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Conservationists Fear Tanzania Flamingos Threatened


Conservation groups are up in arms about a proposal to build a soda ash plant on the shores of a lake in Tanzania that is among the world's most important flamingo breeding grounds. Nick Wadhams reports from our East Africa bureau the company seeking to build the plant has new evidence that it could endanger the flamingos.

A draft environmental impact assessment of the project, obtained by VOA, says the proposed factory on Tanzania's Lake Natron would pose a significant degree of environmental risk to the 500,000 lesser flamingos that come there to breed each year.

The plant would be constructed by Lake Natron Resources, a subsidiary of the giant Indian conglomerate Tata Chemicals, to mine 500,000 tons of soda ash, or sodium carbonate, each year.

Soda ash is used to produce glass, cosmetics, detergent, paper pulp and other industrial goods.

Conservationists fear that could upset the delicate natural ecology of the lake. Even minute changes in habitat can disrupt breeding by lesser flamingos, which the World Conservation Union has labeled a near-threatened species.

An ecologist with the Nairobi-based African Conservation Center, Ken Mwathe, says the report states what environmentalists have been arguing for months.

He says the report, which was circulated quietly last week, has no proposals for dealing with the threat to flamingos.

"Flamingos are going to be disturbed during breeding, and therefore, because they are very sensitive to disturbance during breeding, then it is likely that 75 percent of the world's population of flamingos are going to be affected," he explained, " because Lake Natron is host to the breeding of 75 percent of the flamingos in the world. But then they do not say what are they going to do to deal with that."

Lake Natron is listed as a wetland of international importance because it provides the unique habitat that allows the flamingos to survive. It is full of the bacteria that is their primary diet and is shallow enough for them to build the mud nests where they lay their eggs. Predators like baboon and hyena are deterred by the lake's high salinity.

The impact report seen by VOA acknowledges that building the plant could result in Lake Natron losing its wetland status and create high levels of light and noise pollution. It notes that extracting soda ash would have a significant impact on the chemical composition of the water.

But the report concludes there are no impacts that would definitely rule out construction. Mwathe says that ignores one of his major worries about the plant, its heavy use of water.

"One of the things that we are concerned about is this plant is going to use 106,000 liters of water per hour," he said. "That is a lot of water in a very dry environment with very few rivers. The consultants and the proponents, that is Tata Chemicals, have not done hydrological surveys. There is no hydrological data in this report."

Tata Chemicals and the consultants who did the survey did not respond to requests for comment, and it is still not clear what effect the environmental assessment's findings will have on any decision to build a plant at Lake Natron. On its Web site, Tata calls itself the company that cares and says it is recognized as one of the most environmentally responsible in India.

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