Sustainable Hydropower – Ethiopian Style

Peter Bosshard
Police intimidation in Ethiopia
Police intimidation in Ethiopia

At the end of June, Reeyot Alemu, an Ethiopian journalist, was thrown into jail after she dared to raise questions about the proposed Grand Millennium Dam. This is only the latest example of the severe repression that the Ethiopian government metes out against anybody who takes a critical position on its massive hydropower projects. In spite of such repression, the International Hydropower Association recently recognized Ethiopia’s power utility as a “Sustainability Partner.” This is a telling example of the dam industry’s current propaganda effort – an effort that is at best naive and at worst cynical.
Ethiopia is rich in rivers, geothermal and solar energy. Given the country’s huge needs and limited resources, the government would be well advised to follow a rational planning process and mobilize all forces of society as it develops its energy resources. Yet Ethiopia’s energy sector is utterly politicized. The government has pulled multi-billion dollar projects such as the Gibe III Dam on the Omo River and the Grand Millennium Dam on the Blue Nile out of thin air. It stitched up both projects with an Italian company that received big no-bid contracts for them – without comprehensive evaluation, a public debate, or notifying its partners in the Nile Basin Initiative.

Human Rights Watch

Ethiopia’s politicized approach to hydropower is underpinned by severe repression. Dam-affected people, academics and journalists cannot afford to question government pet projects such as Gibe III and the Grand Millennium Dam. A detailed report by Human Rights Watch documents how the Ethiopian regime uses development projects to systematically suppress critical voices. “Ethiopia’s practices include jailing and silencing critics and media, enacting laws to undermine human rights activity, and hobbling the political opposition,” the report states. As if to drive home the point, several farmers and a journalist who wanted to provide input into the report were detained. The ripples of this repression have even reached our office, as we have received death threats and other abuse for our efforts to stop the destructive Gibe III Dam.

A few months ago, the Ethiopian government and the International Hydropower Association (IHA) organized an international conference in Addis Ababa under the motto of Hydropower for Sustainable Development. The sponsors included China’s Sinohydro, the World Bank, and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation. In spite of the event’s alluring motto, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi did not mince his words. In a blistering opening statement, he condemned activists who opposed dam projects as “hydropower extremists” and “bordering on the criminal.” The government’s thugs will know how to take care of people whom the Prime Minister has branded as “extremists.”

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
Wikimedia Commons

Industry representatives, including from the IHA, have in the past spoken out against death threats to civil society activists, and I respect them for this. Yet the IHA has not expressed any concerns about the human rights abuses in Ethiopia’s hydropower sector, and has not answered our questions on the subject. On the day after Prime Minister Zenawi lashed out against environmental activists, the organization embraced the government’s power utility as a “Sustainability Partner.” The IHA and its-co-organizers also announced the establishment of a “centre of excellence on sustainable hydropower” in Ethiopia.

I am not opposed to dialogue with repressive regimes if it brings about measurable progress for human rights and the environment. But you need a long spoon to sup with the devil, and define clear rules if you partner with repressive regimes. The IHA has not done so. Dam builders don’t have to fulfill any social or environmental minimum standards for becoming its “Sustainability Partners.” All they have to do is assess one of their projects under the dam industry’s new Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol over the next three years, and pay the IHA a fee of 65,000 Pounds. As we explain elsewhere, they can hire their own evaluators and control the process when their projects undergo assessments. Irrespective of the outcome, the IHA plans to give their projects a “Sustainable Hydropower” logo at the end of the process.

People affected by the Gibe III Dam
People affected by the Gibe III Dam
Alison M. Jones for

The new Protocol foresees that affected people and civil society experts can provide input when projects get assessed. Anybody who gives critical feedback when a project is evaluated in Ethiopia will risk landing in jail or worse. Yet such real-life impacts don’t seem to matter in the brave new world of the IHA’s propaganda initiative. By going through the motions of the new Protocol and paying a fee to the hydropower industry, the Ethiopian dam builders can greenwash their image in an international arena while silencing critics like Reeyot Alemu at home. The notion of sustainability has often been mistreated, but has rarely come so cheap. Yet partnerships cut both ways. With bedfellows like the Ethiopian dam builders, the IHA has put its own legitimacy on the line.

Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. He blogs at and tweets @PeterBosshard.