Factory Could Disrupt Flamingo Breeding on East African Lake
NAIROBI, Kenya, July 18, 2007 (ENS) - Conservation groups are outraged over a proposed soda ash factory near Tanzania's border with Kenya that threatens the survival of the entire East African population of lesser flamingos. The light pink birds that flock by the hundreds of thousands to the lake each summer to breed attract visitors from around the world.
The plant would be constructed by Lake Natron Resources, a subsidiary of the giant Indian conglomerate Tata Chemicals, to mine 500,000 tons of soda ash, or sodium carbonate, each year. Soda ash is used to produce glass, cosmetics, detergent, paper pulp and other industrial goods.
Lake Natron, in the Great Rift Valley, is known as a soda lake because of its high concentration of sodium carbonate. It is attracts largest number of flamingoes of of the world's five breeding sites - 75 percent of the species. If it is damaged, conservationists say there is no evidence that the birds will breed successfully elsewhere.
Lesser flamingos flock to Lake Natron each summer to breed. (Photo courtesy Safari Images)
The only East African site in which lesser flamingo, Phoenicopterus minor, has bred in the past 45 years, Lake Natron is recognized as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, and as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International.
A draft environmental impact assessment of the project, released July 12 at a workshop in in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, says the proposed factory would pose a significant degree of environmental risk to the 500,000 lesser flamingos that breed there each year.
Conservationists fear the soda ash plant could upset the delicate natural ecology of the lake. Even minute changes in habitat can disrupt breeding by lesser flamingos, which IUCN-World Conservation Union has classed as a near-threatened species.
An ecologist with the Nairobi-based African Conservation Center, Ken Mwathe, says the environment impact assessment confirms what environmentalists have been warning for months.
The report acknowledges that building the plant could result in Lake Natron losing its wetland status and create high levels of light and noise pollution. It says that extracting soda ash would have a significant impact on the chemical composition of the water.
The proposed development will pump 530 cubic meters of brine per hour and produce and export half a million tons of sodium carbonate annually. There may also be a 11.5 megawatt coal-fired power plant and a residential complex to house 152 permanent and 1,225 construction workers expected on the site.
"Flamingos are going to be disturbed during breeding, and therefore, because they are very sensitive to disturbance during breeding, then it is likely that 75 percent of the world's population of flamingos are going to be affected," Mwathe explained, "because Lake Natron is host to the breeding of 75 percent of the flamingos in the world. But then they do not say what are they going to do to deal with that."
The report concludes there are no environmental impacts that would definitely rule out construction. Mwathe says that ignores one of his main worries about the plant - its heavy use of water.
"One of the things that we are concerned about is this plant is going to use 106,000 liters of water per hour," he said. "That is a lot of water in a very dry environment with very few rivers."
"The consultants and the proponents, that is Tata Chemicals, have not done hydrological surveys," Mwathe said. "There is no hydrological data in this report."
Lake Natron is listed as a wetland of international importance because it provides the unique habitat that allows the flamingos to survive. It is full of the bacteria that is their primary diet and is shallow enough for them to build the mud nests where they lay their eggs. Predators like baboons and hyenas are deterred by the lake's high salinity.
Lake Natron Resources wants to bring in heavy machinery to pump water from the lake and build a coal-fired power station and housing for workers on the site.
The lesser flamingo is the smallest of the four members of the flamingo family. (Photo by Adrian Pingstone)
"The chances of lesser flamingos continuing to breed at Lake Natron in the face of such mayhem are next to zero," said Dr. Chris Magin, international officer for Africa with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
"This development will leave lesser flamingos in East Africa facing extinction and should be stopped in its tracks and sunk in water so deep it can never be revived," he said.
Conservationists in Africa and the UK are determined to influence the environmental report before it goes to the Tanzanian government but many were barred from the workshop, including the Lake Natron Consultative Group, which represents several environmental organizations.
Lota Melamari, CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania, the BirdLife partner in Tanzania, attended the workshop. He said, “It is important that whatever decisions are made do not jeopardize the survival of the lesser flamingo, a key component of the tourist experience in East African national parks."
Tata Chemicals and the consultants who did the survey did not respond to reporters' requests for comment, and it is unclear what effect the environmental assessment will have on any decision to build a plant at Lake Natron.
On its website, Tata calls itself the company that cares and says it is recognized as one of the most environmentally responsible in India.
But conservationists are not reassured. Dr. Magin said, "This could be the beginning of the end for the lesser flamingo. Millions of people have enjoyed the spectacle of flocks of flamingos in Tanzania and Kenya and all of that is now in jeopardy."
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.
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