Gibe III Dam, Ethiopia

Descending from the central Ethiopian plateau, the Omo River meanders across the country's parched southwest before spilling into Kenya’s Lake Turkana, the world's largest desert lake. The Omo River is a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of indigenous farmers, herders and fishermen, who depend on its nourishing floods to sustain their most reliable sources of food.

But Ethiopia's Gibe III Dam and expansion of large, irrigated plantations in the Lower Omo basin threatens the food security and local economies that support more than half a million people in southwest Ethiopia and along the shores of Kenya's Lake Turkana. Construction on the dam began in 2006 with flagrant violations of Ethiopia’s own laws on environmental protection and procurement practices, and the national constitution. The project’s US$1.7 billion contract was awarded without competition to Italian construction giant Salini, raising serious questions about the project’s integrity. In February 2015, the filling of the dam's reservoir began. The same year in October, Gibe III began generating electricity.

Project impact assessments were published long after construction began and disregard the project’s most serious consequences. Despite the huge impacts on vulnerable people and ecosystems, NGOs and academics in Ethiopia familiar with the region and the project don’t dare speak out for fear they will be shut down by the government.

Ethiopia would like to make hydropower a major national export, but climate change and ecological degradation could cause the nation’s dams to generate far less power than hoped. The Gibe III Dam could prove to be a risky, economic gamble for one of the world’s poorest countries.

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