Date: Thu May 14 2009 - 20:51:55 EDT
Big dam, bigger problems
By Lori Pottinger
May 14, 2009
Right now, the Obama administration is participating in its first annual
meeting of the African Development Bank, which is mandated to fund critical
infrastructure for poor African nations. On the agenda is financing one of
the biggest projects ever considered by the bank, the $2.1-billion Gilgel
Gibe III dam in Ethiopia.
The U.S. government has contributed more than $400 million in the last
three years to the African Development Bank. It is also Ethiopia's largest
aid donor, giving upward of $450 million a year for everything from food
and water to military assistance. American taxpayers have a responsibility
to ensure that this money is well spent.
By any measure, Gibe III is a lousy investment. It is the third element in
a massive five-part dam project on the Omo River and its tributaries. The
Ethiopian government wants to generate power, in part for export, by
"taming" the Omo. But this is the most poorly planned hydropower project
being built on the continent today. The government has cut corners in its
preparation, increasing its risks of economic and technical failure, and it
has done next to nothing to reduce the project's massive ecological and
social footprint. A group of affected people and the organization I work
for, International Rivers, already have filed complaints with the African
Development Bank, citing five social and environmental bank policies the
Gibe III will change forever the Lower Omo River Valley, one of the world's
most isolated regions. It is the homeland of a handful of indigenous
communities, half a million farmers, herders and fishermen who are largely
untouched by modern society. Damming the Omo will wreak havoc with its
natural flood cycles, which underlie the cultures and the traditional
"flood retreat" farming practices of the Mursi, Bodi, Kara and other
communities along it.
The dam will affect ecosystems and disrupt communities all the way to the
world's largest desert lake, Turkana, downstream in Kenya. An oasis of
biodiversity in a harsh desert, Lake Turkana, a World Heritage site,
supports more than a quarter of a million Kenyans and rich animal life. The
Omo River accounts for up to 90% of the lake's inflow. That will be
curtailed by at least 50% as the dam fills, and it will be reduced
thereafter by evaporation from the massive reservoir that will form behind
the dam, according to the African Resources Working Group, which is made up
of international scientists and scholars who work in Ethiopia. Turkana's
salinity -- already high -- will intensify, making it undrinkable and
Such outcomes should have been predicted in project analysis, but Ethiopia
started building the dam before undertaking a thorough environmental impact
assessment. When it finally produced such a report, the project was already
two years into construction and the study, again according to the
independent African Resources Working Group, was "fundamentally flawed."
Ethiopian government officials told the BBC that proper environmental
studies were simply "luxurious preconditions."
The people who depend directly on the Omo's precious water would have
appreciated having the dam's sweeping effects on their lives properly
analyzed before the bulldozers rolled out. International Rivers' studies
show that only a tiny proportion of the people have been consulted or
effectively informed of the changes the dam will bring, in contravention of
guarantees in the Ethiopian Constitution.
For centuries, these unique cultures tied to a harsh landscape have proved
highly resilient, but the dam, combined with climate change, may prove to
be the last straw. These communities need small-scale water supply systems
where they live, increased capacity to grow food crops during times of
drought and other forms of climate-adaptation assistance. Big, centralized
dams will not address these needs.
Climate change brings huge risks not just for riverine people and
biodiversity but for the dam's viability as a development project. Five
major droughts since 1980 already have taken a toll on Ethiopia's economy.
More than 85% of its electricity now comes from large dams; the figure will
be 95% after the dam boom is over. A drought-crippled Gibe III would bring
a sea of red ink to Ethiopia and lead to blackouts and economic
consequences for regional governments that buy its electricity.
The African Development Bank should closely investigate Gibe III and
measure it against the bank's environmental and social standards. Rather
than support such destructive projects, it should help Ethiopia
drought-proof its energy sector, diversify its energy mix, tap its abundant
renewable energy resources and get serious about climate-change adaptation
plans for its river peoples. That is what the United States government
should be supporting at the bank this week, not the Gibe III dam.
Lori Pottinger works in the Africa program of the environmental group