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Bonkers' soda-ash plant will ruin fragile ecosystem

Published by MAC on 2007-07-12

'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

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