It’s probably the best patch on the planet for raptor life, and has an additional 250 bird species and 45 species of mammal including the occasional Leopard. It’s hard to drive as the temptation to look up takes over- interesting things are always flying off the cliffs and out of the gorges that dominate the landscape.
The further you travel into the park, the more you see its sinister, not-so-silent partner, the Olkaria Geothermal Power Plants. Part of Kenya’s growing visions for development, the KenGen operated wells and drills have been part of the area since the 1950’s, but has expanded to cover about half of the park’s 64 square kilometres. Geothermal energy is derived from the heat generated by tectonic processes in geologically active areas: water is pumped below ground where the high temperatures ‘superheat’ it. The resulting steam, powers turbines that in turn generate electricity. It is meant to be an environmentally clean method of power production.
Up until now, it generally has, apart from creating a monotonous drone in the background. However, there have already been environmental impacts: the results of a successful Lammergeyer reintroduction project in Hell’s Gate in the early 2000s were dented as a fledged chick was poisoned on a well outlet, and the plants consume large amounts of water from nearby Lake Naivasha which already has a severely stressed water regime.
New plans of what KenGen plans to do with the park are disturbing and irrational. The current output of the existing power plants are 280 Megawatts (MW) per year and the intention is to expand this to 1075 MW per year by 2025, with the construction of five industrial parks nearby, to cut the costs of energy transportation. This expansion is planned to cover what is left of the national park and much more (plants are planned for the Eburru ranges, Lakes Nakuru and Bogoria). Hell’s Gate is a nationally important breeding area for endangered Ruppell’s Vultures, amongst many other species that specialise in living on cliffs. The vultures have not bred since a drill was placed directly above their cliff sites two years ago.
Two questions need answering here: if geothermal energy is supposed to be environmentally clean, isn’t the reason of using it should be to protect areas such as Hell’s Gate? The Kenyan Rift Valley stretches 1500 kilometres from north to south- why drill specifically in areas with conservation importance? Local conservationists and organisations have yet to receive satisfactory answers, but it beggars belief that something like this could happen in a world where protecting the environment is increasingly important. I recommend you go see it soon, while there’s still time.