Dying by collision: Counting the price of energy traces on birds in Kenya

Richard Kipng’eno stares at a multitude of pink carcasses scattered on the ground. The scene looks horrific. Several dead Lesser flamingos Phoeniconaias minor dot the area which is adjacent to a high-voltage powerline. Richard’s rough estimate puts the casualty numbers between 50 and 100. All are the latest victims of collision with the 132kV Juja-Naivasha-Lanet-Lessos electric line at Soysambu, northwest Kenya.

“Over the years, we’ve seen numerous collision and electrocution incidents involving flamingos, pelicans and other birds along this section of the power line. The situation is quite dire,” says Richard.

Richard’s fears are not far-fetched. The Juja-Naivasha-Lanet-Lessos powerline cuts through a section of the Lake Elementaita Important Bird Area (IBA), a breeding site for Great White pelicans Pelecanus onocrotalus and home to thousands of waterbirds. Over the years, Richard, who has worked in the area as a tour guide, has witnessed the devastating effects of powerline collision and electrocution on birds. As he recalls, these incidents occur frequently but are not reported.

Lesser Flamingo, copyright Nik Borrow, from the surfbirds galleries

“Unfortunately, most of these occurrences go unreported and the relevant wildlife authorities seem not to be that concerned. The situation is dire,” adds Richard.

Worldwide, collision and electrocution by power line are responsible for the death of several species of birds. It is estimated that hundreds of millions of birds die every year from collision and electrocution with power transmission lines.

Double Threat

Running almost parallel to the Juja-Naivasha-Lanet-Lessos powerline is another 400kV line; the soon to be commissioned 308 km Olkaria-Lessos-Kisumu transmission line, another potentially deadly threat to migratory birds. A three-kilometre stretch of the new powerline runs along the southern edge of Lake Elementaita. Its proximity to the shore puts at risk lives of thousands of birds which frequent the lake. Nature Kenya (BirdLife Partner) and other conservation organization are concerned about this development.

“The current routing of the powerline just at the edge of Lake Elementaita is a death trap for birds. This section of the line does not comply with global avian safety standards,” says Dr Paul Matiku, Nature Kenya Executive Director.

“This line is a threat to migratory wetland birds and critically endangered vultures through electrocution and collision. Lake Elementaita and other central Rift Valley lakes are key biodiversity hotspots of local and international importance,” adds Dr Matiku.

Environmental Concerns

Of concern to conservationists is Lake Elementaita’s biodiversity significance. For starters, the lake is the only breeding ground for the Great White pelicans in East Africa. Lake Elementaita, together with lakes Nakuru, Natron and Bogoria, form the Rift Valley alkaline lakes network, a significant part of the flamingo migration. Lake Elementaita is also an integral part of the African-Eurasian flyway. Millions of birds use this flyway to migrate from their wintering grounds in Africa to their breeding sites in Europe and Central Asia.

“Investors need to pay special attention when designing and installing power lines through critical biodiversity hotspots such as Lake Elementaita. Any slight error could be catastrophic to the conservation of birds nationally and internationally,” warns Dr Matiku.

Proponents of the powerline project, led by the Kenya Electricity Transmission Company (KETRACO), claim due diligence was exercised as recommended in a 2009 Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) report. Critics on the other hand, say otherwise. “The ESIA being relied upon by this project is flawed and invalid,” asserts Dr Matiku.

“There were no consultations or any form of engagement with ornithology experts and other stakeholders for this particular project. Design and specifications of all transmission line components were not part of the ESIA and were indicated to have been procured at a later date. The design and components are key determinants of the impacts and mitigation measures of any given project. This was a critical omission and should have formed the basis for review of the ESIA before implementation of the project,” he adds.

Intervention

To date, Nature Kenya has twice written KETRACO and held two meetings seeking to have the contentious 3km section of the powerline halted or rerouted. None of these interventions has borne fruit. The appeal was extended to other stakeholders including the Cabinet Secretary in the Ministry of Energy and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the project’s financiers. The National Environment Complaint Committee (NECC) was also made aware of the issue and has asked KETRACO and the Ministry of Energy to respond to queries raised.

Audience with international conservation institutions was also sought over the matter. These included BirdLife International, the Ramsar Secretariat, and the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS). Ramsar wrote to the Kenyan government seeking a response.

Among recommendations fronted by Nature Kenya to avert bird deaths by collision or electrocution, was halting construction activities to allow for participatory stakeholder engagement. Another suggestion was rerouting of the power line further away from Lake Elementaita. It was also proposed that an ornithological study be conducted to understand the potential negative impacts of the project on birds, with the aim of agreeing on avian safety measures in the project location, design and engineering works.

Other suggestions included; making the transmission line more visible to birds, abandoning overpass of transmission lines and availing maps and GPS coordinates of the entire power line from Olkaria.

Gloom Ahead?

As of January 2021, nothing seems to have changed. Newly installed pylons stand close to the old ones with no rerouting or any other mitigation measure envisaged by the developer. KETRACO remains numb over the issue. Nature Kenya has now written to the Energy and Petroleum Cabinet Secretary over the matter. The National Environmental Complaint Committee has however acknowledged it is aware of the issue and is looking into it.

“We are working on a report on this issue. We have already visited the site in question. Thanks for the continued support of conservation in particular protection of our birds. Please count on our support on conservation efforts,” notes Dr. Chumo Kipkorir, the committee’s secretary, in an email to Nature Kenya.

For Richard and other nature enthusiasts, the omnipresence of electric lines and pylons at Lake Elementatia spells doom to the area’s bird population. And if the latest flamingo death incident is anything to go by, the worst is yet to come.

On its part, Nature Kenya continues to pursue every possible avenue, including engaging relevant stakeholders, to make the country’s IBAs, KBAs and flyways safer for birds.

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