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Tata brew up a storm of protest in East Africa

Published by MAC on 2007-07-19

Tata brew up a storm of protest in East Africa

19th July 2007

In articles, the UK's Guardian and the Environmental News Services have exposed a plan by the Indian conglomerate, Tata, to construct a soda ash processing plant on Lake Natron in Tanzania. It's a plan which the UK's Royal Society of Birds has condemned as "bonkers", alleging that the habitat of one of the world's biggest breeding grounds for flamingos would be ruined. Equally important is that the area is inhabited by the Masaai people, who, aside from cattle herding, have at times been engaged in small-scale mining of soda slabs, and are apprehensive about the environmental and social consequences of the scheme, especially whether it will result in water depletion.

'Bonkers' soda-ash plant will ruin fragile ecosystem

Xan Rice in Nairobi, The Guardian -

12th July 2007

One of nature's most spectacular sights - millions of pink flamingos migrating between the Rift Valley's alkaline lakes - is in danger of disappearing forever, according to conservationists.

Tata Chemicals, part of the giant Tata industrial group in India, plans to construct a soda-ash plant on Lake Natron in northern Tanzania, the most important breeding spot for the endangered lesser flamingo. Each summer 500,000 of the birds, three-quarters of the world's breeding population, fly to the lake to nest.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds yesterday described Tata's plans as "bonkers" and warned that they could ruin the breeding site. It says that India's largest conglomerate, which has entered into a joint venture with Tanzania's government, plans to install heavy machinery on the shoreline to extract half a million tonnes of soda ash, or sodium carbonate, each year. Tata also plans to build a coal-fired power station and house 1,200 construction workers on site.

Chris Magin, the RSPB's officer for Africa, said that the development could leave the lesser flamingo - classified as a "near-threatened species" on the World Conservation Union red list - facing extinction.

"The chances of lesser flamingos continuing to breed at Lake Natron in the face of such mayhem are next to zero," he said.

Lake Natron Resources Limited, in which Tata Chemicals has the major share, has undertaken an environmental impact assessment and will today hold a public workshop in Tanzania to address concerns. But some environmental organisations have been prevented from attending, and the RSPB said only part of the impact report would be made public before it went to the government for approval.

Lota Melamari, chief executive of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania, who is attending the workshop, insisted that birds' survival "must not be jeopardised" in the name of development.

Officials at Tata Chemicals headquarters in India offered no comment yesterday.

Standing between 120cm and 150cm (4-5ft) tall, the lesser flamingo is the smallest of the six flamingo species. There are estimated to be 2.7m of the birds in the world. Around 2m are in east Africa, where they feed on the spirulina bacteria that live in the salty Rift Valley lakes. The spectacle of thousands of flamingos packed closely in the shallow water or flying in giant formations draws thousands of foreign tourists to the Rift Valley every year.

Lake Natron, whose caustic environment prevents predators from reaching their muddy nests, has been the only breeding site for lesser flamingos in east Africa for at least 45 years. Other breeding locations in Namibia, Botswana and India are too far away to attract the birds, which only lay eggs every five or six years and are extremely sensitive to changes in water level and quality. Frequent droughts and deforestation are already a major threat.

Previously, Tata has said that the project will help bring infrastructure and development to the region. The company already owns the Magadi Soda factory on Lake Magadi, just 25 miles north across the Kenyan border, which it bought from the UK firm Brunner Mond in 2005. The lake is one of the few natural sources of sodium carbonate in the world; usually it is produced chemically for use in glass, detergent and paper manufacturing.

The RSPB also warns that Tata may attempt to introduce a hybrid shrimp into the lake to increase its salinity and improve the soda ash yield, which could seriously damage the ecosystem.

"We are not against development but companies and governments need to look at all the options before a project of this sort goes ahead," said Dr Magin. "If not, the damage may be irreversible. "


Tata is at the forefront of India's economic push into Africa, which has until now been overshadowed by China's huge investments and loans on the continent. The conglomerate boasts of having a "significant presence in almost all the major industrial sectors" in Africa. In east Africa, where the large Asian population has also ensured close cooperation with India for decades, the company carries significant influence with local trade officials eager for foreign investment.

Among other businesses, Tata processes coffee in Uganda, assembles vehicles in Kenya and builds agricultural machinery in Tanzania. But as the Chinese companies have learnt, operating in Africa brings with it scrutiny from environmental and other watchdog groups. In Uganda, plans by the Mehta Group, another large Indian industrial company, to clear a quarter of a protected forest reserve in order to plant sugar cane triggered violent anti-Asian protests in the capital, Kampala, in April.

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited

Factory Could Disrupt Flamingo Breeding on East African Lake

Environmental News Service (ENS)

18th July 2007

NAIROBI, Kenya - Conservation groups are outraged over a proposed soda ash factory near Tanzania's border with Kenya that threatens the survival of the entire East African population of lesser flamingos. The light pink birds that flock by the hundreds of thousands to the lake each summer to breed attract visitors from around the world.

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.

