“Dam on Ethiopia’s Omo River Causing Hunger and Conflict”. That was the tittle of Sandra Postel’s alarming piece on National Geographic. Any sane person would (and should) be upset upon reading peoples’ suffering due to government-made disasters. That is what many feel at first reading. The only problem? It’s far from the reality.

The writer, a Freshwater fellow of the National Geographic Society, is a veteran anti-dam activist that focused on American rivers and dams. In what looks like career diversification, Postel took the usual route and looked to Africa in the quest for a new cause. And she was handed over or stumbled upon a massaged story by NGOs with a track record of using debunked allegations in their aggressive campaigning against Ethiopian dams.

Let’s fact-check some of the assertions in Sandra Postel’s piece that are both dispiriting and fascinating.

Postel: “The filling of the reservoir behind Gibe III Dam on the Omo River is holding back the flows needed by some 200,000 indigenous people in southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya to sustain their food production and livelihoods.”

Reality: It is true, there is an ongoing drought in the Omo basins. What is also true is that the drought extends far beyond the Omo basins, in fact it covers the entire East Africa. That, you would expect to be a cue for any researcher who’s attributing a cause for an effect. Alas, that didn’t happen in this case. In a typical ex-post facto argument the writer attributed the blame for the drought to Gibe Dam instead of the reigning El-Nino phenomenon.

Postel: “Scientists have warned that the lake could shrink dramatically with the completion of Gibe III.”

Reality: Only one study claimed that. On the contrary, the UNEP report of February 2012 on “the Gibe III Dam and its Potential Impact on Lake Turkana Water Levels” shows that there could be no “dramatic shrink” because of Gibe III. “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.” It said.

Likewise, nearly all donor country ambassadors, UN agencies and international financial institutions concerned including a rigorous Gates Foundation research discredited the social and hydrological impact warnings made so far.

Photo - Gilgel Gibe III dam 2015

Postel: “Donor countries that provide aid to Ethiopia could help by putting pressure on the government to remedy the tragic consequences now unfolding.”

Reality: The Gibe dam is fully funded by the Government of Ethiopia and hence it’s out of donor dominion. What’s worse is though the aid-freeze Postel suggested will only harm the same people she claims to care for. After all, the aid Ethiopia receives are not infrastructure support but humanitarian and any aid arm-twisting will endanger the supply of food and medicines to aid beneficiaries.

What’s even worse is an ‘environmentalist’ suggesting arm-twisting on a third world nation by the greatest polluter nations (a.k.a. Donors). The nations that the environmentalist seems to rest her hope on are same actors that, with their irresponsible environmental policies, are pushing the world to “Hunger and Conflict”.

Postel: “…the tribal people who have lived sustainability in the Omo Valley for centuries”.

Reality: Omo river valley is an area where people suffered from the overflow of the Omo River for recorded history. Flooding into downstream areas has been claiming thousands of lives and decimating livelihoods. The perks of modernity, including electric power, that we all credit for easier and our better life standard were absent. I wonder what’s “sustainable” about such type of living. Whoever founds this sustainable should leave his/her high carbon footprint house and try it for a month to deserve an audience.

In what sounds like an attempt at supporting a preconceived anti-dam conclusion using unrelated disaster, the anti-dam crusader laundered discredited allegations and aid-freeze recommendations of International Rivers, an NGO that is the source of most of the linked content in the smear piece. The writer provided nothing to substantiate her multiple claims except one “anonymous” source and a dubious study by Oakland Institute.

Anyone that followed the issue for years will easily see this piece for what it is, an embarrassing attempt to validate those debunked doomsday predictions on Omo basin. It was meant to be an “I told you so” moment for those in the environmental activism business, those who will then use it as an independent researcher’s validation of their warning shrills. Imagine a piece written using those two NGOs as sole source being used by those same organizations as proof. That’s a brilliant scheme. And one that we should always be cautious of not falling for it.

Postel quotes a catchy statement of Daniel P. Beard, the author of “Deadbeat Dams” in another article titled “Dam Ideology”. “When it comes to water, concrete trumps common sense. We seem to have a need to build something – anything – even when the project makes no sense at all.”

Yeah well, that could be true for dams of New Mexico but they are definitely not the case here. Ethiopia, even-though it is currently the fastest growing country in the world, it is still one of the poorest nations on earth with literally zero spare cash for “nonsense dams” built to satisfy a “need to build something”. Everything we are building we do it with great financial pain and belt tightening in a hope of economic returns that may help us escape the poverty we refuse to get used to. Gila maybe a billion-dollar boondoggle but Gibe is a lifeline.

Anti-dam activism built on antipathy towards American politician’s desire to build “nonsense” dams is highly misplaced in East Africa. That’s something the writer seems to have missed.


Fetsum Berhane is an Ethiopian resident, economist researcher and a blogger on HornAffairs.

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