The BBC gets it wrong on Gilgel Gibe III


April 04 2009

The Gibe III dam is under construction on the Omo River, approximately 300km southwest of Addis Ababa.(MoFA 04/03/09):- Last week, the Week in the Horn briefly touched upon a documentary that the BBC recently aired, promising to address it at length in this week’s issue. What follows is a brief account of some of the issues that need to be highlighted. The BBC documentary by Peter Greste focused on the Gilgel Gibe III Hydro-Electric Dam, under construction on the Omo River, in south west Ethiopia. In the face of it, the documentary is an attempt to sound an alarm on a serious catastrophe in the making in the form of a project that will threaten the environment as well as the livelihood—hence the lives—of the local population. The documentary and the conclusions the journalist draws are alarmist at best and sinister canards to scuttle Ethiopia’s development efforts at worst. Some response would therefore be in order.

Clearly, judging by the sound bites he inserted here and there throughout the documentary and the repeated references he makes to mostly unnamed authorities in the area, Mr. Greste must have gone to great lengths to make his documentary look like a well researched piece of excellent journalism. But his reluctance to give the Ethiopians’ part of the story even the benefit of the doubt is all too obvious. The so-called Expert opinions are selectively chosen in such a way that Ethiopia’s side of the story is rendered suspicious at best. Despite raising a number of rather curious issues, the kernel of the BBC’s documentary is this: it is a deliberate effort to offer the anti-thesis to the valid assumptions on which the Ethiopian Government’s decision to launch the project is based. There is every reason to believe that Mr. Greste has long since made up his mind about the grim conclusions he somewhat casually offers at the end of his documentary.

To begin with, Mr. Greste clearly did not have any interest to pay even the slightest of attention to the valid development concerns of the country in undertaking such a massive project. That a rapidly developing Ethiopia genuinely needs projects such as the Gilgel Gibe III to expedite its economic development is not given even the scantiest of reference in the documentary; apart from Prime Minister Meles’ remarks to that effect, that is. Anyone who is genuinely concerned about environment or any other lofty ideal—such as the journalist wants to appear to be motivated by—would first take the pain, as it were, to at least recognize that countries like Ethiopia may be all too naturally be tempted by the wealth of potential inherent in such resources to consider exploiting them. After all, the kind of wealth such a project could bring upon completion is only palpable, something that would seduce even the wealthy, let alone developing countries such as Ethiopia, into doing everything in their powers to get such projects going. One would have thought every such assessment would begin with an attempt—even if lukewarm—to try to understand—not just listen as Mr. Greste did—whether there are considerations that underlie a decision to undertake such a massive project in the first place. It would only be natural to ask whether cash-strapped Ethiopia was seduced by the export potentials of the project, given the urgent needs of its peoples, for example. The issue was very simple. As Prime Minister Meles aptly put it, “[Ethiopia] cannot afford not to have Gilgel Gibe III.” But none of this was raised in the documentary. Somehow Mr. Greste—who would have fallen over himself to cover gleefully a famine story about Ethiopia—has simply omitted any reference to Ethiopia’s needs. The documentary was off to a crusading start from the very beginning and such overly practical considerations on Mr. Greste’s part would have stood in the way of the foregone conclusion he had already made up his mind about.

But then again, there are other considerations that seemed to matter to Mr. Greste; and the manner in which he presented his [and others’] views on them would tell a whole lot story about the lack of sincerity on their part than, say, the above omission does. The first consideration, of course, is quite expected, and no self-respecting government would have a problem addressing that, as it relates to the environmental impact assessment of any such project. Mr. Greste was only right to raise the question to the Ethiopian authorities. But the problem lay elsewhere. He was not even remotely interested in taking the remarks of the Ethiopians seriously, not for a second. That a feasibility study was done, that EIA report was prepared, that the very nature of the project—a hydro-electric dam, not an irrigation project—excludes the possibility of the kind of environmental damage detractors of the project seem to be worried about—all these were discounted off hand, inconvenient as they are to Mr. Greste’s conclusion about an Armageddon scenario. Even the informed opinions of the head of the Environmental Protection Agency—himself a world-class ecologist—are ignored altogether. Instead, we are persuaded to heed to another ecologist—Richard Leakey’s rather vague—if not cynical—remarks about a “…fatally flawed environmental Impact assessment”, based mostly on hearsays at best.

