Big dam, bigger problems – By Lori Pottinger (LA Times)

May 14th, 2009 Print Print Email Email

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. (more…)

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 dam violates.

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 affecting fisheries.

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 International Rivers.

  1. Tazabi
    | #1

    Eventhough we hate Meles more than any thing, we willnot accept this kind of organised attack on our futer project. As an enviromental engineer I know what you are talking about, not for the saking of ethiopia. After removing ethinical oreinted dictatore , we will build the dam.

  2. Ayeresu
    | #2

    Lori Pottinger and Korinna Horta are environmental fanatics whose persistence on this issue is only matched by the lousy handling of the issue by the Ethiopian government. He made it sound as if there are huge impacts – that it affects indigenous cultures and way of life. Isn’t these indigenous cultures and way of life that they so often describe as backward and try to change it though their many aid organisation. Plenty of counter arguments can be put forward to his argumentation.

    On the other hand Lori is an American whose country has dammed the Colorado river the environmental consequence of which is many times over what the Gilgel-Gibe dam would cause. But in America they needed the dam for their development – irrigated food production, water supply to big cities, power generation, etc. Ethiopia needs this dam desperately as they needed the Colorado dam.

  3. Genuine Ethiopians
    | #3

    What ever premature and narrow minded conclusion you have said about Gilgel Gibe III, you should know that it is the property of Ethiopians not EPRDF or the ruling party dictators. Whether you like it or note, this project will remain forever as an income generating property of the poor Ethiopian people. I don’t think any real Ethiopians interested to read such types of rubbish news.

    I feel that this person is the one who don’t like to see a project with such magnitude in developing countries.

  4. Abebe
    | #4

    Lori Pottinger could simply be a mouth piece to some enemies of Ethiopia. I think such a big project is to the benefit of the Ethiopian people. I am against this article, the mentioned environmental problems are laughable. We know that USA, & China are the largest contributors of the global warming and climate change in the world. But Ethiopia and other coutries are the most affected from the consequences. Mentioning the impact of such a project on thousands of people while disregarding the benefit to tens of millions of people is not acceptable. What I comment is due compensation be given to the most affected groups and it must be insured that the money would be used totaly for the intended purpose

  5. Demissie
    | #5

    Dear Lori Pottinger, I appreaciated your concern and talk on this project. But we are not talking about irrigation(consumptive use)of water. After the generation of electricity the water goes out and reach in uniform flow to the places that you have mentioned in your essay. It is better for you to read (revise) the conditions of the projects before commenting blindly as a literature(essay) writer. This is for Ethiopia and will reach out to the indigeneous people and can go to Kenya too. They don’t have to live without light forever. I wish this project to be finished soon and you will see who get the best benefits. GO ETHIOPIA GO ETHIOPIA FOREVER!!!

  6. Dialectico
    | #6

    Shame on some of us who propagate this empty propoganda. Are we saying that we have to fold our hands and sit down expecting nothing from our natural resources. To hate dictators is something. Gibe is a big river. Generating Hydroelectric power is not a disaster. Know that it is harnessing natural power to maximize its effectiveness.

  7. Aba Jaffar Aba Gobbu
    | #7

    Why on earth the bloody butcher of Addis, the nazi/facist zenawi is doing in the south west Ethiopia being the leader of TPLF. He and his dirty bunches must leave Ethiopia to Ethiopians. TPLF has nothing to do with Gibbe or Omo rivers.

    When TPLF liberates tigre they have to leave Ethiopia unconditionally.

    Can`t the understand that simple equation

    Ethiopia Prevails.

  8. Astewell
    | #8

    The americans (Lorie and The enviromentalists) are trying to tell you that about The envirmental damage out of the America’s past experiance if all of you take the time and effort to educate yourself americans are demolised mast of theie enviromently damaging river dames and restor the natural rethym of the eco-system . If you are an enviromental enginer you should know same thing about this. My suspesion is you are more like meleses cadre. who attack people try to give an honest advise from their experiance. One more thing Pleaseeee do not acuse americans being jelous of ethiopian progress. YOU see jelousee is the tread mark of Eprdf beside looting tones and tones of money in the name of big project like Gebe for as the jelesey suggestion the vishioness of it so huge it divided its people make the ethiopia land locked bring un measurable miseary to the people; in general do damage that non of the forin enemy invaders did.When Eprdf go around beging for money for this kind project it is not for the benefit of the ethiopian people remember the people of ethiopia is the enemy to be destroy . what they relly thinking is like one of the cadre is saying; They are going to develop a huge verigin land with irrigation They are going to produce huge amount of grain or produce then the yare going to export it making tones of money for the benefit one regionof ethiopia the rest of ethiopia will continue to strave. The simple example of this is The exporting of rice when the people of Ethiopia starving exporting of electricity while addis abeba is in the dark.After a few years of exploition of the land ther will be an envrmental degredation fertlizers will seepin into underground watter people will have cancer and dying that is colled popilation control.When the land is comletly destroy They will be moving to the next virgin land until The destraction of this Beautiful countery is complet.SO i am telling you you are not fooling us WE know what you are doing. AND you are a stupid cadree.

