Feb 24, 2011

Oromo: Crime Against Nature Continues at Koka Lake

Pollution on Koka Lake is worsening as pollutants continue to enter a key water source for people and their cattle but the Ethiopian government shows its priority remains to invest borrowed billions in dams



Below is an article published by The Ethiopian Reporter:


Tigist Bekele, 28, a mother of two, often gets to work on her farming field of about one hectare that is located at the back of Ethiopian Tannery Share Company, which is currently under the management of Pittards Plc, a company based in the United Kingdom (UK).

At the rear end of this company, which has been there for over 35 years, detrimental waste products are poured out both in liquid and solid forms. Though the gravity of the impact on the farmers tilling their land, on the ecology of the area, and on the cattle grazing around the vicinity is a little bit less now, the company is still damaging the natural surroundings of the area, Tigist told The Reporter.

In 2005, the management of the Ethiopia Tannery Share Company was taken over by Pittards Plc to further assist in the development of their facilities and its commercial operations. Being the largest tannery in the country, the factory, located around Ejersa, 90km to the southeast of Addis Ababa in the Oromia Regional State, produces leather and leather products from sheepskin, goatskin, and hides.

The finished product of the factory includes gloves, shoes, luxury leather goods, and sport equipment. Though its activities and achievements could be seen as an encouraging one, for the residents of the area the waste products have been viewed as hazardous to the environment.   

Adjacent to the backside of the factory, Tigist grows onions, tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers to provide for her family, the rest of which she could take to the market while. During the dry season, Tigist utilizes the waste water that pours out of the factory as there is no other means for irrigating the farm to keep on producing. It is not only impacting the production of the farm, which has been degrading from time to time after being affected by the acid it discharges, the unpleasant smell it sprays around does also not allow anyone to stay in their farming field, Tigist told The Reporter.

The impact that the factory has on the environment, specific to Koka Lake, has still been going around the table for debate both at the local and international levels. On February 8, the Oromo Studies Organization (OSA) wrote a letter in request of working together with Pittards and other appropriate organizations to conduct environmental assessments of the Koka Lake area. According to OSA, this is meant to establish conclusively the sources of pollutants and to assist the relevant authorities in Ethiopia in devising and implementing a viable remedial plan.

“If Pittards believes that it is not causing harm to the Koka Lake environment, participation in such an endeavor would go a long ways towards dispelling the belief among local residents and others about the tannery’s impact,” an official letter from Haile Hirpha (P.h.D), president of OSA, stated. “Participation would also provide very tangible evidence of Pittards’ stated commitment to sustainable development in Ethiopia.” 

According to Haile’s statement, a scientific study published in August 2002 observed that effluents from the Ethiopia Tannery Share Company (“ETSC”) facility might very likely contain highly toxic waste. In cases where such wastes are available, bioaccumulation of the metals by aquatic biota is inevitable. Such metal accumulations are also very likely to occur in the biota of the terrestrial areas around these lakes.

“A preliminary determination of heavy metal concentrations in the extract of watermelon grown around Lake Koka contained alarmingly high concentrations of chromium, iron, nickel and lead,” Haile stated.

People & Power, an Al Jazeera program, has investigated the destruction of Ethiopia's “once beautiful Koka Lake” and the tragic effects this is now causing to the local population. The episode of People & Power in relation to the Koka Lake was aired on February 12, 2009. 

According to the program, “Today, however, it is so heavily polluted that the water glows a toxic green, most of the fish are dead, and the thousands of people who have no choice but to drink the lake's water each day are left to deal with a range of problems from babies born with birth defects to chronic diarrhea.”

Koka Lake, a reservoir in south-central Ethiopia, was created by the construction of the Koka Dam across the Awash River. The reservoir has an area of 180 sq. km. It was popular with tourists and city-dwellers; there was also a variety of wildlife and birds around the lake. 

The reservoir used to support a fishing industry. According to the Ethiopian Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture, with 625 tons of fish having landed each year, which the department estimates is either 52 percent or 89 percent of its sustainable amount. However, both the reservoir and the dam are threatened with pollutants from the factory and by increasing sedimentation caused by environmental degradation.

Since the southeastern part of the country has been articulated as an industrial zone, it is not only the Pittards factory that has either impacted the area or received complaints from the public. Thus, similar cases has been put to debate, rising from the Akaki-Kaliti area down to Awash River. As many factories were built nearby the course of the water, they dispose of waste products in the ditch of this water.

“When most think of Ethiopia, images of drought and famine spring to mind. What few realize is that the country is currently experiencing phenomenal economic growth. This has come at a cost to the environment and to Ethiopia's poor who depend on it,” the aired program stated.

