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omo gibe i

The Dam and the Damned: Gibe III Ethiopia

Alemayehu G Mariam

Cry Me a River, Cry Me a Lake

Three years ago to the week, I wrote a weekly commentary entitled, “Cry Me a Lake: Crime Against Nature”. That commentary focused on the plight of tens of thousands of Ethiopians who are sick and dying from drinking  the polluted waters of Lake Koka, once a pristine lake, located some 50km south of Addis Ababa. A world renowned scientist from the University of Durham, U.K., analyzed water samples from Lake Koka and found “high concentrations of the microcystis bacteria”, which he said are among “some of the most toxic molecules known to man.” I argued:

The Lake Koka environmental disaster is only the tip of the iceberg. Ethiopia is facing an ecological catastrophe: deforestation, desertification, soil erosion, overgrazing and population explosion. The Ethiopian Agricultural Research Institute says Ethiopia loses up to 200,000 hectares of forest every year. Between 1990 and 2005, Ethiopia lost 14.0% of its forest cover (2,114,000 hectares) and 3.6% of its forest and woodland habitat. If the trend continues, it is expected that Ethiopia could lose all of its forest resources in 11 years, by the year 2020.

Dam, Dams and Damned Dams

omoLike the people who are dying around Lake Koka, the people who live in the Omo River Basin in Southwestern Ethiopia are facing an environmental disaster that could push them not only to hunger, starvation, dislocation and conflict, but potentially to extinction through habitat destruction. According to International Rivers, a highly respected environmental and human rights organization committed to “protecting rivers and defending the rights of communities that depend on them”:

“The Omo River is a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of indigenous people in southwest Ethiopia and northern Kenya. The Gibe 3 Hydropower Dam, already under construction, will dramatically alter the Omo River’s flood cycle, affecting ecosystems and livelihoods all the way down to the world’s largest desert lake, Kenya’s Lake Turkana. The Lower Omo Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to an estimated 200,000 agro-pastoralists from eight distinct indigenous groups who depend on the Omo River’s annual flood to support riverbank cultivation and grazing lands for livestock.”

The Omo River and its tributaries are being exploited for their hydro electrical potential, and the surrounding areas are handed out to so-called international investors for export commercial agriculture. “Gilgel Gibe I” was built at a cost of nearly USD$300 million provided by the World Bank and other European investment banks. It became operational in 2004 after 6 years of construction and generates 183 MW. The 63 square-kilometer reservoir created for the dam displaced some 10 thousand people. “Gilgel Gibe II”, according to Salini Costruttori, the Italian company that built it, “is a continuation of Gilgel Gibe I project” and is “not a dam” but “instead will use the water discharged by the Gilgel Gibe I channeled through a 26km tunnel under Fofa mountain to Omo River Valley.” It was built at a cost of 373 million euros provided by Italy and the European Investment Bank. Gilgel Gibe II collapsed in February 2010 just weeks after its official inauguration.

The “Gibe III” Dam is the one that has raised the most concern among environmentalists and multilateral institutions because it poses the most serious hydrological risks to the quarter of a million people and the flora and fauna of the Omo Basin. Experts fear that Gibe III could destroy the fragile ecosystem for an additional 300,000 people downstream in Lake Turkana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (a site of special cultural or physical significance to the world at large) which gets up to 90% of its water from the Omo River.

“Gibe III”- A Dam Environmental Disaster Under Construction

In 2006, construction began on the Gibe III Dam. In July 2008, Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Authority issued the Gibe III Environmental Social Impact Assessment approving the project. The report was a shameless whitewash which rubber-stamped the project. The report unabashedly concluded that there will be little adverse environmental impact and that the reservoir area for Gibe III is unfit for human habitation because it is infested by deadly mosquitoes and tsetse flies (which cause “sleeping sickness”):

In 2006, an estimated 253,412 people around the Gibe III… However, as a result of steep slope and Tsetse fly infestation, there is no settlement in the future reservoir area and settlements are concentrated on the highland in areas outside the valley… As the result of the less favorable rainfall, Tsetse fly infestation and the consequent occurrence of cattle disease, trypanosomiasis, there is very little farming activity around the Omo valley bottom lands. The project areas are highly endemic for malaria with continuous transmission and malaria is by far the most common of the diseases… The presence of several rivers (tributaries to Omo River) provides ideal breeding habitats for mosquitoes…The the population living within the proposed dam and the reservoir areas are not in close proximity to this UNESCO designated heritage site. No visible archaeological remains, which have scientific, cultural, public, economic, ethnic and historic significances, have been observed in the area and dam sites. The sites have no archaeological importance… A wide range of livestock diseases affect animal in the Lower Omo.

