Turkwel dam: Moi-era project that parallels Arror, Kimwarer

Like the Arror and Kimwarer “fictitious” dams, the Turkwel dam project was cooked up in the smoke-filled kitchen of the Kerio Valley Development Authority (KVDA), a State corporation in the docket of then Energy minister Nicholas Biwott.

Like Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich, Mr Biwott hailed from the Kerio Valley. Like the present dams “project”, Turkwel was a series of scandals.

There was no due diligence done, no environmental assessment, and no open tendering.

When the head of European Union delegation to Kenya Achim Kratz fired a protest note on the scandalous manner in which the contract was awarded to a French company, the Kenyan government demanded his transfer from Nairobi.

The media was not allowed anywhere near the project site. When Washington Post Nairobi Bureau chief Blaine Hardy sneaked to Turkana to snoop around, District Commissioner Wilson Chepkwony, on orders from State House, gave him 30 minutes to leave Turkana.

And when the Financial Times of London wrote on the heist, copies of the paper were confiscated at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport and destroyed.

The week Mr Biwott and his protégé, Finance minister George Saitoti, signed the contract with hand-picked French contractors in January 1986, Mr Kratz dispatched a lengthy protest note to the union’s head office in Brussels.

The contract price was more than three times the amount Kenya would have paid for an international competitive tender.

Unlike previous multipurpose dam projects, which were financed largely through grants or highly concessional loans, Turkwel was financed using commercial loans, a very convenient, purpose-built vehicle for kickbacks and blackmail in event of default by the host country.

For instance, the EU envoy noted that while the French had quoted $277,000 as the price for a single turbine, the prevailing market price was about a third of that.

Transformers were also priced by the French at more than double the international price, the envoy complained.

Worse still, the loan would be repaid in Swiss francs, a very hard currency vis-à-vis a steadily weakening Kenyan shilling.

The Kenya government officials (read Biwott, Saitoti), wrote the envoy, were fully aware of the disadvantages of the French deal “but nevertheless accepted it because of high personal advantages”.

So personalised was the Turkwel project that when the Ministry of Regional Development under which KVDA fell was carved our from Mr Biwott’s Ministry of Energy and Regional Development, President Daniel arap Moi issued an Executive order that the parastatal be retained in Mr Biwott’s docket.

Two years into the construction of the dam, an assessment report funded by the Norwegian government noted that, when completed, the dam would reduce soil-water availability, and have a severe impact on the riverine forest vegetation due to inability to tap groundwater to regenerate.

That has come to pass in the fullness of time.

The report by the Norwegian Aid Development further revealed that the dam was built on a major earthquake fault line and was expected to silt up in about 50 years.

In parliament, Mr Biwott called Turkwel “a landmark in Kenya’s economic development” and “a big step forward”. In then cowered, rubber-stamp Kanu Parliament, nobody questioned him.

However, time has proved him wrong.

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