- Tata Chemicals Ltd (TCL) has finally withdrawn the much discredited Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) Report for the proposed Lake Natron soda ash plant in Tanzania.
Several national and international non-governmental organisations, including the Lake Natron Consultative Group (a consortium of 32 mainly East African national NGOs) and BirdLife International have opposed the development, fearing that it would pose serious threats to the survival of Lesser Flamingos Phoeniconaias minor and the livelihoods of local communities.
In an apparent response to these concerns, Tata Chemicals told a stakeholder meeting hosted by the World Bank in the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam last week that they had asked the Tanzanian government to disregard the earlier report.
“We have turned down the earlier ESIA report and we have requested the government to throw away the original report as we are working on new studies on the matter,” BirdLife International quoted the new TCL Project Manager, Mr Rahul Singh as saying.
Attended by a wide range of donors, media, government personalities and the private sector, the CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society of Tanzania (WCST, BirdLife in Tanzania) used the meeting to present a strong case for the complete abandonment of the project. In his presentation entitled "Flamingos of Lake Natron, a Tanzanian Treaure," Lota Melamari described Natron's vast flocks of shimmering pink flamingos as one of the world's greatest wildlife attractions.
"This resource must not be destroyed," Lota stressed.
Tourism Services Manager of the Tanzania Tourist Board warned that Tanzania may not achieve its tourism targets if key attractions are destroyed.
"The soda ash proposal must be critically analysed given that Tanzania currently earns over US $1 billion from tourism," Ms Serena Shao said. "Our dream of attracting one million tourists by 2010 may not be achieved if we damage key attractions like Lake Natron."
Tanzania's new Environment Minister, Dr Batilda Burhani, said the investors were free to conduct a fresh ESIA, but they should be aware that unless their report satisfied environmental and social concerns, no approval would be granted.
Dr Burhani added that a new ESIA must be preceded by the development of an Integrated Management Plan for the Lake Natron Ramsar Site which would spell out the future conservation and development agenda for the area.
Conservationists groups applauded the withdrawal of the initial ESIA report and the quick response of the new minister, a clear sign of her responsive to stakeholders in general on this matter.
The groups however maintained that Tata Chemicals and its Tanzanian partner, the National Development Corporation withdraw the project altogether, as shifting the project 32 km away from Lake Natron does not amount to "mitigation" of the serious impacts the project is likely to pose to the Lesser Flamingos and the local communities.
They argued that the project impacts are not limited to the operations of the plant alone but the whole process of brine extraction (including an intricate network of pipes and roads on the surface of the lake as is the case at Lake Magadi in Kenya), pumping and processing.
"There is no way a project of this magnitude can operate without permanently scarring the landscape, and damaging local people’s livelihoods and biodiversity, especially the highly sensitive Lesser Flamingos," said Dr Hazell Shokellu Thompson, BirdLife International’s Regional Director for Africa
The Lake Natron Consultative Group has stepped up its advocacy campaign to save Lake Natron in response to the investors' plans to shift the project to a new site.
“The group plans to engage the organs of the East African Community in debate to prepare them for possible discussion of the matter by the Council of Ministers and to lobby the Speaker and Members of the East African Legislative Assembly to support the group’s position” said th group’s coordinator, Ken Mwathe.
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