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The construction of the Gibe III mega-dam in Ethiopia at an estimated US$2.1 billion threatens surrounding and down-river ecosystems and resident populations, writes Khadija Sharife. While civil society and members of the international scientific community flag disastrous environmental and human costs of damming the Omo river, the project is being fast-tracked by a convergence of government, foreign corporate and international monetary organisation interest. Sharife names major players and benefactors of the multi-billion dollar project and identifies the nameless thousands whose right to the ‘commons’ is being overlooked.

East Africa's looming 'eco-genocide', set to impact one million people, is about to become a reality in Ethiopia and extending to Sudan and Kenya if Gilgel Gibe III mega-dam – the second largest in Africa – continues along its destructive path.

From the very start Ethiopia's Gibe III mega-dam (height of 240m, a 151km reservoir, and a storage capacity of 11.75 billion m3) was marked by the sort of clumsy corruption and irregularities that could only be realised in the worst B-Grade movies – think rotten actors and terrible scripts, catering to unbelievable plots.

Let’s start with the terrible script: In 2004, several weeks after the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo) granted a no-bid contract to Italian firm Salini Costruttori for the construction of Gibe II, Italy cancelled €367 million in bilateral debt, followed by a loan from the Italian Development Corporation (IDC). Italy's Ministry of Finance was still under investigation for €220 million in loans provided by the IDC for Gibe II when construction of Gibe III began in July 2006.

This was before the Environmental Protection Authority received the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) – a report that would only be completed in 2009. Thus far, three monster-babies in the Gibe posse were granted no-bid contracts to Salini, and as of late 2009, the Italian government was still considering financing Gibe III to the tune of €250 million.

The Gibe III contract, currenty pegged at US$2.1 billion – an increase of 11 per cent from original estimates, violated Ethiopia's procurement policies for public works as well as that of the World Bank and African Development Bank. In 2008, when Gibe was granted the 'license to kill', the criminal case against the IDC was closed with no conclusive results.

Gibe III is estimated to generate 1,870MW, with about 50 per cent (900MW) proposed for export to Djibouti, Sudan and Kenya. The project is a key component of Ethiopia's 25-year national energy master plan, with Gibe III pegged to generate €300 million annually in profits from exported energy. Investment in cost-intensive transmission lines required to 'export' energy to Kenya, Sudan and Djibouti has yet to be secured. The cost for Kenya alone is US$800 million, as per the terms of the 2006 memorandum of agreement signed between Kenya and Ethiopia for the purchase of 500MW. But given the instance of drought in Ethiopia, plaguing the country for six months at a stretch from 2003 and costing the country some US$200 million at a stretch, the project is characterised by energy insecurity. Meanwhile, within Ethiopia, less than 11 per cent of Ethiopians have access to electricity.

The plan excludes from its investment requirements those costs related to ‘distribution, rural electrification and network reinforcement resulting from demand growth,’ said a 2008 report by NGO International Rivers (IR).

In 2008, eight hydropower dams accounted for 85-89 per cent of Ethiopia's electricity. Five more dams, including Gibe III, are currently under construction and estimated to generate a combined capacity of 3,125MW. EEPCo currently generates about 1,000MW from six dam projects, with hydropower contributing 89 per cent of Ethiopia's electricity production.

China, via the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), has stepped in to provide a US$500 million loan to finance the requirements of Dongfang Electric Machinery Corp, machinery supplier for the project. Goldman Sachs, American Express and Germany's Commerzbank have cumulatively invested US$3.7 billion in ICBC; Goldman Sachs holds the largest share at 5.75 per cent (US$2.6 billion), injected just prior to ICBC going public on the Shanghai and Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

In recent years, China's Sinohydro has captured 50 per cent of the world's hydropower market chiefly through the barter system – or resources-for-infrastructure, receiving just four per cent of investment in Africa prior to Beijing's entrance. In this way, China's funds are returned to the sender through tenders allocated to 'home' countries, all while exploiting the resources of host countries.

And as the infrastructure is almost selectively geared to facilitate easier exploitation of resources, as a substitute for resource revenues remitted to host governments, China essentially liquidates African resources at a huge bargain. It is worth noting also that around 3,000 dams constructed by Chinese companies inside China have collapsed due to substandard materials, hasty construction and grossly unsuitable geographic locations amongst other fatal flaws – leaving aside socio-ecological impact on ecosystems, displaced/resettled peoples, host communities and downstream populations.

China itself does not subscribe to international frameworks; China subscribes only to the environmental framework of host countries. Ethiopia, experiencing gross deforestation under the rule of lifetime dictator Meles Zenawi, is unlikely to concern itself with the dam's impacts as long as it brings in the cash that Ethiopia's rent-seeking state – 90 per cent dependent on strategic (foreign) aid – seeks to attract.