Throughout the year, children looking over the cattle have been facing health defects, cattle grazing around the area urinate a mixture of blood and urine, and home pets like dogs are dying as they feed from piled desecrates of skin that the factory used to produce leather and leather products, Abu Adam, 14, cattle herder told The Reporter.

“We keep the cattle around the factory’s vicinity as there is no other grazing land nearby, we play and eat our lunch here; so there is little chance to keep ourselves healthy,” Abu told The Reporter.

As reported by “People and Power”, many local residents identify the Pittards-run facility as the ongoing source of pollutants affecting Koka Lake.  A local farmer whose livestock grazes by the tannery’s effluent stream recounted: “What comes from this factory has killed the cattle.  It burns the plants.  It’s not good for harvesting.  It’s not good for people either.” 

However, according to the Pittards group policy, the company has always taken a responsible attitude to the environment and has led the leather industry in adapting and changing manufacturing process to take into account the health and safety of its employees and the impact of its operations on the environment. The factory aims to minimize waste through the stringent use of all materials, supplies, and energy.

“We are committed to creating value for our stakeholders and the communities in which we operate, whilst contributing to the goal of environmental sustainability,” Pittards Group Policy stated.

Boru Robale, 40, a father of seven farming behind the factory, explained that the factory has no good drainage system that keeps the waste liquid from surging into Lake Koka, a tributary of Awash River. Lake Koka has been terribly affected, even the color of the lake has turned ‘green’ and no one could approach to use the water now as before.

“I have over one hectare of land around here which I used to farm chick peas, teff and other cereal products, so as the acid made the cereals unproductive I stopped farming on the land and the local people are using it for grazing,” Boru told The Reporter. “Though I refrain from using the land, the acid won’t stop affecting the cattle, other farmers, and the kids staying around the area.”  

Prior to the establishment of the factory, the lake was utilized for irrigation, drinking, and other multifaceted purpose. Now, the land around the area has been degraded, no irrigation has been used, and the residents have stopped drinking the water as it has started damaging their health to the extent of killing their family, Boru told The Reporter. This lake still flows down to Awash River, which is currently used for irrigation, consumed for drinking, and other purposes as well.

As the factory has no secured fences, dogs easily enter and feed from the waste. Some die here and there, while others head back to the neighborhoods and affect the residents’ wellbeing. The smoke that rises from the burned-solid-waste products disperses throughout the neighborhood and its awful smell makes the residents restless.

In the past two years, the Federal Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) did not conduct monitoring and evaluation regarding the impact the factories have been causing on the ecology and habitat of the surrounding, Shimelis Sima Environmental Monitoring Directorate Director with EPA told The Reporter.

“We are receiving multiple complaints from individuals as well as from Flower Company’s like Red Fox that pollutants dumped from the factories are affecting their livelihood and production,” Shimelis told The Reporter. “Thus, as we are reorganized now as a directorate and we are now ready to monitor the impact that the factories are undergoing on the environment of the area and their production.”

“We (including other farmers) went over to the responsible body, specifically the environmental protection offices of the zone of the Oromia regional government. But their response was unsatisfactory and there’s no change at all so far,” Boru told The Reporter.

“There are incidents where the factory itself threatens someone, who tries to challenge the very impact that the factory has been causing on the area and suffering the habitat, through offering 200 birr for individuals that I know.”       
Some 10 years back, the farmers lost their children and their cattle because of the factory’s’ waste product polluting the area. Among the victims, the family of Boru, Abuna Buta, Dhakara Guyo and Aba Kayo have lost 70, 150, 200 and 200 cattle respectively. Even worse, the latter individual died after losing his mind, caused by the vanishing of his cattle, Dame Yami, 37, a farmer around the area told The Reporter. 

“Though the factory had informed us some five years back that it has planted acid neutralizing machine, the impact from the pollution has never ended”, he added. “Instead, the public has been aware of the damage a little bit more than before, so that way they are able to minimize the negative effect it has been causing on themselves and their surrounding”.

“We don’t know whom we could talk to, after all, since the responsible body of the government and the factory itself has so far not given any solution to the pollution and the impact that has been undergoing on the ecology and habitat around the area,” Dame told The Reporter. “However, we still look forward that this could get solved by anyone who has the feeling of our suffering and understand the degree of the impact on our environment.”

The Reporter tried to contact the John Moriarty, managing director of Pittards Plc for further comment of the issue raised by the residents around the factory. However, as Mr. Moriarty was out of the country, The Reporter could not succeed in receiving the information needed.