, precipitation is decreasing in the region, temperatures are rising above average and water as a resource is getting scarcer. In addition to that, the variability and intensity of droughts increased and pressures on resilience schemes developed by communities. In 2019, again, multiple Kenyan media reported famine and thereby related deaths in many communities in Turkana.

Turkana county, surrounding Lake Turkana, until recently drew few development aspirations and care by the Kenyan state. The peripheral remoteness, the predominance of nomad livelihoods which cannot be taxed as well as violent conflicts between tribes stopped engagement by the government. Turkana is one of the poorest and most vulnerable counties in Kenya. In empirical studies, large parts of the local population showed feelings of marginalization.

Water is the most crucial and scarce resource to the Omo-Turkana Basin communities. On the coasts of Lake Turkana, fishing supports food security. Fields surrounding the Omo river are regularly flooded and thereby possess a higher productivity and are less vulnerable to drought periods. Hereby, a second important resource is introduced: given the climatic conditions and the relative scarcity of the water resource, which is vital for food production, food security is connected to water security. Other than the livelihood models around the Omo River and Lake Turkana which are able to guarantee a higher level of food security, communities practicing (semi-) pastoral activities are threatened by the changing of climatic conditions itself.

Around the turn of the century, the great potential for hydropower generation on the Omo initiated interest of the Ethiopian government and foreign investors. Early on, two dams with integrated power plants were constructed (Gibe I and II). More recently, the third project was initiated and a few years ago had its construction finished. Gibe III is the yet most discussed and controversial project since the beginning of planning in 2006.

Given the nature of dams in many case studies, economic interests of governments and investors collide with the conservation of the ecosystem and livelihood security of the population living downstream. Consent among all stakeholders is that dam construction will indeed alter the flow of the Omo. Nevertheless, there is disagreement on whether the extent of change is even significantly or impacts the downstream socio-ecological system positively or negatively. International media and NGOs covered the exposure of the related livelihoods. A vivid reporting in international press and literature followed.

Within my research in the DAFNE project, I visited both Ethiopia as well as Kenya and got confronted with a wide spectrum of different perspectives. On the one hand, Kenyan ministerial- and NGO representatives pointed out the dangers to the ecosystem and connected livelihoods as consequences of a reduced downstream flow from Gibe III. Multiple studies confirmed that the presence of Gibe III will consequently reduce water flow and thereby the lake level. Reduced or missing freshwater inflow into Lake Turkana reduces fish populations and decreases the water’s usability for livestock and agriculture purposes. On the other hand, Ethiopian ministry representatives named the technique of controlled flooding as their main argument to counter the projected negative consequences. Controlled flooding, as they point out, is likely to even increase water security as the controlled mechanism will allocate water resource more efficiently in times of drought and scarcity. Nevertheless, in practical examination it showed problems in management as well as balancing different interests. Finally, it is much discussed if that feature could potentially help the conflicting situation as it will still lead back to the same conflict of interests which it should calm in first place.

The Ethiopian economy is experiencing a strong growth. Walking through the capital city, Addis Ababa, it is difficult to not come across construction sites. The economic growth, as a result of liberal economic policies, is connected to an increase of foreign investments. Investments, especially from China, are booming not only in Ethiopia but many more countries on the African continent. Not only of foreign businesses though. The sparsely populated Ethiopian lowlands have attracted interests and attention of private businesses and the Ethiopian government which is keen on pushing economic developments. For the case of Ethiopia, 60 % of the national landmass is populated by (semi-) nomadic communities. A proclaimed “development offensive” for these areas of interests developed quickly. In a close relationship, the Ethiopian government and foreign investors developed large commercial agriculture projects as large parts of land were given to national and foreign investors by the state.

The rhetoric applied in these operations describes investments and development of commercial agriculture as initiatives to support yet underdeveloped and backward regions. Consequently, marginalization of large part of the population is actively taking place. Thereby, their forms of livelihood are regularly denounced as less valuable by businesses and state representatives. These practices are then combined with land grabbing and forced resettlement schemes as reported by Human Rights Watch. Alongside the dam construction, these commercial agriculture schemes increase the pressure on water resources as irrigation connects to the retained water resources of the dam.

The dynamics in the Omo-Turkana Basin can be set as a perfect example of the scribed complexity and conflicts of interests within the water-energy-food nexus. Concerning the involved socio-ecological system, uncertainty exists as knowledge is distributed among multiple actors. Perspectives and respective opinions vary among actors who evaluate the situation in different ways. Ever since initial dam construction planning, complexities and interrelations between water, energy and food sectors grew steadily. Today, a highly complex structure of resource systems and the connected socio-ecological system has taken shape. The resulting structure, its difficulty to be governed and conflicting interests finally endanger livelihood security. A governance approach which reduces tradeoffs then needs to offer an understanding of the complexity in the system to ensure sustainable developments.

The DAFNE project

To tackle this task, the EU-funded research project DAFNE was set up. Its dedicated goal, to develop a “decision Analytic Framework to explore the water-energy-food Nexus in complex transboundary water resource systems of fast developing countries”, incorporates the Omo-Turkana Basin as one of two case studies. For the research that I was a part of at University Osnabrück a participatory process was designed to capture the complexity of links between the WEF nexus and social, demographic and cultural variables in the Omo-Turkana Basin. Thanks to the DAFNE project, I was fortunate to travel to Ethiopia and Kenya in 2018 to carry out research by interviewing stakeholders from both countries and different sectors.

Here, find the full research report including my contributions.