A Common Story Emerges from China and Ethiopia

Dan Ruan
Goats at Water on the Omo River
Goats at Water on the Omo River
Photo by Jane Baldwin, www.janebaldwin.com

The following is a guest blog by Dan Ruan, China Program Intern

International Rivers recently developed a Chinese-language version of a short film called “Kara Women Speak,” which has been posted on our Chinese website

The short film, produced by Jane Baldwin, a photographer and International Rivers board member, is a personal story about the lives of indigenous Ethiopian women whose subsistence lifestyle is heavily dependent on the Omo River. It focuses on the concerns they have about the construction of the Gibe III Dam, which will drastically alter the river's flow. 

The Gibe III Dam (now about half complete) is being built with Chinese support and financing. International Rivers released the story to our Chinese audiences to raise their awareness of the global footprint of their country’s dam builders and financial institutions. Meanwhile, Chinese audiences may see many similarities between the Ethiopian dam and development projects within China. 

China and Ethiopia are both undergoing a dam-building boom. In Ethiopia, the government has planned to increase its electrical capacity fivefold to 10,000 MW over the next five years. Most of it will come from hydropower. In China, according to the government’s 12th renewable energy five-year plan (released in August), the new operational capacity of hydropower will be 61 million KW (or 61,000 MW), which is 40% of the nation’s new capacity installation. 

While the two countries are racing to develop more sources of energy to fuel their growing economies, this short film shows the potential human cost of unabated dam construction.

Listen to a Podcast (in Chinese) about the lives of the Kara Women:

Kara Women Speak Out

The Kara people are one of a number of indigenous peoples who live in the Lower Omo Valley and depend on the river for their livelihoods. With a population of just 1,200, the Kara is barely known by the outside world. When Jane Baldwin first traveled there in 2005, she was quickly drawn to the complexity of the local culture and the way indigenous people seamlessly live in harmony with nature. 

“Over the years they have developed a sophisticated understanding of farming, and an intimate understanding of their environment and seasons for planting and harvesting their crops,” Baldwin said.

According to Lori Pottinger, International Rivers’ Africa program campaigner, the construction of Gibe III will wash away this way of life. The dam will have a huge impact on Omo River’s flow and will likely lead to the drying up of Lake Turkana in Kenya, which is the world’s largest desert lake.

“This dam is really going to dry up local people’s livelihoods, the forests they depend on, and the fishery they depend on,” Pottinger said.

While international institutions such as the African Development Bank, World Bank and the European Investment Bank decided not to fund Gibe III, Chinese investors didn’t withdraw. The state-owned company Dongfang Electric Corporation won the turbine contract for the dam. China’s largest bank, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), offered a $500 million loan for the contract.

International Rivers has attempted to raise awareness among Chinese investors involved in the project, focusing on the huge reputational risk the project could pose to their companies. Although ICBC remains involved, they are now more aware of the environmental and social impacts of the project.

A major concern behind the massive hydropower projects being carried out in both countries is the flawed method in which they are being developed. When the construction of the Gibe III Dam started in 2006, the Environment and Social Impact Assessment was not yet approved, violating Ethiopian environmental law. In China, dam builders frequently start preparing for construction by grading the land and building roads to the dam site while still waiting for a project’s Environment Impact Assessment to be approved. Often this “preparation construction” costs so much that regulators won’t stop dam construction regardless of its environmental impact. 

What’s more, both China and Ethiopia legally require public participation and consultation before dam construction. But neither country goes out of its way to encourage strong public participation. In Ethiopia, a public consultation for the Gibe III Dam was held in 2007 after construction started, and only some of the affected indigenous groups were consulted. 

Nu River Valley in China
Nu River Valley in China

Fortunately, grassroots movements are growing stronger and taking up the cause of protecting rivers and water resources in both China and East Africa. International Rivers’ partner in Kenya, Friends of Lake Turkana, has been working to stop the dam for years. Chinese environmental groups have been successful in affecting policy. For instance, in 2004, the Chinese government halted the construction of the dams on the Nu River after widespread advocacy by environmental groups.

Construction of the Gibe III Dam is already behind schedule, in part due to grassroots resistance. Developers say it will be completed next year. While the livelihoods of the Kara women may be washed away by the dam, their stories will live on, and will continue to inspire people around the world to wake up to the high costs of “cheap hydropower.”

Watch Jane Baldwin's short film, "Kara Women Speak," in Chinese: