Ethiopia's Floods & Dams: A response to Spiked

Terri Hathaway

Spiked and others are calling attention to the heavy floods in Ethiopia which now threaten 270,000 people. Regional authorities and humanitarian partners including World Vision, CARE, Food for the Hungry International (FHI), Save the Children-UK, Concern, OCHA, WFP UNICEF and the Ethiopian Red Cross Society are among those involved in flood relief efforts. Supporting these humanitarian agencies supports the urgent needs of Ethiopia's flood victims in this time of crisis. 

Ethiopia's boom and bust rain cycles are notorious for their role in Ethiopia's extreme poverty. But dams are not a flood control panacea. Current flooding in Afar is attributed in part to the overflowing of the Tendaho Dam, which was completed less than two years ago. The dam's overflow has damaged 18 km of its irrigation canal and 4,000 hectares of farms and grazing lands. Overflowing of the dam and the Logia River has directly displaced more than 15,000 people.

In 2006, at the height of severe floods on the Omo River, the reservoir of Gilgel Gibe hydropower dam (commissioned in 2004) was so full that the government had to make emergency releases of water. While the government refused to say how much water, the releases exacerbated the severe floods at the very height of flooding. Using a hydropower dam for flood control requires a trade off that dam operators rarely want to make – releasing stored water to lower the reservoir level at the beginning of the rainy season, which is seen as a loss of potential hydropower revenues. If completed, the Gibe 3 hydropower dam could be implicated in exacerbating future floods at the very time downstream communities expect it to provide flood control.

Ethiopia’s watersheds are heavily degraded and the water runs off hillsides because the soil cannot absorb heavy rains. The heavy rains of 2006 caused more damaging flash flooding than was experienced in years past with heavier rains.

A new report by the Addis Ababa-based International Water Management Institute (IWMI) argues that water storage shouldn't over-rely on single solutions like big dams. IWMI recommends an integrated approach that combines large- and small-scale storage options, including the use of water from natural wetlands, water stored in the soil, groundwater beneath the earth’s surface and water collected in ponds, tanks and reservoirs. Improving the health of the watersheds would support greater ground absorption and groundwater recharge.

On dams and Gibe 3

International Rivers does not oppose dams which follow the recommendations of the World Commission on Dams (WCD). The WCD recommendations ensure the use of high standards in planning and ensures that development, not destruction, results. It can improve decision-making so that the best options rise to the top. (Watch our new video on the WCD).

International Rivers opposes the Gibe 3 Dam because it would dramatically harm hundreds of thousands of people living downstream. The poor planning, fast tracking and top down management of the project has neglected to account for the massive devastation which is expected to follow.

To date, the government of Ethiopia has demonstrated neglect, not good will, in providing a state-sponsored safety net (health clinics, schools, roads, radio, veterinary services, etc) for the Lower Omo communities. The government has closed down Lower Omo community associations, disrupting their ability to self-organize and address local issues. The Ethiopian government has withheld funds owed to some communities for use of their lands. Corruption means food aid, when needed, often doesn’t make it to Lower Omo families in need.

The government safety net has so far failed people in the Lower Omo Valley. So the people's traditional system of food cultivation and pastoralism is currently their best way to support themselves. The dam will severely affect this community safety net. The lack of community consultations and the inability for communities to speak up about their rights without fear of government retaliation does not demonstrate that the government will sufficiently outline, and then implement, local development projects to help these communities seamlessly transition into a more secure standard of living.  

When I traveled to Zimbabwe and Zambia in 2007, I visited communities who were displaced in 1958 for the Kariba Dam. They were promised that electricity and irrigation projects would follow them and that they would be better off than before. Fifty years later, they are still struggling for the development that was promised. Meanwhile, the weakening of their own community safety net, their social fabric, has left multi-generational impacts.

Ethiopia wants to build lots of dams. Following its own laws and policies so that quality studies are completed prior to awarding contracts, contracts are properly procured, and communities are sufficiently consulted would avoid some of our criticisms of the Gibe 3 Dam. Genuinely following the WCD recommendations - the gold standard of dam building - would get us to shut up.