Tanzania is determined to go ahead with the construction of a $500 million USD soda ash processing factory on the shores of Lake Natron, despite opposition from local people and international environmental organizations.
A top official of the National Development Corporation (NDC), the state agency behind development of the project, said the factory has been approved by Tanzania’s environmental regulatory agencies, and that the salt marshes and freshwater wetlands on the edges of the lake are not endangered, as claimed by opponents.
“This time, the government will do all it can to ensure the project is realized as planned,” Gideon Nassari, director general of the NDC, said last week.
He said the NDC, which will have a 46 percent share of the project, has prequalified six firms for the construction of the soda ash plant. He declined to name the companies.
Lake Natron is the only regular breeding ground for an estimated 2.5 million Lesser Flamingoes, the smallest but most numerous species of flamingo, whose status has been described by the UN as “near threatened.” Surrounding communities also rely on the lake for fishing.
A consortium of environmental organizations, under the Lake Natron Consultative Group, has intensified the campaign to stop the project, saying it will completely destroy the lake’s ecosystem.
The group has previously said the project is likely to involve pumping water from the lake to facilitate extraction of the sodium carbonate (soda ash).
Soda ash is the main raw material in the making of detergents, glass, chemicals and soaps.
It is estimated the project developers will also put up a housing development around the lake to accommodate an estimated 1,000 employees. In addition, a coal-fired power plant has also been planned on the shores of the lake to supply electricity for the facility.
The pressure to halt the project was intense enough that Indian manufacturing giant Tata pulled out of a deal it had with NDC until the project is approved by the Ramsar Management Plan that was being prepared for Lake Natron. The project has not yet gotten approval.
“The Lake Natron Project, as originally envisaged, has been kept in abeyance and the company will not be in a position to take a view with regard to resumption, till it has had a chance to examine the final approved Ramsar Management Plan currently under preparation for Lake Natron,” Tata said in a previous statement.
“A scientific study on the longer term effects on the chemistry of the Lake Natron water and organisms (like algae) found in the lake would also have to be carried out before the project can be resumed.”
Tata urged Tanzania to abide by international regulations governing project developments on sites considered protected under Ramsar.
The government is preparing an Integrated Management Plan (IMP) for the Lake Natron Ramsar Site under the ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism; it says all development projects in the area will be guided by the plan, once it is put into action.
Lake Natron is estimated to have reserves of at least 4.7 billion cubic liters of soda ash.
It is not clear what measures the government has in place to ensure environmentally friendly extraction and processing of the soda ash.