But though China remains the primary driver behind the construction of mega-dams in Africa – a move since backed by the World Bank under Robert Zoellick's leadership – there are other, more 'respectable' actors involved.

According to Salini, criticisms leveled against the project ‘have already been assessed and denied authoritative international organizations,’ such as the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the African Development Bank (ADB).

The EIB, having partially financed Gibe I and II, as well as the ADB, are currently considering investment – the former at €250 million, and the latter for an undisclosed amount.

But thanks to the efforts of civil society movements, particularly the excellent IR network (I say this after months of correspondence with Lori Pottinger of IR, a writer who is generally wary of the 'poverty and pity' discourse milked by NGO/donors/CSR etc) as well as Friends of Lake Turkana (FoLT) and others, the EU-Africa Infrastructure Trust Fund has earmarked €1.2 million for two extensive studies investigating the dam's impact on Lake Turkana as well as Ethiopia's Omo River.


Gibe's immediate wake will affect three regions (including the flammable Ilemi Triangle, located at the juncture where Ethiopia, Kenya and Sudan cross borders) characterised by conflict that is rooted in food and water insecurity; Southwestern Ethiopia, Southeastern Sudan and Northwestern Kenya and cause a 60 per cent reduction in river flow. Impacted populations include not only the displaced – the EIA deliberately underestimated the number of people to be displaced in order to fast-track the project – but also those located downstream who are usually marginalised to the periphery of 'cost benefit analysis'.

The impacted peoples include 100,000 peoples located in Ethiopia's Lower Omo Valley engaged in flood-recession agriculture; 100,000 peoples dependent on grazing livestock or trade with farmers also dependent on flood-recession agriculture; 500,000 rural peoples inhabiting Ethiopia's South Omo zone; 300,000 peoples sustained by Kenya's Lake Turkana fisheries. Additionally, increased salinity would impact the quality of potable water for humans and livestock.

Over 200,000 agropastoralists and pastoralists directly dependent on flood-recession agriculture in the lower Omo basin will immediately face severe impoverishment, leading to conflict, famine, disease and the artificial creation of almost one quarter of a million 'environmental' refugees. This compounds the already strained heavily-armed status of marginalised and disenfranchised ethnic groups in regions like Southern Sudan, set to be devastated by the dam.

Dam(n)ing the Omo River will drastically reduce inflow to Turkana, as the supplier of 90 per cent of the lake’s input, with an estimated 10-12m drop. Scientists state that even a 5m drop would result in the elimination of flooding in the Omo Delta, located mostly within Kenya. Filling Gibe III's massive reservoir will further reduce 50 percent of the flow to Turkana, while fractures due to cracks in underlying rock formations, revealed IR, would siphon 50-75 per cent of dammed reservoir water.

The Omo River, flowing 500km south from the dam's proposed site, feeds the Omo National Park, an area of critical biodiversity and populated by 15 different ethnic groups, all sustained by the river.

According to the Africa Resources Working Group (ARWG) comprised of US, European, African and other scholars specialising in large hydro-dam and river basin development initiatives, ‘the quantitative [and qualitative] data included in virtually all major sections of the report were clearly selected for their consistence with the predetermined objective of validating the completion of the Gibe 3 hydro-dam.’

The proposed rain-fed cultivation as well as planned flood simulation established in the EIA deliberately misrepresent the reality of the region's (former) climate as well as the history of mega-dams in Africa, noted for ineffective and corrupt management and maintenance (the pattern already evidenced in the Gibe posse). As professor Thayer Scudder, one of 12 commissioners at the World Dam Commission and one of the World Bank's former principal resettlement officers, informed me, ‘planned flooding is rarely, if ever, successfully implemented in Africa.' This summary excludes the impact of seismic activity due to the immense weight of the reservoir catalysing the risk of seismic activity – a reality deliberately discounted from the EIA.

One of semi-arid Africa's largest rivers, Omo (and Lake Turkana) sustains a massive population precisely because – and despite Gibe I and II – it remains a resource held in common that is managed by farmers, herders and traders, utilising centuries of region-specific knowledge and practices.

On discussing the issue of utilisation of the 'commons', often packaged as critically exploited by the 'self-evident truth' of the 'tragedy of the commons' (justifying top-down development, whether via a socialist or capitalist state, as well as the usual economic prescriptions of privatisation against poly-centric regulation), I was informed by Nobel laureate Professor Elinor Ostrom that ‘the tragedy of the commons myth has been challenged by our extensive research…

The myth that I have tackled is that the users of a common-pool resources would always be helplessly trapped in overuse,’ said Ostrom.

