Call for halt on Ethiopia's Gibe III hydropower dam

By Richard High31 March 2009

Non-governmental organisations, lobby groups and environmentalists are calling on the Ethiopian government to halt construction of the Gilgel Gibe III (Gibe III) hydroelectric dam claiming it threatens the survival of Africa's Lake Turkana, the largest permanent desert lake in the world.

Construction of Gibe III started in 2004 without an environmental and social impact assessment (EIA), according to non-governmental organisation (NGO) International Rivers, lobby group Friends of Lake Turkana and Kenyan ecologist Dr Richard Leakey.

While an EIA was eventually produced, two years after construction started, Dr Leakey told the BBC it was "Fatally flawed in terms of its logic, in terms of its thoroughness, in terms of its conclusions. And it looks like an inside job that has come up with the results that they were looking for to get the initial funding for this dam."

Terri Hathaway, head of International Rivers' Africa program, has described the lack of an EIA as a, "Flagrant violation of Ethiopia's own laws on environmental protection and procurement practices, and the national constitution."

The Ethiopian government is also accused of not issuing public tender documents or inviting competitive tenders for the project. Instead it is alleged to have negotiated the US$ 1.7 billion construction contract directly with Italian contractor Salini Costruttori, raising "serious questions about the project's integrity," according to Ms Hathaway.

As a result the World Bank and the European Investment Bank (EIB), which the government hoped would back the project financially, have refused to get involved. State-owned Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCO), which owns the project, has so far received government funding and is looking to the African Development Bank (AfDB) for further financial assistance.

Friends of Lake Turkana (FLT), which is based in Kenya, has filed a formal request with the AfDB's Compliance Review and Mediation Unit (CRMU), its internal accountability mechanism, to investigate and intervene in its plans to finance the project.

In response, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said Gibe III would generate 1800 MW of electricity, more than double the country's current generating capacity. The surplus, he added, would be sold to its neighbours, including Djibouti, Yemen, Kenya, Uganda, Sudan and Egypt, for an estimated US$ 407 million per year.

"We cannot afford not to have Gilgel Gibe III," he said. "We need that type of mega-project given the increased domestic demand and the requirements of export. And secondly, it enables us to store water and regulate the flooding [downstream in the Omo River]."

Regulating the Omo's flow, which supplies 80% of the lake's water, say critics, will lead to an increase in Lake Turkana's salinity as the water level is lowered by an estimated 7 to 10 m. This would harm fish stocks and the livelihood of the 300000-plus people living around the lake, increasing the risk of conflict as different ethnic groups compete for scarce resources.

Criticism inside the country has been muted, said Ms Hathaway, because, "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."

Background

Part of Ethiopia's drive to provide its population with electricity and spur economic growth the Gibe III dam, which is under construction about 300 km southwest of the capital Addis Ababa, is the third in a series of hydroelectric projects in the region that use the Omo River to generate electricity.

The first, the 184 MW Gilgel Gibe dam (Gibe I), was completed north of Gibe III in 2004. Gibe II, which is still under construction, will draw water from Gibe I's reservoir through a 26 km-long tunnel. When complete it will have a capacity of 420 MW.

Gibe III will produce 1800 MW of energy a year and regulate the Omo River, which floods annually, making it navigable all year. The 200 km2, 11 billion m3 capacity reservoir created by the 240 m-high dam could also be used as a fishery, according to the EEPCo's EIA.

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