2030 SDGs

Cross-border collaboration on sustainable ecosystems services in the Omo-Turkana basin

Photo: Byelikova Oksana/Adobe Stock

River basin cooperation in the Lake Turkana region

The Omo-Turkana basin forms an ecosystem that supports the livelihoods of over 12 million people in Ethiopia and Kenya.

The Omo river flows through the Ethiopian highlands into Lake Turkana, the world’s largest permanent desert lake on the Kenyan side of the border. The lake swells during the rainy season, extending into the borderlands of Ethiopia. The delta wetland is a key area for fish spawning, for livestock grazing and small-scale agriculture. It is an area under different types of pressure due to socio-economic development, and has potential for conflict between communities as they compete for resources.

With co-funding from the European Union Trust Fund, the basin countries of Ethiopia and Kenya, working with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and with support from UNEP-DHI Centre, implemented a three-year project concerned with sustainable development in Lake Turkana and its river basins.

Improved understanding of the water resources and ecosystems

Under the project UNEP assisted Ethiopia and Kenya to work together to better manage their water resources. The Omo-Turkana borderland is a reservoir of biodiversity: its ecosystems are currently less negatively impacted by development and maintain remnants of plant and animal populations rarely found in other locations. The project supported borderland ecosystems through environmental monitoring and promoting transboundary cooperation. This work is particularly relevant as we enter the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030.

One of the unique characteristics of the project was that it worked directly with borderland communities. UNEP has been on the ground to enhance community awareness by holding discussions with key departments within the local government in the borderlands of Ethiopia and Kenya. UNEP is also assessing opportunities for collaboration in the borderlands on a micro-catchment level to combat environmental degradation and jointly protect water resources.

The project generated new understanding of the status and future of Lake Turkana and its river basins. For a long time, it was thought that the water levels of Lake Turkana were declining due to the Gibe hydroelectric power projects in the Omo river basin in Ethiopia, potentially resulting in “two small lakes” (Avery, 2012). However, studies by UNEP-DHI Centre point to an increase in lake water levels due to climate change, with a significant risk of recurrent severe flooding. This new evidence, although uncertain, calls for a new cooperation strategy by the basin countries.

Other transboundary water management challenges for the Omo-Turkana basin observed during the project are degradation of fish breeding sites in the delta and in Lake Turkana; flooding in the vicinity of the lake; deforestation; and land degradation at the basin scale. These challenges are currently not being efficiently targeted by cooperation between the two countries.

Cross-border cooperation on the regional, national and local management of water and land resources can create long-term benefits for both upstream and downstream users. The project found that, given the dependence of all communities on these water resources, cooperation between basin countries is urgent and important to creating mutual benefits for upstream and downstream users.

Monitoring and Decision Support web portal developed

“Underlying scientific data is a fundamental tool to facilitate policy, decision-making and cooperation”, says Joakim Harlin, head of UNEP’s Freshwater Ecosystems Unit.

To support decision-making, the project created independent data and tools for the basin countries. The UNEP-DHI Centre has developed the Lake Turkana and its River Basins portal. This portal provides over 130 data sets covering the basin area. The portal provides easy access to data on land cover, rangelands, water quality, rainfall, soil moisture and vegetation health. The portal helps users to understand the climatology and biophysical characteristics of the sub-catchments, it provides forecasts of rainfall and indicators for flood and drought management and tools for understanding the impacts of climate change scenarios. It also provides tools for identifying environmental hotspots and evaluation and prioritization of (environmental) interventions, using a state-of-the-art baseline model and indicators for water resources planning. Experts at local and national level have been trained on how to use the data portal. As one user commented: “The portal is user-friendly and exciting to use in terms of data accessibility on transboundary waters.”

Scope for cooperation

In the absence of national-level cooperation, local administrations in the borderlands between Ethiopia and Kenya can play a key role in monitoring and protecting the basin’s ecosystems.

For communities in and around the Omo-Turkana basin, the sense of international borders is not strong. People move back and forth in search of environmental resources, such as pasture for livestock; water for livestock, farming, drinking water and sanitation; flood plains for agriculture and pasture; and bee-keeping opportunities (honey is not only highly nutritious but is valued as a bride price item exchanged between the families).

A particular bone of contention has been fishing on Lake Turkana, with people on the Kenyan side of the border believing activities upstream are diverting water resources from the lake and degrading fish stocks and fish breeding grounds.

Another issue affecting fishing is water quality, which is decreasing due to discharges of agrochemicals, domestic pollution, and water abstraction leading to increased salinity levels. Land degradation leads to erosion and negative impacts of sediment-loading in rivers and lakes. At the same time, hydropower dams can cause a negative impact in that they trap nutrient-rich sediment behind the dam, reducing the productivity of the freshwater ecosystems downstream.

The health of grazing land for livestock is a further source of conflict between the cross-border communities. Conflict can occur over pasture and water rights for pastoralists, especially when these resources are limited, for example due to poor grassland management leading to land degradation, or prolonged spells of dry weather.

Thus far, the project has identified 16 ecosystem services in the basin area, many of which are essential to the people of the borderlands. As many as five environmental degradation hotspots are situated in the borderland areas of Lake Turkana and its river basins. 

The project found that local authorities in the borderland could play a key role in rehabilitating hotspots in certain areas. Activities such as rainwater harvesting, early warning systems for floods and rehabilitating degraded land could benefit from a borderland approach.  While the potential for unmanaged exploitation of natural resources, and conflict, is high, there is scope for collaboration given that cultural practices often have stronger regulatory force than national laws in the region.

About the project

The “Support to Sustainable Development in Lake Turkana and its River Basinsproject was co-funded by the European Union Emergency Trust Fund for Africa through its project on “Support for Effective Cooperation and Coordination of Crossborder Initiatives in Southwest Ethiopia-Northwest Kenya, Marsabit-Borana & Dawa, and Kenya-Somalia-Ethiopia (SECCCI).” The project was implemented by the basin countries of Ethiopia and Kenya, working with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and with support from UNEP-DHI Centre. The focus of the three-year project was to establish a common scientific understanding of Lake Turkana and its river basins and to promote transboundary dialogue.

For more information, please contact Joakim Harlin: joakim.harlin@un.org


Lake Turkana and its River Basins portal

About modelling, scenario analysis and planning tools

About data monitoring and decision support tools web portal

Technical report: Results of Modelling of Future Scenarios of Lake Turkana and its River Basins

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UNEP-DHI Centre on Water and Environment

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