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Under pressure from environmental groups, the Tanzanian government seemed to have backed down, at least for now, from endorsing a proposed soda ash factory near Lake Natron in Arusha that could have threaten the survival of lesser flamingos.

Following a meeting last week between the Tanzanian ministry of environment, National Environmental Management Council (NEMC) and 14 environmental conservation groups, it has been reported that the soda ash project has been thrown out pending further environmental studies by the developer, Lake Natron Resources.

The developer was also told to look for alternative locations for the project. Majority of those who attended the meeting are said to have demanded that “the development should be rejected because of the risk of driving away the flamingos, harming other species and irreversibly damaging Lake Natron, which is protected by international law”. The light pink birds flock in their thousands to the lake from far-away places to breed every year. The flamingos are an important wildlife spectacle in the Great Rift Valley lakes in Tanzania, Kenya and Ethiopia.

Lake Natron Resources, a joint venture between National Development Corporation (NDC) and Tata Chemicals, a subsidiary of Indian conglomerate Tata Group, was planning a $400 USD investment to extract 500,000 tons of soda ash from the lake every year. Soda ash, or sodium carbonate, is an important ingredient in the making of glass, detergent, textile processing, metal refining, cosmetics, paper pulp and other industrial goods. On their corporate website, Tata Chemicals claims that they are recognized as “one of the most energy efficient and environmentally responsible companies in India.”

In the last few weeks, notable conservation groups such as Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania (WCST), BirdLife International and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had vigorously campaigned against the project insisting that it will threaten the eco-system of the region.  They said that drastic human activity on Lake Natron (which accounts for half a million or 75% of world lesser flamingos and is a critical breeding ground for these birds for the last 45 years), could lead to complete extinction of the birds by altering the alkaline lake’s chemical balance, destroying the spirulina, a type of bacteria on which the flamingos feed, giving them their distinct rose-pink plumage. It will also disrupt the lives surrounding of nomadic Masai communities.  

According to The EastAfrican, the project would have involved pumping 100,000 litres of fresh water into the lake and 550,000 litres of brine (saltwater) from the area every hour, for the production of soda ash.

Initially, it was reported that the Tanzanian government had brushed away the environmental concerns over the project, emphasizing instead on the economic benefits of the project, such as a new access road, power plant, railroad, pipeline grid and later a pipeline for fresh water across the lake, houses for an estimated 1,225 construction workers and 152 permanent staff and their families.

 The decision to stop this project on its track and reevaluate its environmental concerns is a crucial victory to all those who would like to see sustainability issues take center stage in  investment decision making process.

 What are your thoughts? Are you happy with the decision to stop this project or would you like it to proceed? Do you think the economic benefits of the project are more important that the environmental concerns?