By Adjoa Anyimadu

The fertile banks of Ethiopia's Omo river have become the battleground of a struggle between two opposing camps: those who champion the construction of the Gibe III dam on the Omo, focusing on the potential for hydropower to boost Ethiopia's economic development, and those who feel that the price paid by the Omo's traditional agro-pastoralist communities would be too devastating to ignore.

Fifteen new hydroelectric projects are planned or under construction in Ethiopia, and chief amongst these is the Gilgel Gibe project, a cascade of five dams and power plants on the Omo which is expected to produce at least 4700 megawatts of electricity in total. As Ethiopia's current output of around 800MW falls short of demand, it is clear what an economic difference this project could make. However the latest stage of the project, Gibe III, has been described by local communities, environmental campaigners and human rights groups as the most destructive dam under construction in Africa today. The debate surrounding Gibe III starkly illustrates the issues at stake in the pursuit of hydropower.

The Gilgel Gibe project is located on the Omo, a major river which flows through south-western Ethiopia and empties just over the border into Kenya's Lake Turkana. The first dam in the project, Gibe I, was completed in 2004 and Gibe II, a power plant using water from that dam to produce energy, is now also in operation and is already Ethiopia's most productive hydropower plant.

As of February 2011 Gibe III was forty percent complete, and the dam is expected to be working to full capacity by 2014. At 240 metres high, it will be the tallest dam of its type in Africa and will create a reservoir 150 kilometres long, capable of holding up to 14.4 billion cubic metres of water. Gibe III is anticipated to produce 1870MW, which would make it Africa's second largest hydropower plant, and lead to a 234 percent increase in Ethiopia's output, providing the government with the opportunity to gain revenue from exporting excess energy to regional neighbours. Five hundred MW has already been earmarked for Kenya which, as Ethiopia's downstream neighbour, is also likely to experience some of the dam's damaging environmental effects.

The initial impact of Gibe III's construction will be felt by the half a million Ethiopians maintaining traditional agro-pastoralist livelihoods along the banks of the Omo. At least eight distinct tribal groups are represented in the region, and within these communities 100,000 people practise flood-retreat cultivation, relying on the river's bi-annual floods to deposit rich silt onto the banks in which crops and grass for cattle can be grown.

With the dam in place, this natural flooding cycle will be stopped. The constructors have laid plans for controlled flooding, periodically releasing water from Gibe III for ten-day stretches in a bid to replicate nature. These artificial floods cannot take place until the reservoir is full in 2013, meaning that some will be missed. Government officials have said that food aid will be provided for communities while they are not able to cultivate crops, but if the dam's construction runs into delays, as was the case for Gibe I and II, there is a real risk of creating dependency amongst people who until now have been mostly self-sufficient.

Gibe III is situated close to the Lower Omo Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The area is known as the cradle of humanity because of the discovery of fossils there which provide clues to human evolution. Although a disputed environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA)carried out by the Ethiopian Electricity and Power Corporation (EEPCo) found that nothing of archaeological importance would be affected by Gibe III, it is likely that there will be effects on Kenya's Lake Turkana, another World Heritage Site further downstream.

The Omo contributes between eighty and ninety percent of the water in Lake Turkana, and is its only tributary not to dry out completely during the dry season. There are fears that regulation of the river will lead to decreased water levels at Turkana, which in turn could increase salinity and alkalinity, making it impossible for the forty species of fish currently found in the lake to survive. This would not only negatively affect the impressive biodiversity for which Lake Turkana won UNESCO recognition, but would also impact on the livelihoods of northern Kenyan commercial and traditional fishing communities, and on the region's pastoralists. The desert lake is the only permanent water source in the region, making it vitally important for a variety of groups who may come into competition with each other if water becomes scarce.

