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Geothermal Drilling Is a Threat to Kenya's Wildlife


Geothermal power comes from heat trapped deep under the Earth’s surface. It can be used to generate, or produce, electricity.

Kenya’s Rift Valley is rich in geothermal energy. Some Kenyans believe geothermal resources are the answer to their nation’s energy needs. But most of the drilling sites – areas of exploration -- are in the national park system. Many foreigners go to the parks just to see Kenyan wildlife in their natural environment.

The Rift Valley extends through the heart of Kenya. The area provides a home to many animals and other wildlife. National parks and protected areas can be found along the length of the valley. For some species, these areas are their last hope for survival.

But many Kenyans are coming to depend on the Rift Valley for something else: electricity.

The Olkaria geothermal power center produces 280 megawatts of geothermal electricity. That is enough to meet the power needs of 500,000 homes.

The country hopes to generate 5,000 geothermal megawatts by 2030. Using geothermal energy has already reduced the cost of power. The energy is needed for economic growth in a country where only 23 percent of the population has electricity.

But the Okaria Geothermal center sits inside Hell’s Gate, a national park. That is a concern for environmental activists like Silas Wanjala. He says that Kenyan officials are considering other parks for geothermal projects. It is a coincidence, he says, that these same areas are rich in biodiversity.

“It is a coincidence that these areas are also the only main areas in which we have important biodiversity.”

Geothermal energy is considered “green” or friendly to the environment. Since it depends on the Earth’s natural heat, it is also sustainable, or able to last a long time.

However, the need for roads and other development means geothermal energy can damage the environment.

Simon Thomsett has worked with the birds of Hell’s Gate for years. He says the park is an excellent habitat for rare species. He blames the power generation in the park for the loss of several large birds of prey.

“Everybody recognized it was a fantastic location for raptors. It is full of cliffs, and so that means you have got eagles and vultures that nest on the cliffs. We lost the Lammergier in 1979, we lost the white-backed vulture, and then we started to have a cascade of losses. And the single reason is because of the power generation in the park.”

Silas Wanjala says development has also damaged plant life in the park. And he says large mammals like buffalo are not as healthy as they once were.

Local guides say the development is hurting tourism and threatening their main source of money. Tour guide Robert Kiambati grew up near the park. He says he does not blame visitors for being disappointed. Some, he said, have called Hell’s Gate more of an industrial area than a national park.

“Some tourists complain, and actually on several occasions, we found some even asking for some refund because they did not expect such development in the park. For them it is more of an industrial park than a national park.”

But, Simon Thomsett says it is difficult for conservationists to win the debate on the environment when Kenya is so in need of energy.

“The Wildlife Act is obliged to protect our endangered species, especially. But we also have the needs of the country to produce the power. So there is a huge area of conflict. One side has got to win, and now who has won is the energy side.”

Kenya is not the only African country facing the choice between conservation and energy. Experts predict that Africa’s population will increase sharply during the next 10 to 20 years, and so will its demand for electricity. It appears this conflict has only just begun.

I’m Mario Ritter.

Hilary Hueler reported this story from Naivasha, Kenya. Mario Ritter wrote it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words and This Story

generate - v., to produce something or cause something to be produced

geothermal - adj., of, relating to, or using the natural heat produced inside the Earth

coincidence - n., a situation in which events happen at the same time in a way that is not planned or expected; something unusual

biodiversity - n., the existence of many different kinds of plants and animals in an environment

conservationists - n., someone who works to protect animals, plants, and natural resources or to prevent the loss or waste of natural resources;

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