On Gibe III dam | Ethiopia’s recklessness in the UN Committee proceedings

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee urged Ethiopiato immediately halt all construction on the GIBE III dam’, in its 35th session held from June 19-29. The decision became public when the Committee published its documents by the end of last week and had been re-posted in this blog.(link)

The news, however, is so far ignored by the Ethiopian media, at home and abroad. Even by the ruling party’s vocal critics. But this was one of the cases where the government deserved tongue-lashing.

As I explained in my previous post, on Tuesday, the decision of the World Heritage Committee is not as good as its status – ‘a UN Committee decision’ – might sound. It is based on a poor background document (or agenda document) which one of my friends called ‘when recklessness meets negligence.’[See On Gibe III dam: Weighing the UN Committee decision – (link)]

The agenda document was produced jointly by the two supporting institutions of the Committee – namely, the World Heritage Centre, a department of the UNESCO, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), an advisory body to the Committee. [Read the agenda – here]

[Pls note the difference between the Committee and the Center. The first one is composed of 21 countries which are periodically elected by countries signatory to the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. On the other hand, the Center is a coordinating department within UNESCO responsible for organizing the annual sessions of the World Heritage Committee and related matters.]

Months before the Committee meeting was held in Paris and decided on Gibe III dam project, the Centre and IUCN had been drafting agenda documents. According to the brief narration at the beginning of the document, the prelude of the Gibe III dam project agenda document was as follows:

Sometime between March 1-11, the anti-Gibe III campaigners lodged a complaint:

In March 2011, the World Heritage Centre and IUCN received ….. a letter of concern from International Rivers and Friends of Lake Turkana, and a report entitled ‘Assessment of Hydrological Impacts of Ethiopia’s Omo Basin on Kenya’s Lake Turkana Water Levels’ prepared for the African Development Bank.

On March 11, the Center wrote a letter to Ethiopia

In a letter dated 11 March 2011 addressed to the State Party of Ethiopia, the World Heritage Centre expressed its concern about this proposed construction, and requested additional details on the GIBE III dam project as well as a copy of its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

Kenya ‘was also informed’. It is not indicated how and when she was notified. But surely, it seems after March 11 and before the end of April. It also appears that Kenya didn’t respond at all. If she did, it was not disclosed.

Ethiopia’s response:

On 27 April 2011, the State Party of Ethiopia responded to the World Heritage Centre stating that impact assessments have been conducted taking into account the potential impacts of the project in relation to the World Heritage Convention, and that precautionary measures have been put in place, and will continue to be implemented, to avert potential adverse effects. However, no relevant documents, such as the requested EIA, were provided in conjunction with the State Party letter, and no information on the precautionary measures was provided.

If this account is accurate, and it is likely so, then conjecturing why Ethiopia declined to submit the EIA documents is not difficult. The officials in Addis are probably weary of criticisms – as they have already commissioned two/three EIAs so far and a few more supplementary studies, only to see them nitpicked by environmental activists.

But, the best course of action, in my opinions, was to flood the Centre and IUCN with dozens of documents and debate on the details.

To begin with, though I couldn’t yet obtain and see Ethiopia’s reply letter, it is baffling it didn’t include EIAs and other relevant documents – at least those publicly available ones. For aGibe_iii_dam_design country which has always been eyeing a bigger role in the international arena, consequently always in rush to sign treaties and conventions, one of the easiest things to do is to comply with such requests by delivering a copy of the available documents and claiming additional study documents are on their way.

After all she subscribed to this by ratifying the Convention more than four decades ago and never withdrew from it though she could do it by one letter. Not to forget, she is one of the 21 current members of the Committee, while her Prime Minister represents Africa in global environmental panels. For a doubtful reader, I shall hastily remind that Ethiopia’s stature in multi-lateral bodies is owed to her consistent participation including uninterrupted payment of dues, save the last 2 or 3 years of the Dergue regime. [Just like the poor  lady in your neighbor who gets the front seat in social gatherings due to her consistent attendance of neighborhood affairs, weeding, funerals, and gatherings, and ‘edir’ dues].

Credibility aside, failure to provide the documents only serves to confirm the default opinion of the experts at the Centre and the IUCN. That is – the project is not environment friendly.

This is reflected in their comment on the ‘likely impacts of the dam’, which states:

Preparatory construction work on the GIBE III dam …..has been ongoing since 2006. …….The World Heritage Centre and IUCN note that two EIAs have been prepared for GIBE III….While neither EIA has been submitted to the World Heritage Committee for review, the African Development Bank’s evaluation of these documents is reviewed below.

The subtext is –Ethiopia got two EIAs yet unconfident to submit any, so no need to look for them on www.AfDB.org and www.GibeIII.com websites. It suffice if we review the AfDB document and conclude upon it. (though, they hadn’t in fact read the AfDB document – as explained in my previous post (link)

I don’t know what the officials in Addis had in mind. They might have thought providing the documents won’t change anything – as the Center and IUCN would oppose the dam anyway. Still, failure to provide a counter argument is to surrender without fighting, while engaging could at least have bought time.

