Tanzania’s plan to produce 1.5 million tons of soda ash annually has raised fears that the breeding ground for flamingos would be whipped out at Lake Natron.
BirdLife International is opposing plans to build two factories at Lake Natron and Engaruka area to generate over $300 million as revenue over environmental degradation concerns.
But the National Development Corporation (NDC) wants building work to start to spur industrial activities arguing that exploitation of Lake Natron’s soda ash deposits will not have negative impacts on the birds’ breeding or the environment.
NDC’s acting Managing Director Mr Mlingi Mkucha said the corporation intends to build a strategic 500,000 tons per annual soda ash factory at Lake Natron and a plant of 1 million tons at Engaruka.
Soda ash, scientifically known as sodium carbonate is an essential ingredient used in water treatment, manufacturing of glasses, detergents, industrial chemicals and processing of mineral ores among others.
Lake Natron is about 220 kilometres to the west of Arusha town in northern Tanzania on the floor of the eastern Rift Valley. Engaruka is approximately 58 kilometres south-east of Lake Natron and is north east of Lake Manyara.
The state owned NDC expects that mining of soda ash will stimulate activities of the construction industry, create employment, boost infrastructure development and improve the living standards of people surrounding the project area.
Mr Mkucha said Engaruka project is likely to start at the end of this year once the environmental impact assessment (EIA) study report is verified and approved by the National Environmental Management Council (NEMC).
“We cannot start implementing this project until EIA has been conducted. The intention is to ensure decision makers consider the environmental impacts when deciding whether or not to proceed with the project,” he said.
NDC with local government authorities are carrying out public awareness on the expected investments arising from soda ash resources discovered at Lake Natron and Engaruka to gain the confidence of local communities.
The soda ash mining project at Lake Natron has not progressed for six years due to concerns it will contravene Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, and affect the greatest flamingo breeding site and habitat in East Africa.
Mr Festo Semanini, head of BirdLife International Office based in Arusha said flamingos use over 90 per cent of Lake Natron and mining of soda ash from could be the greatest ecological mistake the country would make.
“Recent studies have shown that mining would wipe out the lesser flamingos to the detriment of Tanzanian economy and that of other East African countries. Digging the soda ash is the real threat,” he said.
The World Tourism Organisation (WTO) has nominated Lake Natron to be part of a global ecotourism project known as Destination Flyways covering eight countries. Lake Natron is one of only three sites selected in Africa.
Tanzania’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, BirdLife International, the local community and other stakeholders are in the process of developing a funding proposal after a delegation from WTO two months ago was impressed with the tourism potential of Lake Natron.
But mining soda ash will contravene international conventions, critics maintain. During a Ramsar Advisory Mission in February 2008, Tanzania’s government was requested to prepare integrated management plan (IMP) for the lake site.
“The IMP has not been developed to date. A holistic plan for entire area must be developed and all major developments, including road and rail network subjected to Strategic Environmental Assessment,” said Mr Ken Mwathe, Policy and Advocacy Manager at BirdLife International Africa.
Lake Natron is the only regular breeding site for 1.5 to 2.5 million lesser flamingos in East Africa. The birds use Lake Magadi in Kenya and other lakes in the Great Rift Valley as feeding sites.
“Soda ash mining at Lake Magadi has been going on for 100 years but it has not wiped out the flamingo population. However, it would be detrimental at Lake Natron,” said Dr. Chris Magin, the Senior Partner Development Officer at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
In a study completed in 2012 by experts from Sokoine University of Agriculture in Tanzania led by Dr Reuben Kadigi concluded that soda ash mining would deliver negative returns to the Tanzanian economy.
It projected a loss of between $44 million and $492 million over 50 years. Tanzania will gain between $1.28 billion and $1.57 billion in 50 years, if the government invests in tourism and protection of the environment.
“We are working with the Tanzanian government, the conservation community and the UN to develop Lake Natron’s tourism potential. It is essential the soda ash plan be set aside to make this possible,” said Dr Julius Arinaitwe, BirdLife International’s Regional Director for Africa.