September 7, 2008

Kenya, Tanzania on Collision Course Over Soda Ash Project

Text of report by Juma Kwayera entitled "Nema makes fresh bid to stop Tanzania's soda ash project" published by Kenyan privately- owned daily newspaper The Standard website on 7 September; subheading inserted editorially

Kenya and Tanzania are headed for a fresh round of confrontation after the former restated its previous position that the planned construction of a soda ash and salt extraction factory on the shores of Lake is economic assault.

A new environment impact assessment report submitted to the governments of the two countries by the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) calls for the shelving of the multi- million shillings project with the capacity to produce half a million tonnes of soda ash per annum for export.

A NEMA official, Mr Martin Shimba, said on Wednesday [3 September] Kenya would not relent on its push for abandonment of the project being undertaken by Tata Chemicals Company of India. The agency wants to save the region's tourism resources and the biodiversity shared by the two countries. The Indian firm is also the majority shareholder in Magadi Soda Company Ltd, which owns the Lake Magadi Soda Ash factory in Kenya.

"Lake Natron is a key factor in east Africa's tourism industry. Construction of a factory would upset cross-border biodiversity," Shimba, the head of environmental impact assessment at NEMA, said.

However, the matter, which The Standard on Saturday established is being dealt with at departmental level, has not elicited the full attention of the central governments.

In the standoff over the Lake Natron's project, Shimba said Kenya has the backing of fellow flamingo range states - Ethiopia, Uganda and Rwanda, besides local (Tanzanian) and international environmental groups that want Dar es Salaam to stay the execution of the project.

The project, which includes the construction of modern roads and airstrip, will cost an estimated 50bn shillings [about 729m dollars].

Kenya's Minister for East African Community [EAC] Affairs Jefa Kingi said although he was aware of the dispute, the matter had not been referred to regional council of ministers. "We'll wait and see if it will be brought before us during the next council of ministers next months. If it does, we shall intervene, but the way matters stand at the moment is not within our jurisdiction. I cannot say much on the matter," Kingi said on Wednesday.

The minister said although the council of ministers, a top decision making organ for the executive branch of the regional body, meets in Arusha next month, the dispute is not on the agenda. "I think the matter has been deliberately kept out of the EAC agenda to give respective ministries of environment in the region to sort it out. That is as good as it should be or else it would create a negative impression," said the minister, alluding to the persistent mutual mistrust and suspicion between the two countries. The minister played down fears that the issue would result in a diplomatic rows.

In Tanzania, the issue has become sensitive following pressure by the opposition and the civil society. They have appealed to the government not to sanction the project. Forced to respond to the allegations that the government had given the green light for the project to go ahead, Environment Minister Batilda Buriani warned the potential investors they risked heavy penalties if they failed to quell environmental and social fears.

Environmental concerns

Tata Group has responded to the minister's threats by announcing that it would move to alternative safer site. However, the move has failed to assuage Kenya. Shimba expressed concerns that opening up the ecosystem to mining would escalate the impact of environmental destruction.

Lake Natron is the nesting site for lesser flamingos following pollution on Lake Nakuru [northwest of Nairobi]. The flamingos attract thousands of tourists to Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

Shimba noted that the threat to Lake Natron's survival comes at time when the Kenyan government is embroiled in controversy with communities that have encroached on Mau Forest [in southwest Kenya], the main water tower for the ecosystem that covers Maasai Mara National Park in Kenya and the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

In its most recent assessment of soda ash and salt extraction project, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said the shared ecosystem links to key protected areas in both Kenya and Tanzania.

The NEMA official said the areas around Ngorongoro Conservation Area and Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, and Maasai Mara National Reserve and Amboseli National Park and the Loita Forest in Kenya face a serious threat unless the Lake Natron project is halted. Opposition parties in Tanzanian and environmental lawyers have broken ranks with the government, which until last year accused Kenya of campaigning against the project to maintain a grip on soda ash business in the region.

Tanzania's Lawyers Environmental Action Team, led by their chair Rugemeleza Nshala, threatened to refer the matter to East African Court of Justice for arbitration if Dar es Salaam insists on going ahead with the project.

Tata Group announced last month that it would move to an alternative site, but both environmental activists in either country are adamant that the plant would be hazardous to the region's natural resources.

Originally published by The Standard website, Nairobi, in English 7 Sep 08.

(c) 2008 BBC Monitoring Africa. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.