Judging by the poor quality of the agenda document on Gibe III dam project, it appears the drafters didn’t allot much time to it. If so, it is not unlikely that they would have postponed the agenda to the next session of the Committee – in 2012, had they been swamped with dozens of documents. Yes, delay is an old but effective strategy.

Worse, Ethiopia’s April 27 letter, apparently, didn’t counter even the well-known auxiliary claims made by International Rivers to bolster it case and bias the audience. Such claims include the ‘lateness’ of the EIA studies, the ‘illegality’ of  the contractor selection procedure, etc, all mentioned in International Rivers’ complaint letter to UNESCO. Though those allegation didn’t make it to the agenda document, the China bashing one did. The agenda documents stated:

The World Heritage Centre and IUCN note that in August and July of 2010, the African Development Bank, the World Bank and the European Investment Bank withdrew their funding considerations for the GIBE III dam. At the same time, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and the Exim Bank of China reportedly approved financing covering a major portion of the dam’s cost.

For a very brief (2 page long) presentation of the issue, that do not even mention the total cost or planned completion date of the project, a detail presentation of the funding history indicates a disproportionate focus. The subtext, in my opinion, is that this is a dam forsaken by the responsible western banks (AfDB is western financed) and endorsed by the irresponsible Chinese. In fact, the Chinese funding is mentioned twice in the agenda – once among the problems of the dam, though that is because the agenda document is a first draft.

This narrative was bolstered by Ethiopia’s apparent failure to present an alternative story – even in her letter. Because, Ethiopia’s letter should have brought to attention the July/2010 press statement of the European Investment Bank – which notes:

The European Investment Bank confirms that it is no longer involved in the Gibe III hydroelectric project as the Ethiopian government has found alternative sources of finance…….the Bank was involved in a range of technical, environmental and social studies both independently and in cooperation with others, and had secured finance for further studies, notably to study the impact of the project and related mitigation measures in the downstream area, including Lake Turkana. Its decision to discontinue its engagement with the project is based on the promoter [Ethiopia] having found alternative finance and not the results of these preliminary studies.

In short, the European Investment Bank was still conducting studies, thus far from making a decision to abandon or finance the project. Though I have no detail info on the AfDB case, as its study was finalized by Nov 2010, it couldn’t logically have decided to withdraw from the project by August or July 2010, as claimed in the quote above. Yet, Ethiopia, who found a Chinese loan, might have withdrawn its request by then. At least, this is the official story.

Again, mentioning that Exim Bank of China follows an Environmental guideline approved by the World bank was something the might have helped ease the bias.

These were things that Ethiopia’s letter should have noted, but, apparently, didn’t.

Be that as it may, the agenda document on Gibe III dam project was drafted and distributed to Committee member countries on or after May 27, 2010. It includes a ‘draft decision’ text, which is identical to the final decision, save a minor phrase.

Even at this stage the Ethiopian officials in Addis and in Paris could have done at least three things:-

#1. They could have disputed the quality of the preparation of the agenda document, the veracity of the claims in it, and the like. The ensuing protracted debate could possibly force the Committee to return the agenda to the Secretariat for further review. At least, it could have sufficed to cast doubt on parts of the proposed decision – ‘to immediately halt all construction’ – and have them removed from the final decision.

#2. Procedural objection was, apparently, possible. The Ethiopian representatives could have rejected the agenda as it was distributed about 3 weeks before the beginning of the meeting, while the Committee’s Rule of Procedures requires agenda documents to be distributed 6 weeks in advance.

Rule 45. Deadline for distribution of documents

The documents relating to the items on the Provisional Agenda of each session of the Committee shall be distributed at the latest six weeks before the beginning of the session in the two working languages to the Members of the Committee,…

Yes, this is nitpicking and delaying tactic, but that is the whole point. And, it doesn’t mean Ethiopia shouldn’t or conduct further studies and address concerns, if any, in the time until the next Committee meeting, while continuing the construction of the dam.

#3. Add to the above two, an effective lobbying campaign. A couple of Committee member countries have a good diplomatic relation with Ethiopia and/or have an agenda in the Committee on which they need her vote. Not to forget, China herself is on the Committee. Lubricating the lobbying effort with some cash could have helped, as there are such precedents in the history of the Committee. And, Addis Ababa is not new to such activities. In fact, I presume, the Contractor of Gibe III dam is likely to do whatever it takes to protect its Billion dollars contract, had it been informed.

If Ethiopian officials, in Addis and in the Committee, had done any of the above-listed efforts, or if they have reasons to believe it won’t work,they have yet to tell us. Even the voting pattern, which is not yet disclosed, could be telling.

That was why I sent last Sunday mid-night, the following questions to the three Ethiopian officials listed in the Committee’s ‘List of Participants’ document.

Date:June 25

To: Darge Wole
Deputy Permanent Delegate of Ethiopia to UNESCO
[email protected]

Dear Sir,
I am an Ethiopian resident (and national) blogger.
I presume you are aware that UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee passed decisions regarding the Gilegel Gibe III dam project on its 35th session which was held from June 19-29/2011 in Paris, France. The Committee’s website published the decisions a few days ago.
As your name is listed as Participant of the 35th session, I hope you could enlighten me and fellow citizens on the following issues. Please, be aware that the following questions and your answers will be publicly posted unless you clearly indicated otherwise.

