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Giant Ethiopian Dam Said to Threaten Indigenous Groups

  • Michael Onyiego

A coalition of international human rights and environmental groups have launched a campaign to halt construction of dam they argue will disrupt natural flood cycles and seriously impact the lives of more than 200,000 indigenous people. The dam is expected to produce 1,800 megawatts of electricity, nearly doubling the current output in the Horn of African country.

International human rights groups, including British-based Survival International, that fight for the rights of indigenous people, say the construction of the Gibe III Dam in southwestern Ethiopia threatens the livelihood of eight distinct tribes in the surrounding area.

Indigenous tribes rely upon the fertile silt deposits left by seasonal flooding for the cultivation of subsistence crops in the semi-arid Omo Valley. A U.S.-based environmental group, International Rivers, says the dam on the Omo River will impact people who fish the waters for survival.

The $1.7 billion project is expected to create a lake nearly 150 kilometers long and could possibly affect the flow of water as far as Lake Turkana in neighboring Kenya.

Survival International says the people in the Omo Valley have not been informed about the project and remain largely ignorant of the effect it could have on their lives. A human-rights campaigner for Survival International, Elizabeth Hunter, calls the project "disastrous."

"You are talking about an environment that is already very fragile," she said. "Overnight, they are going to lose a very valuable part of their livelihood, which they need to survive. So, you are really looking at people who are going to become refugees on their own land dependent on government food aid."

The dam construction, which began in 2006, has not yet been fully funded, and the Ethiopian government is courting potential sources of funding including the African Development Bank, the European Investment Bank and the World Bank. The coalition opposed to the dam's construction is urging these organizations not to fund the project.

The Ethiopian government maintains the Gibe III project is necessary for the country. At nearly 240 meters, the dam will be the tallest on the African continent and is expected to produce enough electricity to meet Ethiopia's growing demand. The government argues that adverse effects on the local environment and population will be minimal and short-term.

Ethiopia's largely rural population has little access to electricity. Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, also experiences frequent blackouts. An estimated 80 to 90 percent of Ethiopia's electricity comes from hydroelectric power, and the country is planning to build several more dams to harness this abundant resource. If the dams are built, Ethiopia expects to become an exporter of electricity.

The Gibe III is being built by an Italian company that built the smaller Gibe II Dam, a project that came under scrutiny in January when part of the dam collapsed just 10 days after it began operations.