(Daniel Berhane)

Last month, I had an informative chat with a State Minister in the energy sector in Bahir dar.

As we were few kilometers away from the source of Nile, with foreign journalists nearby, he was wary of what I might inquire about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam – one of the greatest politico-economic engagements of the nation in centuries.

But, my focus was elsewhere. I asked him: “Is there any probability that the Gibe III dam project could be stalled or reversed?”

It sounded a ridiculous question that he dismissed it saying: “What are you talking about? Even the Renaissance dam will go as planned”.

My inquiry was not meant to be an interrogation technique rather a genuine one. With all the media and public attention focused on the Renaissance dam, I felt, the Gibe III dam could be targeted by some western officials who wants to placate a coalition of environmentalists and rights groups in their constituency.

In deed, not all the claims made by the environmentalists and rights groups groups are baseless.

Obviously, the allegation that Lake Turkana could drop 22 meters due to the dam is highly exaggerated. Even more plausible predictions of water level change are based on unrealistic scenarios that combine severe drought and irresponsible reservoir water-flow management by Ethiopian authorities.

However, it appears likely that the chemical composition of the lake water could be somewhat altered and a tiny part of the lake – called Ferguson’s Gulf – might be highly impacted.

Indeed, the dam will regulate the water flow, therefore it will, as the rights’ groups claim, “permanently modify the annual flood regime upon which the aggro-pastoralists of the lower Omo depend for their livelihoods”.

The regulation of the flood could mean a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what you make of the current way of living of the people and what you wish them to be.

It will enable the local people to embark on the two alternative and more sustainable livelihoods – namely, farming and intensive livestock rearing – besides facilitating the expansion of commercial farming and aggro-industrial investments which benefits the local administration in terms of revenue and job opportunities, among others.

In short, it will pave the way to modernization. That seems to be the heart of the government’s plan, as can be discerned from its slowly and separately unveiled projects for the Omo Valley.

But you can see this as a disaster if you believe the “natural life style” of the locality should be preserved. It sounds tempting to sympathize the cause of preserving such life styles, until you ask for whose benefit? Because, it is rare to find a person, with full knowledge of the alternatives, who chooses that lifestyle.

There are nuanced versions of the environmental criticisms, however. They are not fully opposed to every single form of ecological impact and changes in livelihoods. Rather, they insist comprehensive studies and consultations should be exhausted in advance before embarking such mega projects.

It is difficult to dismiss the wisdom of the advise. And, it would also be dishonest to deny that environmental impact assessments are relegated to secondary status in the planning phase, often than not.

Of course, preliminary environmental assessments are conducted prior to each project. But comprehensive studies are often scheduled for sometime after the launch of the project.

The reason for this, as the experts at the environmental regulatory body claim, is that going beyond preliminary assessment to approve the mere project site location is costly. Because the potential locations of mega projects are often remote areas and conducting comprehensive assessment requires setting up infrastructures and a range of detailed studies, which would be part of the project anyways.

Thus, it is better to conduct the comprehensive assessment side by side with the first phase of the project and incorporate modifications to the design as deemed necessary.

I am not sure how this approach fits to the relevant regulations and guidelines as well as with the otherwise environmentally conservative leadership of the regulatory. But to do it the ideal way, they will have to put several mega projects on hold.

The same goes with many other aspects of Ethiopia’s mega projects. Often than not, mega projects are launched while relevant tasks – such as, detailed design studies, building consensus with every single stakeholder, securing finance, planning and execution of auxiliary projects, etc. – are yet in progress.

In other words, to do it better, we will have to do it slow.

This is not lost to some of the critics, as one foreigner recently put it passionately, “why can’t you do it “better and slow”? An echo of Human Rights Watch’s last year statement on the same issue that there is “no shortcut to development”.

One more, the concept of time appears to be different between Ethiopians and Westerners. But in this case, it is the Ethiopians who are racing against time.

The government has no illusion that the existing factors that made embarking on several mega projects possible will remain unchanged.

Ethiopia’s geo-political leverages, as well as the political strength of pro-poor movements in the west, which keeps aid flowing without much policy concessions, could dwindle in a decade time.

The market potential of the mega projects is also time dependent. On the other hand, generating revenue at least to the level where we can help the food-needy by ourselves is a matter of utmost urgency.

No less important is the creation and perpetuating momentum. Not just to lure foreign investors, but mainly to change the nation’s way of thinking.

A tendency that can be called “development defeatism” is deeply ingrained in the Ethiopian psych. As can be observed from my “odd” question to the state minister.

In deed, the current frenzy of mega projects might come back to haunt us after a decade or two, in some ways. But, the overwhelming consensus is that, we won’t be worse off, compared to where we are now.

Well-meaning western activists should acknowledge our prerogative to decide on our collective future. And also, respect our right to develop.


* A version of this piece was published on my weekly column at Addis Fortune on April 21, 2013.

Daniel Berhane

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