The ‘List of Participants’ document provides your and two other Ethiopian representatives (Mamo Jara and Yonas Beyene) name.
1. Can you confirm that you, three, were in attendance at the 35th session? Especially, on the specific meeting where the issue of Gibe III dam project was discussed?(as its helps me weight the info you provide regarding the meeting)
2. Had all the 21 member countries been in attendance during the voting on Gibe III dam project, titled ‘Lake Turkana National Parks (Kenya) (N 801bis)’?

The ‘Item 7B of the Provisional Agenda’ document claims that the World Heritage Center requested Ethiopia, on March 11, for ‘…additional details on the GIBE III dam project as well as a copy of its Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).’ However, Ethiopia’s reply letter, on April 27, didn’t include ‘relevant documents, such as the requested EIA, ……and no information on the precautionary measures…’.
3. Can you share me the letters from and to Ethiopia? [Assuming that it doesn’t contain matters of national security]
4. Can you confirm that Ethiopia failed to provide the EIA and other relevant documents? If so, can you clarify the reasons?

I understand that documents relating to the agenda shall be distributed 6 weeks prior to the Committee’s session, according to Rule 45 of Committee Rules of Procedure.
However, ‘Item 7B of the Provisional Agenda’ document, which contains the draft decision on Gibe III dam, is dated May 27/2011.
5. Does that mean Ethiopia, and other committee member, obtained the agenda documents on Gibe III only three weeks prior to the meeting?
6. If so, did the Committee decide to suspend/amend the six weeks requirement?
7. If not, did you object the discussion on the Gibe III agenda based on procedural discrepancies?

Following the distribution the distribution of the agenda documents:
8. What efforts were made to avert the situation afterwards? Given that at least 5 Committee member countries, including China, have good relation with Ethiopia and/or likely to sympathetic to her?
9. Deciding on the Gibe III dam project agenda, did the Committee held a debate? Can you disclose the number of votes in favour and against, if any, of the decision?
10. Can you provide information on the way forward? The actions taken since the passing of the decision and the options available to Ethiopia?

Dear Sir,
Though you may find this letter unusual, I am sure you are aware of your government’s official commitment to the right of Access to Information, which I am trying exercise on behalf of readers of Danielberhane’s blog who are eagerly awaiting your reply at this moment.
In case you find any of the questions impolitely framed, please kindly regard it as poor linguistic and/or journalistic skill on my behalf, which would benefit from your corrections.
I thank you in advance for your prompt reply.

Respectfully yours,
Daniel Berhane
Tel: 091 573 79 16

[An identical e-mail had been sent on the same day to the other two participants – namely, Mamo Jara Hailemariam – Ministry of Foreign Affairs ([email protected]) and Yonas Beyene – Director of Heritage Collection Curation Labaratory ([email protected])]

Surprisingly or unsurprisingly, depending on how you see it, none of them responded. I thought at least one of them would. It seems as a friend on a social networking site predicted, they have said ‘who do you think you are’. Well, had they e-mailed that question or rebuke, I would have told them I am a citizen who is giving up 8.4% of net monthly income to build one dam, while the other dam gets a sort of injunction order to be halted.

But  my suspicion is that they might have missed the meeting on Gibe III. That is why my inquiry in the e-mail began with attendance.

It is also possible that the representatives were not informed, before the meeting, about the letter correspondences and/or they might have failed to notice Gibe III is included on the agenda – as it was added later. Thus, they might have missed that part of the meeting at all or, if present, were caught ‘off guard’.

Or, they might have simply failed to attend, for no objective/satisfactory reason. That wouldn’t be something unheard of in the history of Ethiopian delegates in international forums.

Yet, had they been willing to share us Ethiopia’s April 27 letter(which obviously has no matters of national security), it could have informed us a lot. While the underperformance of the agenda drafters (noted in the previous post) reveals their indifference, it is curious to know whether they deliberately overlooked even the info provided in the letter.

But that won’t be much more than of informational value, anyways.

International Rivers is single mindedly doing what it set out to do – stopping the dam. Given its objective and indiscriminate use of means, it has performed well. Thus, proved to be worth of the findings or any other reward it looked for.

The experts at the Center and IUCN did what a western organization is normally inclined to do – trampling a poor African nation in favor of a western one.

Thus, what is urgently needed is for the Ethiopian government to clarify the source of the recklessness (or disprove the arguments above). Failing that will erode our confidence.

While the government may soon proudly declare it won’t bow to the Committee’s decision, I would not be surprised if Egypt brings tomorrow, from one of the numerous UN bodies, a decision ‘to immediate halt’ the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam.

After all, Egypt’s intellectuals and institutions probably lend a hand to the anti-Gibe III dam campaign too.


Check the Gibe III dam Archive for previous and upcoming posts.

Daniel Berhane

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