The means of stable organisation of common-pool resources, as outlined by Ostrom's extensive research over decades-long field work in Europe and Africa, is primarily composed of eight design principles: Clearly defined boundaries; collective-choice arrangements; congruence between appropriation and provision rules and local conditions; monitoring; graduated sanctions; conflict resolution mechanisms; minimal recognition of rights to organise; and finally, where common-pool resources 'are part of larger socio-ecological systems', nested enterprises.

The socio-ecological systems (SES) articulated by Ostrom are composed of multiple, complex subsystems including: Resource users (U) such as fishermen and farmers; resource units (RU) such as salmon; resource systems (RS) such as fisheries or fertile land; and governance systems (GS), authorising rules governing resources. These subsystems interact at micro and macro levels to produce cooperative self-organized processes of governance, upending, in many cases, the need for centralised development, privatisation or further co-option into the system of individualised ownership undermining the lifestyles of pastoralists and agropastoralists.

‘One of the most major problems we face in understanding the many efforts by people all over the world to sustain resources of importance to them is the division by discipline, resource, and region. While there are extensive articles on in-shore fisheries in Africa, many people who study pastoral people in Africa do not know about any research on fisheries.

‘Markets and states are hardly the full set of relevant institutions for people in contemporary society. GDP is an important indicator, but it is not the only measure of economic activity that we should be thinking about. GDP gives us no understanding of the successful efforts to sustain resources. We need to be thinking about how small cities can organise, how local communities can organise, and how regions such as the areas along the Nile crossing country lines need to find ways of organising,’ said Ostrom.

But the Gordion Knot informing the Gibe initiative has little to do with community organisation given that the community itself presents the greatest threat to the project, designed to export-orient Ethiopia's ecosystems in order to cash in ‘resource revenue'.

In this sense, the dam – against the backdrop of Ethiopia's national energy 'master plan' – has been packaged as just another lucrative commodity negotiated via a 'secretive development agreement'. This is evidenced in the fabrication and obfuscation informing the 'public consultation process' as well as the new law designed to restrict and limit the activities of civil society.

The financial threat inherent in the 'master plan' jeopardises Ethiopia's political economy further as Heavily Indebted Poor Countries’ (HIPC) debt cancellation stipuates that loans must be directly linked to poverty reduction. Way back in 2007, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported that Ethiopia was once again at risk of unsustainable debt. An estimated 90 per cent of the US$7 billion in electricity investment will be derived from loans, with a considerable portion earmarked for export.

Ironically, in a 2006 report, EEPCo itself outlined wind as a sustainable, consistent source of energy for nine months of the year as opposed to water tables, peaking after June. EEPCo revealed that hydro-dependency presented a tremendous obstacle to energy-generation consistency in light of drought (as experienced in 2008, from May to September during peak water tables), resulting in decreasing reservoir levels, and thus recommended diversification.

By marginalising the cheap, job-intensive and sustainable source of wind energy, Ethiopia's rentier government has collateralised the country's future, setting in motion an 'eco-genocide' that will initiate not only a brutal famine but one of Africa's worst water wars yet.

In this the Ethiopian, Kenyan and Sudanese governments might take a lesson from the principles informing Alaska's owner-state concept, developed by former Governor Walter Hickel, who passed away earlier this month.

In November 2009 a team composed of Hickel's son, Jack, and his close aid, Malcolm Roberts, specialising in the owner-state concept visited Durban, South Africa as guests of the Centre for Civil Society (CCS).

‘We, the people of the world, own most of this planet in common. 84 per cent of the earth’s surface, including the oceans, is either owned in common or owned by no one. That’s what we call ‘the commons,’ and it includes the air we breathe and the water we drink. It is the source of life on earth.

‘The future of the human race depends on learning how to use and care for the commons for the good of the total, not just the few. Article VIII of the Alaska Constitution mandates that our commonly owned resources must be developed for the maximum benefit of the people, not for the benefit of a few insiders or multinational corporations. In the past 50 years, we have built our state on that principle. It’s the only place like it in the world,’ wrote Hickel.

This is the goal of the Global Campaign for the Commons, launched at the conference. The campaign seeks to re-design the architecture of the owner-state concept, taking into account the systemic causes of structural injustice, from inequality to ecological degradation, while keeping the essence intact – that resources must be used for the maximum benefit of the people, on the basis of the sustained yield principle.

This means no more externalising the real costs of 'development' – the Trojan horse of corporate mercenaries, corrupt regimes and exploitative foreign policies alike.


* This article first appeared in The Huffington Post.
* Khadija Sharife is a journalist and visiting scholar at the Centre for Civil Society.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.