The Gilgel Gibe III Dam is once again under fire from environmentalists who had previously raised concerns over dangers they claim are associated with the dam, including allegations that more than half a million people’s livelihoods along the Lower Omo Valley in Ethiopia or around Lake Turkana in Kenya could be threatened by the construction of the project. The dam, which will generate more than 1,800MWs of power, is now nearly two thirds complete.

Opponents of the project have claimed that the government is carrying out forced displacement of populations in the lower Omo Valley; that local people were never consulted and have not been compensated, and that decisions were made without involving the people (and it is true that opposition politicians in self-imposed exile were not consulted); that the project could lower the water levels in Lake Turkana by as much as 22 meters, affecting the livelihood of over 500,000 people, and threatening to dry up the lake; and that the government has ignored the environmental dangers.

Some of these allegations are simply false and there is no evidence for the alarmist claims over water levels or Lake Turkana. Members of the Donor Advisory Group in Ethiopia, for example, have been watching the resettlement projects and developments in the Omo Valley closely. Their most recent visit to the Omo Valley was in August last year when representatives of eight countries, including six ambassadors, spent several days in the area meeting senior regional officials, local authorities, and local communities. They were looking specifically at the ongoing commercial agricultural developments, their implementation and consequences for local communities, as well as discussing the consequences of the Gilgel Gibe III dam and the wider environmental, social, cultural, and economic effects on the lives of local traditional communities. The report provided no support for the wild claims of International Rivers and had no criticisms of the principles of developing commercial agriculture or the resettlement activities being carried out. It did, however, underline a number of points it felt were important including continued and improved discussion and communication prior to development activities and the importance of ensuring that adequate provision and development of services were in place prior to any resettlement. Government authorities would not disagree. And, as we noted a couple of weeks ago, donor investigations in February 2011 and June last year, looking at the villagization process in Gambella Regional State, found no evidence of forced relocation or systematic human rights abuses, no any evidence of previously settled land used for commercial farming.

There is a similar lack of evidence for other claims made including the issue of the water levels of Lake Turkana. Last year, critics of the project were suggesting the fall in lake levels would actually be at least 10 meters and even considerably more – the average depth of the lake is 30 meters. However, according to almost all the environmental studies carried out on the project, any fall is more likely to be a matter of two or three meters at most.

The United Nations Environment Programme report of February 2012 on the Gibe III Dam and its Potential Impact on Lake Turkana Water Levels, for example, noted that without any significant climate change the Omo River would continue to provide some 80% of the inflow into Lake Turkana, and that depending upon rainfall scenarios the median effect would produce a 2 meter fall in the lake levels over a seven month period while the reservoir was filling. Should the rainfall levels remain the same, there would be no change. Alternatively, with below average rainfall, there would be a fall in the lake level of up to 4.3 meters during a period of eight to sixteen months while the reservoir was filling. The report also noted that the lake levels actually fluctuate three to four meters seasonally in any one year at the moment in any case. The most comprehensive study of the impact of the dam, done in 2010, calculated that the hydrological impact would be a fall of up to 2 meters, no more. Only one study, by the African Resources Working Group in 2009, suggests anything more, and its claim of a fall of 10-12 meters is five times higher than others. It isn’t clear how it reached this figure.

With no evidence for forced resettlement or of a massive fall in water levels, opponents of the Dam have been searching for other ‘concerns’. International Rivers, in the forefront of looking for objections to the development of the Omo Valley, is now warning that the dam’s completion will likely "generate a region-wide crisis for indigenous livelihoods and biodiversity and thoroughly destabilize the Ethiopia-Kenyan borderlands around Lake Turkana". It is suggesting that a reduced flow of sediment into the lake will "lead to the loss of the ecologically productive floodplain used by wild species, fish, domestic stock and agriculture". The author of International Rivers’ latest report, who remains anonymous, warning of "inflamed cross-border tensions" between Kenya and Ethiopia, adds that the people losing their livelihoods and homelands are then "likely to seek out resources on their neighbors’ lands in the Kenya-Ethiopia-Sudan borderlands. Well armed, primed by past grudges, and often divided by support from different state and local governments, these conflicts can be expected to be bloody and persistent." There are no such tensions and there is absolutely no evidence for a wild scenario of bloody and persistent conflict all along the border area, embroiling Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia; it remains in the realm of fantasy on the part of those with ill-will towards Ethiopia and the Ethiopian peoples.

In its nefarious machinations to try to derail the project even at this stage, International Rivers is now trying to target the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and the China Development Bank which have approved loans for turbines and for the construction of sugar factories in the Lower Omo Valley. Incidentally, these will not threaten any World Heritage Sites as International Rivers’ claims. It notes that that Ethiopia is an important friend and partner of China but, it warns, so is Kenya, adding threateningly that once the dam and irrigation projects are complete, Chinamay find itself at the centre of an escalating conflict: "The destruction of Turkana, if it proceeds, will become as notorious as that of the Aral Sea, tainting all those who perpetuate it", the report says, claiming that given these “evident” social, environmental and security impacts, the Chinese government should reconsider its interest, and ask its banks to withdraw their support for a social and environmental disaster in the making.

The problem with this extreme scenario is that there is simply no evidence for any of these alleged social, environmental and security dangers. It doesn’t exist. Far from a social and environmental disaster in the making, all the evidence suggests a major and controlled social and beneficial transformation is in process. Certainly, it will impact on the local population and, yes, it will mean changes – but these will provide major improvements in living conditions and the environment.International Rivers’ assertions remain no more than just that – a series of assertions and alarmist claims, short on fact and long on fiction, by and large the trademark of this NGO. As Albert Einstein famously said “doing the same
thing again and again, and expecting a different result, is the definition of insanity.”

As the Government has underlined the social benefits of the Gilgel Gibe III dam and associated developments are extensive and, yes, there will certainly be some impact on the peoples of the Lower Omo Valley, as with any major development project anywhere in the world. Indeed, this is why the government has been careful to ensure that environmental studies have been carried out and the issues carefully explored and explained in advance to all stakeholders, and this is why it is working to ensure provision of infrastructure and development, schools, health centers and clinics and availability of jobs.


* Originally published on A Week in the Horn – February 22, 2013 issue, titled “International Rivers and the Omo – short on fact and long on fiction again!”. Items from A Week in the Horn are re-published here with a permission to do so. You may republish it with attribution and no modification to its contents.

Related: Ethiopia Water Grabs: Creating ‘East Africa’s Aral Sea’?

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