African Bank to Investigate Ethiopian Dam Concerns

by Lori Pottinger
Friday, September 18, 2009

Ethiopia's Gibe 3 Dam, which at 240 meters high would be Africa's tallest, is in the spotlight with two new investigations into its many controversies. The dam, now under construction on the Omo River, poses great risks for up to half a million extremely poor people living downstream in Ethiopia and Kenya, and will bring irreversible impacts to two World Heritage sites - Lake Turkana, and the Lower Omo Valley. Although the dam poses massive social, environmental and economic risks that have yet to be addressed, the African Development Bank is considering US$250 million in project financing. Construction on the project began in 2006 without proper studies of its impacts, and with virtually no consultation of project-affected people.

The African Development Bank's independent investigative unit (known as the CRMU) has now registered two requests to investigate claims that the dam that would violate Bank policy. The first, filed in March by Kenya-based Friends of Lake Turkana, raises concerns about the dam's impacts to the people and ecosystems of Lake Turkana, downstream of the project. The second, submitted in July by five international organizations (including International Rivers), focuses on problems that will primarily affect Ethiopia. This second claim was accepted despite Bank rules that requesters must be directly affected. Ethiopian civil society groups and communities directly in the path of the dams have been unable to voice their concerns due to fear of retaliation from the government. By accepting the international complaint, the CRMU has implicitly acknowledged that affected people don't have the possibility to raise concerns about the project, which makes any consultation exercise meaningless.

The African Development Bank has until August 27 to respond to the CRMU, at which time the CRMU is expected to begin a full investigation of the Bank's involvement in the controversial project.

Disrupting the Flow

Farmer in His Fields, Lower Omo Valley.
Farmer in His Fields, Lower Omo Valley.
copyright by Alison M. Jones
The international groups' claim cites numerous flaws with project studies, including inadequate geological studies (particularly irresponsible given current geological complications of nearby hydro dams in the same watershed); and very poor analysis of hydrological changes that could leave hundreds of thousands at people downstream at risk of diminished quality of life and livelihoods. The natural flood cycle of the Omo River, which is central to the downstream region's economy and food security, would be fundamentally disrupted by the dam. Filling the reservoir would dramatically reduce water levels in Kenya's Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake, stressing its fragile ecosystem to the brink of collapse and bringing risk of starvation for local people. Many predict that these effects could destabilize the region, particularly the disputed national borders between Ethiopia, Kenya, and Sudan. In their request to the Bank, Friends of Lake Turkana states: "A study by the Africa Resources Working Group indicates that the completion of Gibe 3 could mean a drop in Lake Turkana's depth of between seven and ten meters. Resulting changes in the lake's chemical balance threaten the fish as well as other species (Nile crocodiles, hippopotamus, etc) that make Lake Turkana a valuable source of biodiversity. The economic devastation that would accompany such impacts would almost certainly mean a significant upswing in the violent conflicts that have often engulfed the region's peoples."

The international groups' request notes that the project proposes to mitigate the reduction to the river's flow with an intense annual "controlled flood" lasting about 10 days (compared to the months' long period of slowly receding floods that the local people now rely on to grow food). The request states: "The artificial flood is based on inadequate assumptions, insufficient methodology and analysis...The determination of the environmental flow is based on unsound methodology which does not reflect current best practice of the discipline and could further harm the downstream ecosystem rather than protect it."

The international requesters also note the following concerns:
• Project consultation has been a farce. Most affected communities downstream of the dam belong to indigenous groups that are physically and linguistically isolated, and politically and economically marginalized. Only 93 people from the downstream affected communities were officially consulted.
• The Bank has ignored serious violations of Ethiopian law in order to advance Gibe 3 construction.
• An assessment of the dam's environmental and social impacts was poorly prepared, grossly inadequate, and approved long after project construction began.
• The project's massive cost and improper contract procurement raise numerous concerns about the financial and economic risks the project poses to Ethiopia. An assessment of the project's costs and predicted revenues has still not been completed. The project's closed-door, no-bid contract is contrary to African Development Bank procurement policies (and international best-practice).

Caterina Amicucci, of the Rome-based Campaign to Reform the World Bank, said: "Ethiopia's limited freedom of expression has silenced the hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians whose livelihoods will be destroyed by the dam. Our request is raising the concerns they can't voice themselves. We hope the investigation will uncover and remedy any and all violations related to the Bank's involvement in this project."

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