This “environmental impact statement” has been roundly criticized for “its poor preparation and belated release two years after construction began, a flagrant violation of Ethiopian environmental law, which requires an impact assessment be approved prior to construction.”

Tewolde Geber Egziabher, the General Manager of the Environmental Protection Authority of  Ethiopia, is dismissive of human rights groups and other international institutions who have expressed doubt or criticized the lack rigorous environmental analysis in the construction of  Gibe III. Geber Egziabher said:

I doubt if they [international rights groups] know where Gibe III is except on the map. Those who have been shouting about Gibe III Hydroelectric Project they know it only from thousands miles away. I really do not take their voices seriously… None of the opponents of the Project are from Ethiopia. I  know one from Kenya and several others from Europe. The only person who claimed to have gone to the Gibe III dam site was the BBC reporter; and he can also not judge such measure undertakings from one –day- visit… The interest behind the adverse comment against Gibe III Dam is ignorance. Therefore, I simply dismiss the complaints as they are irrelevant.

An independent study by the African Resources Working Group (ARWG), an expert group of “scholars and consultants from the United States, Europe and  eastern  Africa, with extensive experience in  large hydrodam and  river basin  development research  and  policy issues in the Horn and East Africa,” presented a detailed rebuttal pointing out numerous flaws:

The document [Environmental Impact Assessment] rests on a series of faulty premises and that it is further compromised by pervasive omissions, distortions and obfuscation. The downstream EIA is laced with tables and figures with multiple types of ‘quantitative data’, creating the illusion of a scientific work. While this practice is well known to increase the likelihood of approval by development, finance and oversight agencies, it is fully unacceptable…

An accurate assessment of environmental and social processes within the lower Omo Basin indicates that completion of the Gibe III dam would produce a broad range of negative effects, some of which would be catastrophic in the tri-country region where Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya intersect… The indigenous peoples of the lowermost Omo Basin are dependent on riverside and delta recessional cultivation, as well as grazing resources, food gathering, fishing  and other activities wholly  dependent on flooding  by  the Omo  River. This population would face massive economic losses, with widespread severe hunger, disease and loss of life occurring on a regional scale, if the Gibe III dam is completed.

In June 2011, UNESCO concluded that “GIBE III dam is likely to significantly alter Lake Turkana’s fragile hydrological regime, and threaten its aquatic species and associated biological systems” and “urged the State Party of Ethiopia to immediately halt all construction on the GIBE III dam [and not] damage directly or indirectly the cultural and natural heritage located on the territory of another State Party.” Terri Hathaway, director of International Rivers’ Africa program, said Gibe III is “the most destructive dam under construction in Africa.” The project would condemn “half a million of theregion’s most vulnerable people to hunger and conflict.” 

Other regional and international organizations have similarly concluded that Gibe III will have “catastrophic consequences for the tribes of the Omo Riverwho already live close to the margins of life in this dry and challenging area.” They assert that the “dam would dramatically alter the Omo River’s flood cycle, affecting ecosystems and livelihoods and ultimately destroy the local food security and economy. The dwindling of resources caused by the dam is likely to increase local conflicts between ethnic groups.” Even the traditional sources of funding – the European Investment Bank, the African Development Bank, the World bank, the Italian government and others – have withdrawn their support for Gibe III.

