Migrating through the energy maze
As the European summer turns into autumn, millions of birds will head to Africa using the world’s second most-used flyway of soaring birds across the Red Sea and the Rift Valley, over the Middle East and East Africa. While many of these areas seem to be constantly in the news for restlessness and conflicts between people and politics, it’s not a hazard-free passage for the migrating birds either.
Poisoning of agricultural pests, destruction of habitats, illegal killing, and waste disposal all pose threats to the migrants. It might be more surprising to learn that increasingly, energy production also endangers them.
The growing energy demand together with the urgently needed transition to clean and safe energy has led to more than five million kilometres of new power lines being planned to support the renewable energy development in the region in Africa over a period of five years. Despite the good intentions of these policies, wrongly situated and designed energy projects can be disastrous for the soaring migrants. For example, the Port Sudan power line – known as the “killer line” – led to the electrocution of hundreds and perhaps thousands of endangered Egyptian Vultures before being decommissioned.
Cumulative impacts from series of misplaced wind energy farms along the flyway could jeopardise the sustainability of a whole population. Conservation therefore has an important opportunity to be proactive instead of reactive by ensuring that birds are being fully considered and integrated in the planning process.
The dangers are worse for migratory soaring birds. These species use hot air currents to fly so that they can glide ahead without constantly flapping their wings. As a result, they are bound to migrate over land areas, thus creating a few crucial bottle neck passages (like the Red Sea area) on their migration route – a sort of traffic jam of birds flying through narrow corridors of sky. As a result, the impact of incautious energy development is further amplified.
The threats from the energy sector don’t end there. Once the birds reach their wintering grounds, they face destruction or degradation of natural habitats due to renewable energy policies, which in turn increases the demand for bioenergy. New plantations of non-native trees and oil crops for bioenergy are emerging for example in countries like Kenya, Ghana, Mozambique and Tanzania, affecting natural ecosystems all over East Africa.
All of this is why energy is a central piece of BirdLife’s work to protect the thousands of migrating birds passing through the Red Sea to Africa. It is one of the key sectors addressed in the UNDP/GEF Migratory Soaring Birds (MSB) project that Birdlife International is leading and implementing with the support of United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and The Global Environment Facility (GEF). Working in 11 countries along the flyway, including Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, the project aims to ensure that planning and development of energy projects is done in a way that minimizes negative impact on the soaring birds.
As part of the MSB project, numerous guidelines on sustainable development have been created for different groups of stakeholders, and it is already showing results. Collaboration between the Sudanese government and the BSPB (BirdLife partner in Bulgaria) resulted in the disconnection of the “killer line” in Sudan and its replacement with a new fully insulated line safer for birds. A sensitivity map of areas that are important for birds and wildlife has been developed for the region so that it can be used in the planning of new energy projects, and cooperation has been strengthened with the New & Renewable Energy Authority in Egypt.
BirdLife partners in Kenya and Europe also stopped a project that would have cleared 50,000 hectares of biodiversity rich natural forests in Dakatcha, Kenya to produce biodiesel for European markets. Dakatcha is an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area as well as home to thousands of people subsisting off the land.
Nevertheless, much work still remains to be done to make sure that we’ll meet the future energy demand in an environmentally sound way.