- Published on Sunday, 09 September 2012 04:38
- Written by LAWI JOEL
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A FLAMINGO standing on one leg is a magnificent picture. A flurry of them in flight is a splendid view. But both sights are not comparable to the picturesque flamboyance of flamingos wading in Lake Natron.
With that rare splendour, these aquatic birds of the Phoenicopteridae family are unwittingly protecting the local communities from a threatening financial drought if the government builds a soda ash plant in the area as planned. The soda ash industry was initially put forward by Tata Chemicals Ltd in collaboration with the National Development Corporation of Tanzania (NDC). The Tata Chemicals, an Indian global company interested in chemicals, has since withdrawn from the project.
But the government presses on with the plan. “However, in May 2008 Tata announced its withdrawal from the project,” says a study commissioned by Bird- Life International through the Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania (WCST). Mary Saiguran, a local resident of Ngarasaro Village in Ngorongoro District says she does not want the proposed soda ash facility because it could change Lake Natron’s state and drive away the Lesser Flamingo, which tourists come to see.
Ms Saiguran was speaking on August 28 in Dar es Salaam at a workshop on a Comparative Study of Costs and Benefits of Soda ash Mining and Promotion of Ecotourism and Sustainable Use of Natural Resources in Lake Natron Basin, Tanzania. The workshop was organised by Wild Conservation Society of Tanzania (WCST) and BirdLife International who had commissioned the study. “If flamingos go away I shall miss the money I get from tourists who come to see the birds,” she says.
“I, like other Maasai women in the area sell baskets to tourists and other products we make with beads and get a lot of money.” Environmentalists say the birds like the caustic lake, because they feed on algae growing in it. They, however, argue that chemical water from the proposed soda plant will end up in the lake, changing its salinity. That will drive away about 2 million Lesser Flamingo, which come there annually to breed.
“Vulnerability of the Lesser Flamingo is emphasized by the fact that all the East African population is dependent on one single site – Lake Natron for all its breeding requirements,” reveals Paul Nyiti, Senior WCST Conservation Officer. Tanzanian Government and the Indian company Tata Chemicals put forward proposals to build a large-scale industrial plant to extract soda ash from Lake Natron’s water, via a network of pipes across the surface of the lake.
They also plan to construct a new road and a rail infrastructure to serve the soda ash plant. All this development runs counter to the livelihood of the local communities, who argue that the end result will affect the pasture of their livestock in addition to other harms. Lake Natron Conservation Project Manager, Francis Makari, also the area’s local community representative at the workshop held at Utalii College in the city, says that, despite the economic benefits the government trumpets to come from the soda ash facility, the local people do not want the project because of American dollars tourists buy their products with.
In the villages of Ngaresaro and Magadini women build grass huts or bomas tourists stay in for pay. The local community need awareness to welcome the proposed project. But in the ten months that the educational programmes were launched not all the 34 targeted villages were covered, with notably Longido and Namanga left out, prompting a call by some locals for a meeting with stakeholders and government officials to know the benefits of the proposed plant.
“We don’t understand the benefit of the soda industry,” a Lake Natron local resident Musa Nanyambok Lous, Chairman of Magadini Village said. But Mr Makari warns the stakeholders to prepare for fierce resistance because most members of the local communities have already tasted the crisp feel of the dollar note and depend almost 75 per cent on the tourism industry for their daily living. Lake Natron is RAMSAR Convention site, is a breeding site for 75 per cent of the world’s flamingos.
The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, called the Ramsar Convention, is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources. The Ramsar Convention is the only global environmental treaty that deals with a particular ecosystem. The treaty was adopted in the Iranian city of Ramsar in 1971 and the Convention’s member countries cover all geographic regions of the planet.
The Convention’s mission is “the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world”. Lake Natron, one of such ecosystems, is said to be home to about 2 million lesser flamingoes, which come there annually to breed and cover it in a huge blanket of pinkish white with black beaks, long red legs and wings fringed with black plumes. The lesser flamingo aside, Lake Natron attracts tourists with its hot springs and wild life.
The local community grow onions and maize which they irrigate with water from the lake. They fear production of soda from the lake will change all that, ruining tourism and pasture for their livestock. But proponents of the project, keen on it, say the local communities can benefit from gross income of casual labouring during construction phase estimated to be 10 per cent of fixed capital investment, equivalent to US$13,050,000.
“The net benefits from casual labouring during the construction phase of two years for staff sourced locally from villages within Lake Natron were estimated at US$8,352,000,” the CBA report says. Still, the results of the study analysis indicate that the soda plant would deliver far worse returns for local people. “When the WTP values were used in the valuation of direct use and intrinsic values, the losses of benefit at local, national, regional and international levels due to construction of soda ash plant in Lake Natron were estimated to amount to Net Present Value (NVP) of about US$49.8m or US$101.7m for ‘low impact’ and ‘high impact’ scenarios respectively at a social discount rate of 10 per cent equivalent to 50 years,” the report says.
The study found out that the soda as mining project is not worth undertaking at the present level of soda ash market price of US$270 per tonne and a production level of 500,000 tonnes per annum. The costs of the soda ash mining were disproportionate to the benefits of implementing the project at a social discount rate of 10 per cent even when the investor was as assumed to be exempt from paying royalty and VAT.
“The project remained economically unjustifiable even when the investor was as assumed to be exempt from incurring the cost of construction/ rehabilitation of the road to plant and Tanga to Arusha Railway,” the study reveals. Although production arrangements were worth undertaking, they essentially require that the project should operate at the highest production capacity of 1,000,000 metric tonnes per annum throughout the project’s life.
According to the study, experience suggests that this production level is both socioeconomically and environmentally damaging and too hypothetical at the present levels of demand, technology and costs of production, the study says. The opportunistic price of US$412 would trigger more soda ash suppliers and lower the price. The huge expected soda ash price is not likely to occur soon either because of stringent competition from China and other producers of synthetic soda ash.
The local community prefer conservation of the lake to the soda ash project. “In fact they welcomed our Conservation project with a highly positive attitude and their support is high. In short they don’t want the industry at all,” Makari explains. Most members to the workshop advise a more careful study of the project. Sadiki Lotha Laiser, Wild Life Division of the Ministry of Natural Resources says a more detailed understanding of the project with relation to the local villages need be done.
A lecturer at the Sokoine University of Agriculture, Dr Kadigi says the project was a paradox and was likely to cause more damage and was therefore a threat to the integrity of the lakes ecosystem. Members also gave a caution. The soda ash project appeared more deceptive given the question of how the local people will benefit. “Shinyanga Goldmine enjoys the abundance of fresh water from Lake Victoria and electricity, but the local community around them do not and fetch water miles away,” said James Lembeli, Kahama MP, who was also invited to the workshop.
One Engineer Bocco, Deputy Treasurer of Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania says there has been a discovery that the person who owns the soda ash firm in Kenya is the one who wants to build another one in Lake Natron. Some stakeholders think the Lake Natron project was launched on the wrong advice to the government. “We must always be careful with what advice we give to the President,” he said. Nyiti reminds: Ecosystem in several parks in Tanzania is at least partly dependent on the population of flamingoes due to their beauty.”