  9. Yeferedal
    | #9

    Ethiopia is not the only country in the world constructing dam on rivers, there has been thousands of dams are being constructed all over the world. What makes this Dam different is that this project will save millions of lives of poor Ethiopians from famine deaths. The real concern of the people like Lori Pottinger and Korinna Horta is not its impact on the environment but seeing poor people in Ethiopia being food self-sufficient and independent of their food aid business. They want to see Ethiopians remain always poor and dependent on their handouts. If they were really worried environmental problem they would fight to stop excess carbon emission from industrialized countries instead of crying on a dam which benefits poor and save their lives.

  10. Astewell
    | #10

    My comment stand except for colling stupid cadree STUPID.

  11. Ethiopia
    | #11

    Even if we did not support the dictator regime, woyane, this dam is the property of an Ethiopian poor people. Thus, we should not accept this article.

    This guys really the true enemies of Ethiopia. Probably, he may be an Egyptian or an Italian person. We know that what environment means? So, if you are a professional person, you can write such an article for American, European and Egyptian government where they are the cause of global warming.

  12. Ashenafi
    | #12

    Even if we hate the wenbede gruop weyane or tiger the project is running for the duvelopment of our mother land by devoted EEPCO Engineers.pls stope this type of attak to retard the stretch hand of our brothers.

    Deth to weyane

    May God bless our mother land

  13. jj
    | #13

    This dam has nothing to do with Meles, it was studied planned and implementation started back in Mingistu ear, Gilgelgibe II and III were part of cascade plan. This project is very essential for the development of the nation. The other issue is hydro power is non water consumption project and the regulated water will be utilized to irrigate d/s and benefit down stream dwellers. It is a matter of planning properly. Other than that, I don’t see any problem. In every development there are these fanatical group of Environmentalist, Anthropologist and the like. Shut them out.

  14. yikerbelen
    | #14

    Weyanes are using for begging billions of dollars in the name of gilgel gibe project. the tekeze prject became out of use after consuming 320m dollars.

  15. You’ll stupid
    | #15

    why do you see this lady as an enemy? She has a valid point. How are you all gonna take care of the 250,000 kenyans and some thousands of Ethiopians that depend on Lake Turkana (Rudolf) for food and drinking. Are you all gonna ask for aid again? You morouns!!! You’ll addis ababa bigots that can only think that your cities and your life styles is the only way to go. Think before you speak.

  16. tesfa
    | #16

    It is unlikely that the dam is a genuine aspiration of the EPRDF. It could be a means of getting more IMF fund to reinforce the repressive machine of the Government. If the likes of Pottiger want to help they would do better to campaign against the EPRDF Stalinist Constitution. It is the absence of the rule of law not the building of a Dam that is damaging the lives of Ethiopians.

  17. የቆአራው ካሳ
    | #17

    We have to support the project. There are many other ways of helping the down stream people. Is Abugida the mouthpiece the enemies of Ethiopia? It seems judging frow the few posts about the dam. Some of the posts enirely against the Dam and you deleted one post prior to this. It is a shame that we have ethiopians who are against the strategic interest of Ethiopia. Please do not delete any ppost that stands clearly for the national interest of Ethiopia. I do not mind if you delete this post. I have many other ways of supporting Ethiopia and her people.

  18. Ethiopia
    | #18

    @You’ll stupid

    You yourslef is stupid.why you talk too much with out groud or reason?

    It is just because any peoples in any country do not happy to see the development of ethiopia. otherwise, every country built their own dam but no body asked them. So, shut your mouth on this issue?
    if they went to worry about ethiopians peoples, why they let meles when he killed poor peoples.

  19. Reality
    | #19

    It is not surprising to read such nonesanse belief that if Ethiopia build a dam the enviroment affected and people who live around face bad conqseconses.To me its such a mind that is more polluting and damaging to most of the future of our country and people than the construction of Gilgel Gibe III dam.Don’t such people know that there is a bigger dam of ignorance or stupidity built between their mind and reality? please don’t even try to conviece others about the consequences of dam construction on the enviroment or people who live around ,instead try to learn how you can contribute to the better future of our nation or else you are a pollutant.

  20. From Ethiopia-ከእስር ቤት
    | #20

    Do not worry we are expertise in the field. It is obvious that the dam can cause environmental pollution. However, it is incomparable to its advantage for Ethiopians.
    Keep in mind we are under starvation. Still we are straggling to feed us and looking foreign aids. Our enemies (including donor and some non donor African country) are happy when Ethiopian suffers in war, drought and internal conflict because of many reasons (read Ethiopian history, articles on the role of Egypt, UK, Italian, USA etc on Ethiopian politics).

    The contribution of environmental problem in Ethiopia due to its industrialization inside and outside the country is really too low as compared to other industrialized nations in the world. So, why they are talking about environment in Ethiopia? Why they do not worry the green house gas emission in EU, USA and other developed nation in the world that is more sever than our dam? Do not be foolish you guys, they always need to make us slave for them.
    It is true that all of us are slaves for these groups of peoples until we developed.

    Rather, we can keep our environment free of pollution in other means. This is the responsibility of all Ethiopian in particular the government (woyane).

    God bless Ethiopia!!!

  21. yichalal
    | #21

    Our so called planet firends!Ethiopias HE Damp is not so worrest and disaster as YOURS industiriaL wastematerials,gree hauses and Atomic(COAL) ENERGGIES which are more polious our planet than this dam.So it is better to work in good direction to save our planet if you have lisenable voice.

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