Out of 80 million people in Ethiopia, only 15% have access to power.
It’s a staggering statistic. And for a country that boasts rapid economic growth in recent years, an embarrassing truth. In order to continue on the illusive path of development, the delivery of electricity and its associated infrastructure can serve to bolster confidence in a government and have positive outcomes for its people. So when Meles Zenawi and the Government of Ethiopia in 2006 announced it would begin construction on the Gibe III dam, it seemed like a win-win. Once completed this hydropower dam will provide double Ethiopia’s current electricity production and offer the opportunity to sell excess to Kenya through a transmission line – undoubtedly a tantalizing proposition for this East African economy. But for close to 500,000 indigenous peoples living in Ethiopia and in the northern region of Kenya, the reality is that the dam threatens to ruin the natural environment and their very way of life.
Part of a series of hydroelectric stations already constructed along Ethiopia’s Omo River, Gibe III (if completed) will become the tallest dam in Africa. Like the Gibe projects that came before it, Gibe III began without an approved Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA)– a process mandated under Ethiopian environmental law. Two years after construction began, and ESIA was completed and approved, but by most all accounts lacked scientific credibility. A hydrology study that was eventually commissioned by the African Development Bank (AfDB) found that environmental audits performed by the Ethiopian officials in the planning of the project completely ignored or underreported most environmental – and therefore social – impacts of the dam.
The study found that, most directly, the dam would eliminate the Omo River’s natural flood cycle. An artificial flood was designed along with the dam, but it will last only 10 days in comparison with the flood build up that naturally occurs over the course of several months. Experts are convinced that the artificial flood will not only be bad ecologically, but will also fail to support household livelihoods and the regional economy. The natural flooding cycles create a fertile floodplain that allows for food cultivation along the shores of the Omo. Close to 100,000 Ethiopians rely on these soils for household food production, and further are able to trade their cops with herders and other farmers in the region. Disruption of this natural cycle could prove to be a devastation for Ethiopians in the Omo River Valley, similar to the hunger and increased poverty experienced during previous years of drought.
Gibe III’s environmental impacts don’t just stay within Ethiopia (surprise!).
Just across the border in Kenya lies Lake Turkana, the largest desert lake in the world. Situated in the Rift Valley, the lake has sustained life since our earliest human ancestors walked its shores. Now Lake Turkana supports life for 300,000 indigenous Kenyan’s from diverse tribes through food production, livestock grazing and watering, and fishing. In the tumultuous region susceptible to drought, it is their best hope for avoiding hunger and violent conflict. But Lake Turkana receives 90% of its water from inflows from the Omo River. The AfDB study found that, contrary to the Ethiopian government’s assessment, Gibe III threatens the health of Lake Turkana, and the indigenous people who rely upon it, in several different ways.
Once construction is completed, the Gibe III’s reservoir will need to be filled – a process expected to take several years. The AfDB study estimates that in the first year alone, this will deprive Lake Turkana of 85% of its total natural inflow and result in a drop in water levels of 7-10 meters. Combined with water loss due to climate change, this has the potential to dry up some of the Lake’s most productive fishing areas. All this in the first year alone – let alone once the dam continues full operation and power production.
Lake Turkana boasts an incredible level of biodiversity, including crocodiles, hippopotami and over 40 different species of fish. But the lake is naturally almost saline, and its ability to support this life is delicate. The Gibe III reservoir, in addition to storing water, will also capture sediment loads from the water. This has the potential to lead to severe downstream erosion, and an associated change in water quality that could ruin the lake’s biodiversity.
Lake Turkana’s indigenous tribe’s inhabit areas void of modern infrastructure, and are often already heavily dependent on humanitarian aid during times of drought. Conflict is common among these communities, and violent customs such as cattle raids can become more prevalent when resources are scarce. Combined with changing drought patterns that last much longer and occur more frequently than in the past, there is a fear that by changing the river flow, the Gibe III dam will be a tipping point for food insecurity and increase conflict among these communities.
Unsurprisingly, the indigenous peoples in Kenya and Ethiopia who will be affected by Gibe III have not been consulted on the project, keeping in trend with the political marginalization they typically experience. The United Nation’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples seeks to protect them and ensure that they have the right to determine the use of their land and natural resources. The Gibe III process has quite clearly failed to consider this. The AfDB study found that not only were the priorities of indigenous people in the region not taken in to consideration, many of the people interviewed in the Omo Valley and the Turkana region who would be affected by the dam were not even aware that it was under construction. Unfortunately for Ethiopians, their government is notoriously unsympathetic to the needs of more rural indigenous people, as evidence by previous large-scale relocations and the like. But in the Turkana region, the Friends of Lake Turkana have proved a strong advocate for the indigenous peoples who rely on the lake for survival, and work tirelessly to halt or change the path forward for the dam.
There is no doubt in my mind that Ethiopia needs electricity. But the Gibe III dam project seems, at best, misguided. The negative impacts on indigenous peoples in both the Omo Valley and the Turkana region is incredible and undeniable. By going forward with the construction while fully aware of the threats to livelihoods for close to 500,000 people, the Government of Ethiopia is making a definitive choice to put the needs of a few, mostly urban dwellers, above the needs of a much larger, and even more insecure, section of the population. Frustratingly, the bulk of the power generated by the Gibe III dam will not actually benefit Ethiopians, and instead will be sold to Kenya. Again, we see the Kenyan government choosing to provide electricity to part of their population at the expense of more rural, indigenous peoples. Furthermore, for the governments of Ethiopia and Kenya to rely on hydropower so heavily in an area prone to severe and extended drought – to put all their eggs in one basket, so to speak – is a potentially frightening prospect.
Time will tell whether groups like Friends of Lake Turkana will be able to stop the Gibe III dam this far into its construction. Given the amount of money already invested in the project, and the government of Ethiopia’s adamant attitude towards the project, it seems the best hope might be to change the way that the dam operates and mitigate the impacts on indigenous peoples. Even if the promises of electricity generation and economic development come true, it is rather dubious to assert that this project was in the best interests of all Ethiopians.