Hydro Industry Shuts Out Critical Voices

Peter Bosshard
Apiaká indigenous activist in Brazil
Apiaká indigenous activist in Brazil
Photo: Brent Millikan

The international hydropower industry is meeting in Ethiopia for their big Africa 2013 conference this week. The event’s mission is to bring together “experts from the international water resources community” and help African nations “achieve their development goals.” Yet when Rudo Sanyanga, the director of International Rivers’ Africa program and a noted freshwater biologist, signed up for the event, she was rejected because of her critical views. This illustrates an approach to dam building that increasingly silences dissenting voices.

International Rivers has regularly attended conferences of the dam and hydropower industry over the years. Such gatherings help us understand how dam builders think, meet informally with government and company representatives in the corridors, and bring some on-the-ground realities into often one-sided discussions. Our proposals for presentations are usually rejected, but I was invited to address the annual meeting of the International Commission on Large Dams in 2001, and the International Hydropower Association allowed Kurdish protesters to present a statement on the Ilisu Dam at its conference in Turkey in 2007.

Conference logo
Conference logo
Aqua-Media International

This week’s Africa 2013 conference will discuss dam projects such as Grand Renaissance in Ethiopia, Grand Inga in the DRC, Merowe in Sudan, Bujagali in Uganda, and Mphanda Nkuwa in Mozambique. Participants will also visit the Gibe II and III dams in the Omo Valley on what has been billed a study tour. All these projects are of great concern for African civil society groups, and so my colleague Rudo Sanyanga decided to attend the pricey event. Rudo, a native Zimbabwean, holds a Ph.D. in Aquatic Systems Ecology from Stockholm University and has a distinguished track record as an expert on the ecology of the Zambezi River.

On February 20, the conference organizers informed Rudo that they had been “instructed to decline your registration for Africa 2013.” The conference, they informed the freshwater biologist, was “a technical/scientific event, rather than dealing with policy.” After our protests, Alison Bartle, the main organizer, argued that the conference would not weigh “the benefits or disadvantages of water infrastructure,” offered only limited space for attendance and was not the appropriate place for a “political body” like International Rivers. Never mind that tickets for the event are still being advertised today and several (pro-dam) politicians have been invited to address the gathering.

Africa 2013 is a private event, and the organizers are free to admit whoever they want. Given their exclusion of dissenting voices, they should however drop their pretense of promoting Africa’s development. The African Union in turn, at whose headquarters the conference is taking place, should not give credibility to an event that suppresses an open debate and free scientific exchange.

Burmese soldier in Shan state
Burmese soldier in Shan state
Karen News

Unfortunately, the stance of the organizers reflects the repression that often accompanies hydropower projects nowadays. Many dam activists have been killed or forced into exile because of their engagement over the years. Only this month, Brazilian military police entered indigenous lands along the Tapajós River to enforce an environmental assessment which the Munduruku community had rejected. And the Burmese military is currently clearing the ground for dams proposed on Shan indigenous lands on the Salween River.

The Ethiopian government, with whom the hydropower industry loves to join forces, is one of the worst offenders when it comes to human rights in dam projects. The government does not allow any dissent on projects like the Grand Renaissance and Gibe III dams, and has jailed a journalist who questioned the financing of the Renaissance Dam on the Nile (and who won UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Prize today). International Rivers has been threatened with murder and rape for our reporting about the Gibe III project. Save the Omo Valley and other sites document the ongoing abuses which the Ethiopian military inflicts on the indigenous communities that stand in the way of the Gibe III Dam and the sugar plantations that are linked to it.

I have met many decent dam builders who abhor the repression that shrouds some of their projects. But I have yet to see public statements from the hydropower industry associations that denounce such practices. When they join forces with repressive regimes, organize propaganda trips to notorious projects like Gibe III and shut out critics from their events, they become complicit in the growing repression that has become a hallmark of their trade.

Peter Bosshard is the Policy Director of International Rivers

Monday, April 15, 2013