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Published On  May 20,  2012
   
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Lake Beseka is notorious for causing trouble due to its expanding waters. Despite similar lakes in Kenya serving as tourist grounds, there are no facilities for such activities here. All construction efforts remain focused on draining the lake, writes Mercy Kahenda, Special to Fortune.

 

Expansion of Lake Beseka a threat to Metehara

 

 

 

Lake Beseka, located in Metehara town, 200Kms East of Addis Abeba, along the transit corridor connecting Ethiopia and Djibouti, is now drowned by the lake, unlike this picture taken four years ago the Ethio-Djibouti Railway Line.

Surrounded by shimmering heat, like being inside a Moroccan spa, in an arid part of Oromia Regional State, lies the renowned Lake Beseka, with its expanding territory, a story known for decades.

The scene of swimming, basking, and idle men along the banks draws the eyes towards the Lake, with birds also covering its shores. Located along the transit corridor connecting Ethiopia and Djibouti in Metehara Town, 200 kilometres East of Addis Abeba, trucks line up along the Lake waiting to be washed while drivers relax in small hotels within the centre.

After driving from Djibouti for more than five hours, Abdi Salim, 53, a petroleum tanker driver on the route, stopped at Metehara for a rest before progressing in his journey to Addis Abeba three weeks ago. Like fellow drivers, he has witnessed the growing expansion of the Lake over the years. When the water overflows onto the highway, which divides the Lake into two, he is forced to drive through it.

This time around, the water level of the Lake totally covers the asphalt road and makes it impassable. The flooding caused a delay of traders and passengers and also drowned the Ethio-Djibouti Railway Line. The urgency of the situation led the local administration and the federal government to take a swift measure. Graders and trucks moved up and down on the shore of the Lake to construct a detour in the shortest time possible.

The uncontrollable flooding of the Lake has been a headache for the Town’s administration. Abdi and his friends used to pay 50 Br for youngsters to clean their tanker. Living in a semiarid area, youths in Metehara walk long distances in search of water. After the expansion of the Lake, the cost of car washing was reduced to 30 Br.

“My truck is constantly kept clean since the washing price along this Lake is affordable with its expansion,” Abdi told Fortune.

The expansion of the Lake has also created a means of income for youngsters like Degsew Kassaye. Degsew makes an average income of 150 Br a day from cleaning vehicles. Due to his cleaning job, he is able to pay his rent, buy food, assist his family, and save the remaining.

Due to the acidic nature of its water, Lake Beseka, among the Rift Valley lakes of Ethiopia, cannot be used for agricultural practises. The Lake bears similar features to salt water lakes in neighbouring Kenya, which, despite their nature, have turned out to be major tourist attraction sites. Kenya has included such lakes in its national park system, built accommodation, and earns a foreign exchange from tourists.

For instance, Nakuru National Park, located in central Kenya, lies along Nakuru Lake, a saltwater Lake with flamingos and other water birds. Known for its sanctuary for endangered black rhinos, the National Park charges a fee of 40 dollars to 80 dollars for foreign tourists. The park is the most accessible park next to Nairobi National Park and receives a high number of visitor numbers, around 100,000 a year, according to Kenyalogy, Kenya’s safari guide website.

Like its Kenyan counterpart in Nakuru, Lake Beseka is a renowned Lake in Ethiopia with its ecology of birds and wildlife, as it is located a few kilometres away from Awash National Park, but has no decent accommodation for foreign tourists. The Lake is neither identified as a tourist attraction site by the local or regional tourism bureau.

Residents around Lake Beseka, like Hassan Omar, a semi-pastoralist and farmer of sorghum and maize, said that its only benefit to locals is its provision of water for cleaning and bathing. Women of the area take the Lake as a blessing because it has saved them from walking long distances in search of water for their consumption. But, for Hassan, who has lived in the Metehara area for more than 35 years, the Lake’s only service is as a location for refreshment after his tiresome ploughing.

 

Four years ago water covered the Ethio - Djibouti highway only during seasonal floods; now the overflow of Beseka forced the federal government to construct a detour. 

“Since the Lake supports no life, I prefer to cool my mind by swimming, bathing, and basking with friends,” said Omar carrying his swimming shorts with a smile on his face.

Despite being a prime spot for residents for their leisure time, Lake Beseka has slowed the economic growth of Metehara Town, due to its unpredictable expansion and flooding, according to Negese Negash, mayor of Metehara Town. The flooding has destroyed properties on 100ht of land allocated for investment.

“Investors fear establishing businesses in Metehara Town due to the expanding Lake, which has resulted in the slow development of the Town,” the mayor told Fortune. “Methara, which used to be a booming centre along the highway, is losing her name.”

