Think pink - Proposed development at Lake Natron, Tanzania: the position of BirdLife International
East Africa’s Lesser Flamingos are one of the world’s greatest bird spectacles. These extraordinary birds feed at, and move between, a chain of alkaline lakes along the East African Rift Valley. However, they depend on just one lake – Lake Natron, in northern Tanzania – as their only regular and successful breeding site.
Lake Natron Resources Limited, a company jointly owned by the Government of Tanzania and TATA Chemicals Limited of Mumbai, India, proposes to develop a facility at Lake Natron to extract and process soda ash. As this proposal stands, it has the potential to damage or destroy the East African Lesser Flamingo population through disrupting the birds’ breeding at Lake Natron. To nest successfully, Lesser Flamingos require very specific conditions. Lake Natron, but no other site, provides these. The proposed plant poses major risks to the Lesser Flamingos from disturbance (including increased populations of nest predators) and changes in the water balance and chemistry of the lake. These risks are so serious that BirdLife International's view is that the plant must not be built.
BirdLife International understands that Lake Natron Resources is carrying out further chemical and hydrological research at Lake Natron, and considering alternative sites and plant designs than those originally proposed. It is the view of BirdLife International that the precautionary principle must apply to any revised proposal. In other words, unless the proponent demonstrates clearly, through sound and convincing science, that the development will not impact negatively on the Lesser Flamingos it should not proceed. A new and thorough Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, dealing with the full range of potential impacts on the environment and people, must also be carried out. At present our understanding of Lesser Flamingo ecology and the hydrology, chemistry and biology of Lake Natron remains very inadequate. Without considerable improvement in our knowledge, that would allow a reliable assessment of potential impacts, it is BirdLife International's view that any industrial-scale extraction of soda ash from Lake Natron poses unacceptable risks. There is a very high likelihood that this will still be the case even with improved understanding.
Lesser Flamingos make an important contribution to tourism in East Africa, economically key for all countries in the sub-region. Lake Natron itself supports a thriving, and growing, tourist industry, with its wild, beautiful and unspoiled landscape being a major attraction. BirdLife International believes there is great potential to develop responsible ecotourism further, as an alternative to mining the lake’s mineral resources. We stand ready to assist and advise at any time.
- Lake Natron Resources Limited, a company jointly owned by the Government of Tanzania and TATA Chemicals Limited of Mumbai, India is proposing to develop a soda ash facility at Lake Natron in the Arusha Region of Tanzania.
- The company plans to construct a soda ash extraction and processing plant and associated infrastructure – coal fired power station, road and rail links, housing, pipelines etc. - at Lake Natron.
- The plans have attracted concern and condemnation from around the world as Lake Natron is designated as a wetland of international importance (Ramsar site) and is a crucially important site for the Lesser Flamingo Phoeniconaias minor.
- At a recent meeting in Nairobi, all 23 organisations in the BirdLife Africa Partnership signed a petition to stop the development. At a meeting of the Mediterranean and West African Flamingo Network in November 2007 in Spain, all 21 flamingo experts attending—including eminent authorities such as the ex-chair of the IUCN Flamingo Specialist Group and present chairman of the IUCN Western Hemisphere Flamingo Group—signed a petition against the project.
Flamingos at Lake Natron
- Lake Natron is the world's most important breeding site for Lesser Flamingos and is the only site in East Africa where they regularly and successfully nest.
- Nearly all of East Africa's estimated 1.5 - 2.5 million Lesser Flamingos (75% of the world population) will have been hatched at Lake Natron.
- Lesser Flamingos are extremely sensitive to environmental disturbance, particularly when breeding. They readily abandon colonies.
- The Lesser Flamingo is classified as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List 2007, as it is vulnerable to disturbance or ecological change at a small set of key sites.
Negative impacts of a soda ash plant at Lake Natron on Lesser Flamingos
- Lake Natron's isolation and wilderness character, untouched by human development, are major reasons why Lesser Flamingos chose to breed there.
- Increased human disturbance as a result of the soda ash plant (e.g. aircraft flights, noise, vehicle movements, lights at the plant, human presence, pollution, and especially the attraction of scavenging predators such as Marabou Storks, eagles and crows) could easily cause Lesser Flamingos to abandon breeding at Lake Natron.
- A soda ash plant is likely to alter the lake's hydrology and salinity, affecting feeding and breeding conditions for Lesser Flamingos, and restricting their access to freshwater which is essential for bathing and drinking.
- Wildlife tourism (or ecotourism) is the major source of tourist revenue in Tanzania. The country earned US$746 million from tourist receipts in 2004, supporting 200,000 direct jobs. The number of tourists visiting Tanzania is expected to grow from 580,000 in 2004 to one million by 2010.
- Ecotourism at many protected areas in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia depends in part on the East African population of Lesser Flamingos.
- Ecotourism at the southern end of Lake Natron generates US$500,000 per year in Tanzania and is a rapidly growing industry that relies on the pristine environment of Lake Natron to give ecotourists a "wilderness experience".
- At the local level there is concern that there will be loss of livelihoods, land and natural resources to the project, and also indirectly to incomers seeking work.
- The Government of Tanzania signed the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance especially as Waterfowl Habitat (the Ramsar Convention), and listed Lake Natron as a Ramsar Site. Contracting Parties are required to take all necessary measures to safeguard the integrity of such sites.
- Lake Natron has been designated as an Important Bird Area – a site of global significance for bird conservation – by BirdLife International.
- Tanzania is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Bonn Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), and the CMS Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA). These agreements require signatories to seek consensus from neighbouring states in the management and development of shared ecosystems. Other Eastern African states have not been consulted and involved in the proposal process.
The Environmental and Social Impact Assessment
- At a meeting of the National Environment Management Council's Technical Advisory Committee in October 2007 to review the development, most participants agreed that the ESIA was inadequate.
- The ESIA concludes that "the project will entail a significant degree of environmental risk for this species [Lesser Flamingo] in the longer term that is not capable of direct mitigation".
- In a critical wildlife habitat and sensitive environment like Lake Natron, the Precautionary Principle should apply. It is up to the proponent to prove that there will be no adverse effects of the project. So far, it has clearly not done so.
- TATA Chemicals, on behalf of Lake Natron Resources Ltd., have suggested they can mitigate the impacts of the project through consultation with flamingo experts such as IUCN and its Flamingo Specialist Group, for example by locating the plant further away from the lake and outside the Ramsar site boundary. Such a substantially changed proposal requires a new and thorough study to assess the full range of environmental and social impacts.
- In the view of BirdLife International, our scientific understanding of Lake Natron and of the Lesser Flamingo’s ecology is currently so scanty that any proposal for large-scale soda ash extraction poses unacceptable risks, and should not be allowed to go ahead.
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