Lake Natron, in the Great Rift Valley, is known as a soda lake because of its high concentration of sodium carbonate. It is attracts largest number of flamingoes of of the world's five breeding sites - 75 percent of the species. If it is damaged, conservationists say there is no evidence that the birds will breed successfully elsewhere.

The only East African site in which lesser flamingo, Phoenicopterus minor, has bred in the past 45 years, Lake Natron is recognized as a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance, and as an Important Bird Area by BirdLife International.

A draft environmental impact assessment of the project, released July 12 at a workshop in in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, says the proposed factory would pose a significant degree of environmental risk to the 500,000 lesser flamingos that breed there each year.

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

An ecologist with the Nairobi-based African Conservation Center, Ken Mwathe, says the environment impact assessment confirms what environmentalists have been warning for months.

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

The proposed development will pump 530 cubic meters of brine per hour and produce and export half a million tons of sodium carbonate annually. There may also be a 11.5 megawatt coal-fired power plant and a residential complex to house 152 permanent and 1,225 construction workers expected on the site.

"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," Mwathe 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."

The report concludes there are no environmental impacts that would definitely rule out construction. Mwathe says that ignores one of his main 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," Mwathe said. "There is no hydrological data in this report."

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 baboons and hyenas are deterred by the lake's high salinity.

Lake Natron Resources wants to bring in heavy machinery to pump water from the lake and build a coal-fired power station and housing for workers on the site.

"The chances of lesser flamingos continuing to breed at Lake Natron in the face of such mayhem are next to zero," said Dr. Chris Magin, international officer for Africa with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

"This development will leave lesser flamingos in East Africa facing extinction and should be stopped in its tracks and sunk in water so deep it can never be revived," he said.

Conservationists in Africa and the UK are determined to influence the environmental report before it goes to the Tanzanian government but many were barred from the workshop, including the Lake Natron Consultative Group, which represents several environmental organizations.

Lota Melamari, CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania, the BirdLife partner in Tanzania, attended the workshop. He said, “It is important that whatever decisions are made do not jeopardize the survival of the lesser flamingo, a key component of the tourist experience in East African national parks."

Tata Chemicals and the consultants who did the survey did not respond to reporters' requests for comment, and it is unclear what effect the environmental assessment will have on any decision to build a plant at Lake Natron.

On its website, Tata calls itself the company that cares and says it is recognized as one of the most environmentally responsible in India.

But conservationists are not reassured. Dr. Magin said, "This could be the beginning of the end for the lesser flamingo. Millions of people have enjoyed the spectacle of flocks of flamingos in Tanzania and Kenya and all of that is now in jeopardy.

Threat to the Integrity of Lake Natron, Community Livelihoods and Tourism in East Africa by the Proposed Soda Ash Mining by Tata Chemicals Ltd.

A Press Statement by Lake Natron Consultative Group - http://www.youthfor conservation. org/news. asp?NewsID= 39


19th June 2007


The proposal by TATA Chemicals Ltd, through its subsidiary Lake Natron Resources (TZ) Ltd, to construct a soda ash extraction plant at Lake Natron in Tanzania has come to our attention. TATA Chemicals Ltd, which also owns majority shares in Magadi Soda Company, has submitted to the Government of Tanzania plans to construct a processing plant capable of producing 500,000 metric tonnes of soda ash annually. The plant will have associated infrastructure, including a new 7-metre wide tarmac road, power plant, living accommodations for an estimated 1,225 construction workers and 152 permanent staff and their families. In addition, the plant will consume 11.5 megawatts of power, utilise 106,000 litres of fresh water per hour and release 10,000 litres of sewerage water per hour, among other potential pollutants.

We wish to inform the general public in Kenya and East Africa that Lake Natron and the surrounding rangelands are critical for conservation of biodiversity and sustenance of Maasai community livelihoods at the Kenya-Tanzania border area. Lake Natron is also a Ramsar Site, designated as such under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance. Notably, the lake is unique as it is the only significant and regular breeding site for the majority of the East African population of the Lesser Flamingos, which accounts for 75% of the global population. Globally, Lake Natron is one out of five Lesser Flamingo breeding sites found in Africa and Asia. The Lake and its surroundings are also important for the local Maasai communities as the rangelands hold important wildlife species that include elephants, buffalo, zebra and wildebeest, besides supporting pastoralism, which is the main source of livelihood.

TATA Chemicals Ltd has been undertaking scoping for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) in Tanzania and has subsequently submitted a document to the National Environment Management Council (NEMC) through Norconsult (TZ) Ltd as advertised in the Daily News of 1st November 2006. Further, Norconsult (TZ) Ltd contracted Norken (Kenya) Ltd to undertake an EIA scoping mission in Kenya early this year, the results of which have not been made available. We are also informed that later this month, TATA Chemicals and Norconsult plan to hold a stakeholder workshop in Dar-es-salaam to discuss the EIA report.

We, the undersigned institutions, would like to express our deepest concerns about the proposed project. A large scale project like the one proposed by Tata Chemicals is not appropriate for a fragile ecosystem like Lake Natron and the surrounding areas. It is our considered view that the impacts of such a project on biodiversity, community livelihoods, natural resources and tourism in the Eastern African region are going to be adverse, long term and irreversible and not subject to any form of mitigation.