Dictator Meles Zenawi responded to the international critics of Gibe III in his usual demeaning and contemptuous style. He claimed those who call for a halt to the construction of the dam “don’t want to see a developed Africa; they want us to remain undeveloped and backward to serve their tourists as a museum.” Zenawi’s representatives followed suit directing their ire at the “vociferous campaigners against the dam: International Rivers and Friends of Lake Turkana”. They charged, “Western activists have no monopoly of concern of environmental issues. Nor do they have any monopoly on accuracy.” They claimed that the international environmentalists make unsubstantiated “assertions” and are “ignorant”.

Verbal pyrotechnics against critics is stock-in-trade for Zenawi and his regime. When the European Union declared in November 2010 that the May 2010 election in which Zenawi claimed victory of 99.6 percent does not meet international standards for fair elections, Zenawi frothed at the mouth calling the report “trash that deserves to be thrown in the garbage. The report is not about our election. It is just the view of some Western neo-liberals who are unhappy about the strength of the ruling party. Anybody who has paper and ink can scribble whatever they want.” Last month, Zenawi shredded Human Rights Watch for criticizing his flagrant abuse of a so-called anti-terrorism law to decimate the independent press and political dissent in Ethiopia:

A campaign has been launched against us… There’s a reason behind it.  This institution [Human Rights Watch] is playing a role of [promoting] ideologies.  This organization and its friends’ world view are playing a role to speak against some countries, if they look to be on the road to success on an ideology that is different from the current world view.  So it’s a campaign to [bring] those of us to our knees that deviate from the current world view.  There’s no connection with human rights.”

So the official view is that all of the opposition to Gibe III is an international conspiracy by the usual boogeymen suspects of  “neocolonialists” “neoliberals”, and perhaps “neoideologists” and “neonates.”

African Dictators and African White Elephants

African dictators like to build big projects. It is part of the “Big Man” syndrome in Africa where public office is a means to private gain and personal glory. Africa’s “Big Men” undertake big projects as a means to achieving glory, greatness,  immortality, and more importantly, as a means of accumulating wealth for themselves and cronies. But these projects in the main are “white elephants” (wasteful, and useless projects).  In the Ivory Coast, Félix Houphouët-Boigny built the largest church in the world, The Basilica of Our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro, at a cost of USD$300 million. It stands empty today. Mobutu built the The Inga Dams in western Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire) on the largest waterfalls in the world (Inga Falls). Inga I and Inga II were advertised to provide vast amounts of power domestically; today operate at low output.  When civil war broke out in the late 1990s, these dams went unmanaged and fell into disrepair. Bujagali dam in Uganda had a devastating effect on communities in the area. The backflow submerged a huge area of cultivable and settled land forcing migration and resettlement of large numbers of people. Self-appointed Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic built a 500-room Hotel Intercontinental for hundreds of millions of dollars in the middle of a residential district while millions of his people suffered from starvation.

African dictators like to build dams, shiny glass buildings and commission all sorts of extravagant projects as their people remain trapped in a relentless cycle of poverty. They do it to accumulate great personal wealth, increase their prestige, feed their fragile and insatiable egos, mask their gross incompetence, cover their bloody hands and justify their clinging to power indefinitely. They seek to clothe their naked dictatorships by displaying veneers of progress and development. These dictators could not care less if the people starve, are displaced from their ancestral homes, remain in poverty or go to hell. They could not care less if the environment is destroyed, cultural and archaeological relics are lost or the  ways of life of indigenous people and communities are obliterated. Zenawi wants to be known for having built the “240-meter  Gibe III, the tallest dam in Africa.” He wants to be known as an “African Messiah”. In February 2011, announcing the development of a massive 245,000 hectare sugar plantation in the lower Omo Basin, Zenawi declared with rapturous certainty: “In the coming five years there will be a very big irrigation project and related agricultural development in this zone. I promise you that, even though this area is known as backward in terms of civilization, it will become an example of rapid development.”

The price to be paid for “rapid development” by the Mursi, Suri and Bodi agro-pastoralists and others – those damned by the dam — in the Omo Basin is dislocation, displacement, destruction of traditional ways of life, persecution, loss of ancestral lands, starvation, conflict and potential extinction.