The flooding of the Lake has also affected government institutions, like a wereda health centre and Dandi Gudina Elementary School, run by the Gudina Tumsa Foundation, which works in the area of education and natural conservation. After the flooding, the secondary school is closed and its nine-hundred students have been forced to move to one of the three elementary schools within in surrounding.

The recurring overflow of the Lake has also affected Metehara Sugar Factory, located near of the Lake. Established in 1969 on 9,919 hectares, Metehara is the biggest sugar factory in Ethiopia, according to a report by the Ethiopian Investment Agency (EIA). The factory has a current capacity to process 115,000tn of sugar annually, contributing 38pc of the country’s annual production.

The factory reduced its production to 6,000tn of sugar a day instead of its targeted 10,000tn after its farmland for sugarcane decreased because of the expansion of the Lake. The expansion also caused the closing of existing roads and forced Metehara’s trucks to take long routes to the factory. The poor condition of the roads resulted in the falling of sugarcane before reaching the factory, incurring a loss.

The expansion of the Lake has an impact on the future plan of the factory, too. Due to the high demand for sugar for local consumption, the Ethiopian Sugar Corporation had a plan to expand sugar farms to boost production, but it is feared that Metehara may not be in a position to increase its production, due to the expansion of the Lake.

Lake Beseka has had a history of expanding since the 1960s. The Lake used to occupy three to five square kilometres five decades ago, but it alarmingly increased to 40sqkm in 1998. Currently, the Lake occupies to 60sqkm.

Three hypotheses have been forwarded to explain the sudden expansion of Lake Beseka, according to a dissertation titled Growing Lake with Growing Problems by Eleni Ayalew.

The expansion is related to the climate of the region, which could lead to an increase in water inflow to Lake Beseka or reduce water outflow from the Lake, the first theory claims. The second one raises the possible effect of excess water from irrigation practices at the southern edge of the Lake. Changes in the hydro-geological regime of the area might modify the amount of groundwater that flows to the region and then to Lake Beseka, the last hypothesis indicates.

Beyond finding the root cause of the expansion, local residents, who are mainly pastoralists, remain threatened by the recent developments of the Lake. The flooding and expansion of the Lake has reduced the grazing land for cattle, according to Tesfaye Tadesse, director of ground water from the Ministry of Water & Energy (MoWE).

The floods have also left eight families homeless after their houses were swept away, leaving fear among residents of the area. Among the flood victims was Zinash Mekuria, a widow and mother of three who has been living along the Lake, but whose house and property were swept by floods.

Zinash, who make a living out of selling coffee in the centre of Metehara Town, used to live on one of the islands that used to exist along the Lake but was forced to evacuate after her house flooded. She later constructed another house a few kilometres away from the Lake with the support of well-wishers.

“My house used to be at that centre where those young boys are swimming,” Zinash said while pointing a finger at the Lake.

To find a solution for this recurring problem, the MoWE has, so far, spent 35 million to dig drain channels, discharging water into the Awash River, according to Tesfaye. This includes upgrading the existing channel that has capacity of discharging two cubic metres a second and building a new channel of capable of releasing 2.26 cubic metres a second. The 10.5km-long channels built to regulate the flow of the water in order to save Awash River from the high salt content of the Lake.

The discharged water from the Lake has been regulated to be less than two per cent of the total volume of the Awash River, freshwater which is being used to irrigate the sugar plantations and other farms downstream. The decision was reached after a study conducted by the MoWE.

“The Water drained into the River Awash is not harmful for consumption or irrigation,” Tesfaye told Fortune.

Though, the MoWE is working closely with the local administration and the Awash Basin Authority, which took care of the monitoring systems of the Lake, Tesfaye claimed that the rate of expansion of the Lake is increasing and resulting in the pollution of ground water due to its high fluoride content.

Such water can serve as fresh water if it passes through a treatment plant, some have suggested. But, for Tesfaye such a solution is farfetched, due to its high cost. Treatment of a cubic metre of water costs approximately one dollar, he claimed.

Though, the MoWE has been unable to establish a plant, it is trying to train sugarcane farmers with improved farming systems by avoiding surface irrigation that involved channels. Instead of channels, which contribute to a loss of water, the Ministry has introduced drip and sprinkle irrigation systems that use pipes.

Beyond providing such temporary solutions, finding a silver bullet to solve the root problem seems unreachable.

“It is hard to create a lasting solution for the Lake, since the expansion involves global climate change issue,” Tesfaye said.

By Mercy Kahenda,
Special to Fortune.

 

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