A number of organisations have come together to form a 'Stop Gibe 3' campaign. These include the Friends of Lake Turkana, advocacy group International Rivers and the African Research Working Group (ARWG), made up of eight experts on the region, including noted Kenyan paeleontologist and conservationist Richard Leakey. The campaigners have criticised the process by which ESIAs (required to meet international standards set out by the World Commission on Dams and Ethiopia's own environmental law) were made for Gibe III.

According to these groups, construction began before the ESIA had been approved by Ethiopia's Environmental Protection Agency, and the eventual assessment was funded by two interested parties: Salini Costruttori, the Italian company responsible for Gilgel Gibe's construction so far, and EEPCo. Potential funders, including the European Investment Bank, insisted on additional assessments after finding the initial one unsatisfactory.

This is important because there are concerns that the social impact of Gibe III's erection have been downplayed. As part of an ESIA, the communities to be affected by a proposed dam are supposed to be consulted before any construction, but Stop Gibe 3 campaigners have maintained that sufficient consultation did not occur in this case. A report by International Rivers goes as far as to state that the Mursi people living by the river only heard about Gibe III by word of mouth, and still had 'very little idea of what the dam is, or what impact it would have on their life'.

Even if the benefits of Gibe III's construction which would directly affect the communities on the Omo are fully realised - including the provision of local infrastructure, better roads and job opportunities - the argument that these must be the result of a thorough presentation of the pros and cons to those who will be affected is compelling.

Ethiopia's government and Salini have been eager to assert the positives which Gibe III can bring. Salini has emphasised that no houses are located in the valley which would be flooded by the reservoir and that, more importantly, the dam will allow for a gradual move away from flood-retreat cultivation to a more commercially valuable system of irrigated agriculture. There are plans for these more modern practices to completely replace traditional ones at a time deemed 'opportune'.

This fits closely with the aims of Ethiopia's Growth and Transformation Plan. The government's ambitions to increase economic growth to 14.9 percent annually are set out in the Plan, and this depends on a huge increase in agriculture. Only two percent of the rural population currently has access to electricity, and as well as impacting on quality of life, this limits the growth of the agricultural sector that underpins the economy. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has also expressed his intentions for the industrial sector - currently at fifteen percent of GDP - to grow even faster than agriculture, but the productivity of industry is affected by power outages which occur almost daily in urban areas. Government officials estimate that GDP growth has been restricted by up to two percent per year because of the lack of electricity. All of this expansion will require more water and electricity, both of which Gibe III can provide.

In addition to economic benefits, hydropower is seen as aiding food security. Prime Minister Meles has declared his aim to eliminate any dependence on external food aid for Ethiopia by 2015. This is despite almost ten percent of the population requiring emergency food aid last year. More productive, large-scale farming supported by irrigation would be needed to achieve this. It is important to note that not only government voices are raised in support of hydropower in Ethiopia. Others also see Gibe III as a force for good, as the ability to be self-sufficient in electricity production and to export energy to neighbours, sits well with a vision of Ethiopia as a strong regional and continental leader.

The notion that traditional ways of life should be protected has been rebuffed from within Ethiopia as a paternalistic and self-interested Western view. Prime Minister Meles has been quoted as saying that it was an argument made by those who want to keep Africa undeveloped to 'serve their tourists as a museum'. Many agree that such views should not be allowed to get in the way of progress, particularly as the country as a whole can derive definite economic benefits from the construction of huge hydroelectric projects such as Gibe III.

Perhaps inadvertently, the ongoing construction of Gibe III has lent the views of the dam's opponents more weight. It has become clear that it is the thousands of Ethiopians who have, for centuries, lived and depended on the riverine environments who will bear the brunt when dams and hydropower plants are constructed. For this to be endured, they must also be primary beneficiaries of the economic development which hydropower can bring.

Ethiopia's authorities face a difficult task: they must strike a balance between maximising the country's electricity production, respecting the rights and livelihoods of its riverine citizens and ensure that the benefits of economic development are felt by all.

(Adjoa Anyimadu is an Assistant Researcher with the Africa Programme at Chatham House.)


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