THANK YOU, ALWERO AND BARO RIVERS: Gambella, Ethiopia By Getachew Belaineh

October 30th, 2011 Print Print Email Email

Keeping the recurring cycle, the Alwero and Baro rivers recently flooded their floodplains in the Western Gambella region (Ethiopia) to restore its pristine and unique ecosystem that was altered by unguided and unregulated farming activities. Reportedly, the flooding has caused damage to about 120 square kilometers (12,000 hectares) of corn-planted farm owned by India-based Karuturi Global, Ltd. The company announced that the flood on the river banks of Alwero and Baro inundated the farmland, destroying crops that would potentially produced 60,000 tonnes of corn. The damage to the farm is collateral because the company should not have been farming in the floodplains in the first place.

This short commentary is to publicly express gratitude and appreciation to the Alwero and Baro rivers for keeping their promises to safeguard their floodplains and thereby restoring the natural hydrologic and biotic conditions of the region that are essential to the people in the region and the nation at large.

To prevent such damage in the future, the company is preparing to construct about 80 km long and 4-meter high dikes along the banks of the rivers. If everything goes as planned, the construction of the dikes will change the region’s ecosystem and hydrologic trend beyond the land lease term. The dikes will essentially create polders disconnecting the floodplain from the rivers. In other words, the dikes will deprive the Alwero and Baro rivers of the open space they need for drainage during high-flow periods, diverting the floodwater farther downstream for other communities in the Sudan. These floodplains in Western Gambella are not only important to secure water and the livelihoods of people in the region, but they are also necessary for the conservation of forests and habitats. They are particularly important dry-time refuges for wildlife and for many migratory bird species. Needless to mention that the flood also recharges the groundwater system, which serves as a long-term reservoir of fresh water. In short, the company’s farm and dikes will send the natural ecological and hydrological conditions of the floodplain into disarray. Sadly, the national benefit in return to all these environmental disasters is only marginal, if any.

It is naïve to think Karaturi, executive of the company, is unaware of the environmental damage his company is inflicting in the region. It is also a sick joke to assume he will willingly honor environmental protection and labor laws. It would rather be more realistic to think he does not care about environmental protections and labor laws in the country because he is there to run a business and maximize profit. As somebody on Aljazeera puts it, this amounts to corporate colonization. So, who should care?

There is not one iota of evidence suggesting the government is conscious of the complex ecological and hydrological calamity these unregulated, commercial large-scale farms would bring to the region. For instance, Karaturi has hired another Indian Company known as Water and Power Consultancy Service Limited (WAPCOS) to provide consultancy services for the construction of the 80-km dikes disconnecting at least the 12,000 hectares of floodplain from the rivers. Karaturi reported that preparatory work will be finalized in November 2011, and construction will swiftly start on the dikes and cover 5,000 hectares of land per month. The project reportedly will be finished in five months. Is the government in the loop? Is it aware of the consequences of the dikes? Does the lease agreement allow construction of something like this that inflicts permanent alteration to the landscape and ecosystem? Or is this something he is doing on his own?

This author likes to believe that investment in Ethiopia is not based on an honor system. Somebody in the government should carefully evaluate the environmental repercussions before permitting such a major undertaking. In addition to the long term damage the dikes will inflict to the environment, the negative impact during construction is also enormous. The construction of the dikes will require huge earth moving, approximately 3.5 billion cubic meters of borrow material (soil). Where is the borrow pit? What about the land compaction damage the earth-moving machineries cause when moving the borrow material from the source to the dike sites? These and other issues need somebody’s attention to protect the nation’s best interest.

Development through native or foreign investors is a proven method for a nation’s economic betterment. Opening the door for investors without the proper regulatory system in place has also proven to be destructive in the long run. An example of this is Kenya next door, where unregulated flower farms exposed the people to health risks and caused costly damage to the environment around Lake Naivasha.

It is critically important for policymakers to realize that unguided and unregulated land development is not only unsustainable, but also causes more harm than good to the country’s long-term natural resources. Denying the visibly obvious negative impacts will not translate into sustainable benefit. Instead, the government need to position itself to manage and regulate developments in such a manner that it conforms to a predetermined scientific set of policies and comprehensive land use plans. A land use plan provides guidance for securing rational and orderly development of land in an environmentally sound manner to ensure the creation of sustainable benefit. Pre-prepared policies, together with land use-based guidance, will protect human settlement, prevent destruction of indigenous forests that take centuries to develop, provide habitat to numerous wildlife, and preserve floodplains.

The purpose of development guidance and regulation is not to hinder development or to make life difficult for investors. Instead, the main purpose is to ensure the orderly and rational development of land for sustainable growth while accommodating a variety of land uses to meet the needs of the people in the area.

Certainly, there are competent environmental scientists and engineers in the country who can prepare a comprehensive land use plan, provide guidance, and set up regulatory system. Equipment needed for regulating the impact of development on the environment is fairly cheap and commonly available. So what is the problem?

Lack of concern on the part of the policymakers seems to be the prime problem. The secondary problem is the lack of funding required for assembling a functional regulatory institution with a practical regulatory system. A superficial regulatory system is only as good as the paper it is written on. Evidently, investors are not paying enough lease money to support a functional regulatory agency, which gives them a double advantage.

Land leases at low prices and with no regulation. If this is not the “deal of the century,” what else could be?

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