More Power for Ethiopians, No Power for Dictators

Ethiopia, like all other African countries, needs to develop its energy resources to meet the needs of its people,  support its long range economic development plans and improve the standard of living of the people.Ethiopia’s population is expected to triple to 280 million by 2050, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. There is no question that the country needs diverse sources of energy, including renewable energy sources, for its future.

But Gibe III is not intended to meet domestic power needs. Rather, much of the estimated 1,870MW is planned for “export” to Djibouti, Sudan and Kenya, presumably generating 300 million euros annually in profits. That is not particularly reassuring. A recent report by the Global Financial Integrityshowed that between 2000 and 2009, 11.7 billion was stolen out of the country.  In light of this evidence, those claiming to develop Gibe III for national economic development are fooling no one. As the old saying goes, “We may have been born yesterday, but not last night.”

The Toxic Ecology of African Dictatorships 

In December 2009, I wrote a commentary entitled, “The Toxic Ecology of African Dictatorships”:

The inconvenient truth about Africa today is that dictatorship presents a far more perilous threat to the survival of Africans than climate change. The devastation African dictators have wreaked upon the social fabric and ecosystem of African societies is incalculable…. Africans face extreme privation and mass starvation not because of climate change but because of the rapacity of power-hungry dictators. The continent today suffers from a terminal case of metastasized cancer of dictatorships, not the blight of global warming…. The fact of the matter is that while the rest of the world toasts from global warming, Africa is burning down in the fires of dictatorship. While Europeans are fretting about their carbon footprint, Africans are gasping to breathe free under the boot prints of dictators. While Americans are worried about carbon emission trapped in the atmosphere, Africans find themselves trapped in minefields of dictatorship… Africa faces an ecological collapse not because of climate change but because of lack of regime change.

Geber Egziabher, the General Manager of the Environmental Protection Authority, made a comment which Ethiopians should heed carefully. He said those who criticize Gibe III “know it only from thousands miles away. I really do not take their voices seriously… None of the opponents of the Project are from Ethiopia.” He said critics of the dam were “ignorant”.

The fact of the matter is that Zenawi’s regime provided little public information on Gibe III prior to the start of construction and stonewalled any request for information once the project got underway. There has been little  consultation with the people in the Omo River Basin, and the few locals who were “consulted” got the opportunity long after construction was under way. Obviously, in the absence of free speech and a free independent press, it is difficult to discuss, propose alternatives or criticize the dam project. But the evidence is clear that those locals who disagreed with Gibe III and/or the Omo land-grab were treated harshly. A report by the Oakland Institute, a US-based think-tank, has documented how regime soldiers “arrived at Omo Valley villages (and in particular Bodi, Mursi and Suri villages) questioning villagers about their perspectives on the sugar plantations. Villagers are expected to voice immediate support, otherwise beatings (including the use of tasers), abuse and general intimidation occurs”.

Geber Egziabher’s criticism that “none of the opponents of the Project [Gibe III] are from Ethiopia” should be clearly understood. What he is saying is that Ethiopians (including those in the Diaspora) are so environmentally unaware and uninformed that outsiders are making the case for them. Obviously, environmental advocacy is best done by civil society institutions (an Amnesty International report issued last week concluded, “Human rights organizations in Ethiopia have been devastated by the impact of the Charities and Societies Proclamation  passed in January 2009”) but such institutions have been decimated, leaving Ethiopians uninformed about the environmental impact and potential risks of public projects, including free land give-aways to foreign “investors”. It is said that the Chinese will complete work on Gibe III. But there are many environmental challenges looming in Ethiopia; and in addition to taking on the enormous political, social and economic challenges, Ethiopians must now take on the environmental challenge.

We should be grateful to the great international human rights organization that have created awareness on Ethiopia’s precarious environmental situation, particularly on the destruction of Omo River Basin. But we cannot have them do all of the heavy lifting for us. We need to join them and help them help us, and engage in vigorous environmental activism of our own. That means we must create our own environmental civil society organizations, particularly in the Diaspora, and ensure that Ethiopia’s rich and diverse ecosystem is preserved and protected today and for future generations. If we fail to do that, we will all find ourselves in the same  position as the people of the Omo River Basin who are damned by the dam.

Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at:

Previous commentaries by the author are available at: and