World Bank Approves Power Line to Gibe III Dam

Lori Pottinger
These women are some of the thousands of Omo Valley people who will be affected by Gibe III Dam
These women are some of the thousands of Omo Valley people who will be affected by Gibe III Dam
Photo: © Alison Jones

The World Bank today approved a credit for a 1,000-kilometer transmission line that would link Kenya’s power grid to the controversial Gibe III Dam, now under construction in Southern Ethiopia. Bank management said the transmission system did not need to be evaluated against the institution’s social and environmental safeguard policies (as any “associated facility” should be), even though the line provides a direct link to the dam’s transmission system. The Ethiopian government made it clear from the project’s inception that it intended to export much of Gibe III’s power to Kenya.

Gibe III is widely viewed as Africa’s most destructive dam project, and it certainly doesn’t come close to meeting World Bank Safeguard Policies. The dam threatens the food security and local livelihoods of at least half a million people in the Lower Omo Valley and along the shores of Kenya's Lake Turkana. The project has been marred by flagrant violations of Ethiopia’s laws on environmental protection and procurement practices. Although the dam will cut off the main water supply for Lake Turkana for years while the reservoir fills, Ethiopia continues to maintain the dam will have no negative impacts on the Lake. Ethiopia has done no scientific analysis on the impacts of the dam on the Lake.

Ikal Angelei of Friends of Lake Turkana expressed disappointment. “The World Bank stood by its principles when it refused to fund the dam in the absence of concrete measures to uphold the rights of indigenous peoples and address serious environmental concerns,” said “Now it has stamped on those same principles by funding Gibe III through the back door.”

The dam is still incomplete, and lacks full funding. China has pledged to provide lend money for Gibe III’s turbines, but we know of no other ready source to help pay for the rest of the dam’s construction. A World Bank-funded transmission line suddenly makes the dam much more viable, however, because now there is a viable buyer for most of the dam’s electricity. Ethiopian cannot yet use the full 1,870 MW the dam will produce.

This credit gives a boost to a discredited project, and reveals that the Bank supports Ethiopia’s efforts to brush aside the huge impacts of its destructive dam. The World Bank in effect is rewarding Ethiopia for ignoring the massive impacts of damming its rivers.

In addition to its direct impacts, Gibe III is also associated with the expansion of industrial agriculture in the area, and the forced resettlement of tens of thousands of local people. At least 245,000 hectares of state-run irrigated sugar plantations have been developed in the Lower Omo Valley, and are already having serious consequences for the 200,000 indigenous residents in the area. The plantations are fueling “villagization,” in which local pastoralists and flood-recession farmers are moved into government-run villages. The dam, villagization and agricultural projects have all been linked to human rights abuses.

Human Rights Watch and Survival International have documented abusive relocations of indigenous peoples in the Omo Valley. Relocations have been carried out by state security forces using intimidation, assaults and arbitrary arrests when people questioned the relocations or refused to move.

Neither the dam nor the plans to increase irrigation have a complete analysis of their many impacts, not least of which is a major change in water supply for downstream areas, including Lake Turkana, which relies on the river for 90% of its inflow. The river basin and lake are on a path to die from a thousand cuts.

Climate risks

Remarkably, the World Bank has not evaluated this power pool for climate change risks, despite its heavy reliance on hydropower from large dams, and the risks that climate-changed hydrology will make hydropower more risky. The East African Power Pool, which this power line will be a part of, focuses almost exclusively on large hydropower projects. Of 12,070 megawatts of planned new projects, all but 300 megawatts are supposed to be generated by hydropower dams. For a region that is already experiencing severe droughts and major climate adaptation challenges, this is risky business indeed.

Ethiopia is currently getting at least 90% of its electricity from hydropower, and is ill-prepared to address how climate change will impact its power supply. Flouting these concerns, the World Bank is gambling on Ethiopian dams keeping the economies of its neighbors humming along in an ever hotter and dryer future. The power sectors of East African countries are already over-dependent on hydropower generation, and droughts and floods are expected to become more frequent and intense under climate change in the region. Given these risks, the International Monetary Fund’s Africa Department recommended in August 2011 that governments “work to minimize a very significant dependence on hydropower in East Africa.” The World Bank’s own ESMAP unit suggested in January 2011 that for heavily hydro-dependent countries, “an adaptation response [to climate change] may require a policy decision to diversify away from hydropower.” This sensible advice is going unheeded. The dam will in fact make adapting to climate change just that much more difficult for hundreds of thousands of people in Ethiopia and Kenya.

While the World Bank’s project documents admit that “hydropower is highly vulnerable to climate change” due to hydrological changes, it also makes the stunning argument that the line will increase climate resilience because drought may not hit Kenya and Ethiopia at the same time:  “By allowing for two-way transmission of power, climate-related impacts can be alleviated leading to greater climate-resilience. For example, during drought conditions, Kenya can bring on line emergency diesel generation to address power shortages in Ethiopia.”

Let’s hope they can keep a big supply of “emergency” diesel on hand in Nairobi.