Ethiopia: Ministers condemn Gibe III dam critics as Bank finalizes evaluation

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The African Development Bank is finalizing its evaluation on Ethiopia’s Gibe III hydroelectric project. In a meeting with the press on April 3, Minister of Finance and Economic Development for Ethiopia, Sofian Ahemed, indicated that the project would be approved in May 2009. Faced with many criticisms concerning the oversight of some principal procedures pertaining to the ongoing mega hydroelectric project, the minister announced that “Every body can say whatever they want, (…) we have confidence in the bank”.
 The hydro power project, one of the country’s main projects, is expected to address the country’s growing power needs and “help curb the current power shortage and contribute to Ethiopia’s economic growth” Sofian said.

The 150 kilometer long Gilgel Gibe III, when completed in 2012, will be one of the word’s tallest hydroelectric dams standing at 240 meters high.

Criticising the Gibe III project and its financial source (African Development bank), a group known as friends of lake Turkana, two months ago, argued that the exclusion of the mainly pastoral populations, whose livelihoods depend on lake Turkana –downstream Omo river and the world’s largest permanent desert lake located in the southwestern parts of Ethiopia and the northwestern region of Kenya–, from the project preparation violates bank policies, inter alia, resettlement and poverty reduction. According to them the scientific impact of the hydroelectric dam on the Omo river from Ethiopia, which provides about 80 per cent of the lake’s water inflow and is to be the main source of water to the ongoing project, has been ignored.

Although Ethiopia has published a study on the environmental and social impact of the project the country has been widely criticized for publishing a biased report two years after works on the dam began. In fact, the two financial institutions (World Bank and European Investment Bank) that were originally expected to finance the project, reportedly, pulled out due to Ethiopia’s non-adherance to international procedures. The country is reported to have sidestepped procedures when they signed a hasty construction agreement with Salini Costruttori, an Italian engineering group.

Government officials including Sofian and Alemayehu Tegenu, mining and energy minister, have expressed their dismay at a recent BBC documentary regarding the Hydro power project. The British network had reported that the government had short-circuited usual procedures meant to govern such huge projects. According to analysts interviewed by the media network, the environmental and social impact assessment of the project is “fatally flawed in terms of its logic (…) thoroughness and (…) conclusion”. While friends of lake Turkana claim that populations living in the Omo River Delta region will be directly affected as they have “not been adequately consulted” and are “inhibited from learning or speaking about the project”, the BBC purports that Meles Zenanawi, Ethiopian Prime Minister, “rejects” that some half a million people “could see their livelihoods destroyed by the dam”.

Experts agree that following the set scientific processes, among others, before acquiring the needed finance from the World Bank and European Investment Bank will not only delay the project but also plunge the country into further crisis in the face of severe power shortages. Remaining on similar positions taken by Sofian Ahemed and Alemayehu Tegenu, Mihert Debeba of the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation defends the project while insisting that opting out of this project, by virtue of those “very luxurious preconditions…” would be tantamount to staying in darkness and avoiding “all this development”.

The arguments for the urgency of the hydroelectric dam, which is expected to not only generate more than enough electricity to power the whole of Ethiopia but also parts of Kenya and Sudan, could not come at a more opportune time. The state power monopoly, Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation last week announced power rationing due to an unprecedented power shortage. According to the announcement there will be a 14-hour per day power shedding twice a week. As the demand for electricity in the country continues to soar the Ethiopian government argues that they cannot afford not to have the promise of 1,800 megawatts of electricity from Gibe III.

Meanwhile, the enhancement of living standards of various populations downstream the Omo river to lake Turkana stemming from the many advantages of the development of electricity, many argue, would curb the unpredicatibilty of peace in the region. But others have also argued that the dam could modify flooding trends, which the people depend on for survival, and trigger wars. These arguements come in a backdrop of Meles zenawi’s assurances that the dam will increase “the amount of water in the river system”, as it “completely regulates flooding in the Omo, which has been a major problem”. Commenting on these arguments, analysts say that what the Ethiopian Prime Minister is trying to say is that not only will these populations benefit from the dam but their lifestyles, with respect to the flooding trend of the dam, will not be affected.

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