Our concerns

We wish to voice our concerns as follows:

1. Impacts on Lesser Flamingos - Lesser Flamingos nest in locations that have minimal human interference, such as in the middle of vast salt flats protected by stable shallow flooding due to their sensitivity to disturbance during breeding. Scientific evidence shows that it takes very little disturbance to cause an entire breeding colony to abandon its breeding effort entirely. This can be caused by something as trivial as tourists overflying the nests to take photographs. Lake Natron has been such a successful breeding location for the Lesser Flamingos precisely because of its isolation from human disturbance and its perfect environmental conditions. The mining of soda ash from this lake is likely to gravely affect the breeding and hence survival of this species that is listed in the IUCN Red List of Threatened species.

2. Impacts on tourism and national economies - The impacts of extinction of the Lesser Flamingos will be enormous and far reaching; it will lead to unprecedented damage to tourism industry, in the East African region. In 2006 Kenya earned Ksh. 62 billion (US $) from tourism revenue. It is also a well know fact that the tourism industry in Kenya's central rift is largely supported by the Rift Valley Lakes and the flamboyant flamingos, whose only breeding is now under threat. Furthermore, the proposed project goes counter to the proposal by South Rift Association of Landowners (SORALO), a coalition of 15 Maasai group ranches, to open up the Southern Tourism Circuit with a view to connecting Amboseli and Maasai Mara with support from the Kenya government and European Union through the Tourism Trust Fund (TTF).

3. Damage to local economies & livelihoods -- The proposed project will consume 106,000 litres of fresh water per hour. At this rate, the plant will consume 1,600,000 litres of water within 15 hours -- which is sufficient to meet a day's needs for the 40,000 livestock in Magadi division! Fresh water is extremely scarce in this area; coming from Ewaso Nyiro river System in Kenya and Pinyiny, Moinik and Ngare Sero rivers in Tanzania. Abstraction of such huge amounts of fresh water will therefore create a water crisis in the border area and deplete the resource from springs, rivers and wetlands. As things stand, there is no sufficient water supply to meet domestic, wildlife and livestock needs in the area and the proposed plant will completely destabilise any existing balance.

4. Degradation of the environment, natural resources and loss of conservation gains- It is expected that the proposed plant will lead to an influx of people; increased air and water pollution; general environmental degradation and permanent loss of pristine and wilderness nature of the land. For example, assuming road transport will be used, hauling the 500,000 tonnes of soda ash will require 70 twenty-tonne trucks per day! This affront will snuff out efforts by local communities to promote biodiversity conservation. A case in point are efforts by Shompole and Olkiramatian communities (which border Lake Natron) to set aside 20,000 hectares of their land as special conservation areas. These efforts will come to nought unless the Soda ash mining project is reconsidered.

5. Contravention of Ramsar Convention and other International Agreements -- The Republic of Tanzania is a signatory to various international conventions that do not seem to be taken into account in the proposed project. The key conventions are Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Action Plan of the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds (AEWA) and the Convention on the Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). Implicit in all of these agreements, is the need to protect species and their habitats and more importantly, the need to seek consensus from neighbouring states in the management and development of shared ecosystems. We are gravely concerned that other East African states have not been consulted and involved in the proposal development process. The Ramsar convention advocates for parties to develop management plans for sites listed under its criteria and any development projects only implemented within the framework of such plans. As far as we know, the Republic of Tanzania has not developed a management plan for Lake Natron Ramsar Site.

6. Doubts about the EIA Process -- We are concerned that the Environmental Impact Assessment process has not been participatory. The proponent has not consulted with all interested and affected institutions, communities and individuals. Notable is the fact that the whole process is being undertaken in Tanzania by Norconsult (TZ). In Kenya, Norken Ltd was contracted to carry out a scoping exercise but the results have not been made available. Efforts to contact TATA Chemicals and Norconsult to obtain the project proposal, the scoping document and EIA study report have borne no fruit.

7. Past experiences with TATA Chemicals Ltd -- It is impossible not to think about TATA Chemicals Ltd projects elsewhere, especially the long term mining operations in Magadi, Kenya. A few years ago, the operations in Magadi were expanded by constructing a second plant. This construction was shrouded in secrecy, with the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process ignoring most of the key stakeholders working in the area. Important issues such as water requirements seem not to have been thought through, and currently, part of the new factory has been shut down ostensibly due to acute shortage of water. On the same note, our efforts to trace the Environmental Audit report of the old plant from the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA, Kenya) have been fruitless. We therefore have a strong basis for urging extreme caution based on previous experience.

Our demands

In view of the above, we:

Signed by:

Ken Mwathe
Head of Ecology, African Conservation Centre.
Signed for and on behalf of the following institutions under the umbrella of Lake Natron Consultative Group:

African Conservation Centre (ACC)
Nature Kenya (NK)
East African Wildlife Society (EAWLS)
South Rift Association of Landowners (SORALO)
Kenya Wetlands Forum (KWF)
Youth for Conservation

For more information please contact Tel 892067 or 0733926191 or email



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