Ethiopian embassies across Europe and in the United States received an international petition against the country’s flagship hydroelectric project, the Gibe III dam, in March of this year.

At 243 meters Gibe III is to be Africa’s tallest dam, and it has already earned a place as one of the most controversial. Support for the petition has come from around the world, including from concerned Kenyan herders whose thumbprints adorn pages upon pages amongst the signatures delivered today. Almost 400 organizations have also endorsed the petition.

The dam is being built on the Omo River, which courses through the famous Omo Valley and feeds into Lake Turkana over the border in Kenya. The river cuts a rich and fertile seam into an arid, unforgiving landscape. For the people living along its banks the Omo is a vital source of life.

If you need another clue about how disastrous Gibe III would be, take note that the European Investment Bank and the African Development Bank—both institutions with a keen interest in supporting Africa’s energy sector—have each decided not to fund the dam.

180,000 hectares of land, including some tribes’ territories, have already been earmarked for lease to agricultural investors for cash crops including biofuels—depriving the tribes of vital agricultural and grazing land.

Nonetheless Ethiopia’s President, Meles Zenawi, has told reporters that Gibe III will be completed “whether you like it or not.” So, just in case he’s reading, here are five key reasons why Africa’s tallest dam would be a monumental disaster for some of the region’s most vulnerable people.

1) Broken laws and broken promises

Ethiopia’s constitution promises the Omo Valley tribes the right to be consulted about any state project likely to affect them. Even today, over four years after work on the dam began (well before environmental clearance was granted), they have still not been properly consulted.

In 2009 the government effectively made it impossible for them to organize or share information about the dam, by shutting down 41 community groups. They have been offered no choice, no alternative, and no hope of a better future.

2) An end to the flood

Gibe III will cut off the Omo’s annual flood. Usually, as the flood waters slowly recede a layer of extremely fertile silt is deposited along the river banks. It is this rich silt that allows the Omo tribes to grow their crops there.

The dam builders have said they will create an “artificial flood” for ten days every year. But such a rapid flood will not allow for the vital silt to settle. It will also mean that the Omo tribes will be at the mercy of the dam operators, whose commercial interests might trump the tribes’ needs for water.

3) Lake Turkana

Lake Turkana is a UNESCO world heritage site (so is the Omo Valley). Hundreds of thousands of people have made their home around the lake, fishing its waters and grazing their cattle along its banks. Many believe the already shrinking lake will be severely compromised if Gibe III is completed, as the Omo is the lake’s primary source.

4) Riches to the Rich

Gibe III will generate huge amounts of electricity. Some will be delivered to Addis Ababa and surrounds, but most is destined for Kenya and elsewhere. So the dam benefits will be delivered to those already in positions of power, while the costs—in food security, in livelihoods—will be imposed on those least able to speak out.

5) Ushering in a land grab

In January President Zenawi announced plans for a mega-irrigation project in the Omo Valley. Details are hard to come by but it seems likely that Gibe III is a vital part of that scheme. 180,000 hectares of land, including some tribes’ territories, have already been earmarked for lease to agricultural investors for cash crops including biofuels—depriving the tribes of vital agricultural and grazing land.


This post originally appeared at Survival International.

Jo Eede

Joanna Eede is a writer, author and editorial consultant to Survival International with a particular interest in the relationship between man and nature and tribal peoples. She has created and edited three environmental books, including A Portrait of England (2006-09-15) and [(We are One: A Celebration of Tribal Peoples, in Association with Survival International)] published on (October, 2009)

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