What gives Richard Leakey’s words the status of finality is neither a work of science nor an expertise of distinct quality. If the documentary’s references are anything to go by, the difference between the credibility of Mr. Greste’s experts and the unacceptability of Ethiopia’s Environmental Impact Assessment Report is nothing but Mr. Greste’s all too obvious willingness to not trust the Ethiopians at all. That must be why he goes on to refer to mostly shadowy sources of equally shadowy stature to try to discredit the validity of the EIA. Although he keeps us in the dark as to who these people are and what specific credentials they have—much less where they really come in in this particular case—he makes rather blanket allegations to insinuate that the EIA should not be considered in any way scientific at all. Reference is even made to experts—though unnamed—that may even have advised the Ethiopian Government in order to lend scientific credibility to Mr. Leakey’s, and Mr. Greste’s claim that the EIA Report by the Ethiopian Government is unacceptable. Interestingly, Mr. Leakey’s experts, or the African Resources Working Group (ARWG) as they like to call themselves do not even have the courage to disclose their names. In a recent paper they published, they claim the reason for their anonymity to be: “…because of the political sensitivities involved in conducting professional work within the region, members of ARWG have chosen to withhold their identities”. Clearly, Tweedledum is counting on Tweedledee’s testimony to make their case.

Scientific or unscientific, the Ethiopians could have only made it up so they can go ahead with the project, is what they are telling the world. Their conclusion is based also, in their own words, on a “science that is still very much in dispute.” This is a ridiculous claim indeed. But there is a lot more to this outrageous claim than what appears in the surface. There is this rather paternalistic view—almost racist—that those who gave the green light for the project—those in the government—have all but certainly duplicitously doctored the EIA report in order to carry on with the project despite the danger to their own people. That by itself speaks a lot about these people’s disposition.The truth of the matter is simple. This is a government that takes its obligations to its peoples all too seriously. This is a government that would do anything to see to it that the socio-economic problems that have for centuries beset its peoples should be addressed, and addressed in rapid and sustainable manner. In undertaking projects such as Gilgel Gibe III, generating income is not the only consideration; more importantly, due regard is also had to the potential environmental impact as well. This, the Ethiopian Government does, not because it has to adhere to some ecological or scientific fad, but more than anything else, it takes the protection of the environment very seriously. In this particular case, what is under construction is not a diversion or an irrigation project. As Prime Minister Meles clearly put it, apart from the potential the project may have in terms of generating highly needed power and foreign currency, “… it [also] enables us to store water and regulate the flooding downstream in the Omo River.” That flooding has always caused widespread destruction of life and property could not, hopefully, be lost on the Reporter from the BBC.

What were the crocodile tears meant for then? Was this an innocent failure on the part of the journalist to appreciate what the facts on the grounds were? Or could there be some sinister motive behind it? The other important consideration that Mr. Greste and Mr. Leakey made much fuss over would perhaps go a long way in explaining why there has been so much rancor on account of a subject so highly hyped up beyond the simple realities it represents. The second consideration that incensed Mr. Greste as much as the EIA issue did could very well tell us something about what lay beneath the holier-than-thou concern for environment. This has to do with the fact that the government of Ethiopia ‘short-circuited’ the internationally accepted procedures that apply in similarly huge projects. That Ethiopia did not float an international tender that could have taken a long drawn out process is cited as proof positive that there was indeed a duplicity on the part of the Ethiopian leaders to circumvent a procedure that would have resulted in the project being thrown out the window. It is also an attempt to insinuate that a corrupt deal may have been involved. Anything that will put the entire project in a negative light would do, apparently. Otherwise, it is almost impossible to get at the real meaning of such a bizarre report really.

But one thing is clear: its heavy focus on unfair procedures and rules pretty much smacks of the kind of hypocrisy some groups are all too often inclined to fall back on to chastise those whose only interest is to promote the interests of their people without necessarily following the dictates of others. Ethiopians, after all, are not that prone to sabotaging their own interests. So, the decision to go ahead with the project after negotiating a deal with a company that has successfully accomplished similar agreements—Gibe I & II, among others, spring to mind—could not in any way point to lack of honesty on their part. There is nothing in international law or practice that prohibits Ethiopia from undertaking any project of any size as long as it carries it out in line with the general international practice including in the sub-region. As far as respecting principles of international law governing activities of the international community goes, Ethiopia has always been second to none.

But again, accusing a government of doing something unacceptable for deciding to go ahead with a project—because it needs to and because it is entitled to do so, is to demand submission to constituencies other than that are legitimately its own. The plethora of lobbying by activists and self-styled environmentalists that followed the airing of Mr. Greste’s documentary could suggest—plausibly so—that this is indeed more than just the quaint idealism that ostensibly underlies the outcry. And in that event, it needs to be called by its name: This is nothing but bullying against those who have the effrontery to challenge conventional wisdom; all in the interest of their peoples, and of course, to the discomfort of the powers that be.

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