Dam these patronising Western campaigns
March 24 2010
The Gibe III dam on the Omo River in Ethiopa, once completed, will be Africa’s second largest hydroelectric dam. The third stage in a five-part dam project, Gibe III is expected to extend electricity access to large swathes of the Ethiopian population, to raise per capita income levels, and to save lives by reducing the impact of droughts and floods. And yet, some environmentalists are not happy about this income-generating, life-changing and life-saving project, and have this week renewed their campaign to bring it to a halt.
Greens have opposed the Gibe III dam project from the outset, when construction first started in 2006. Now, a group of international campaigners has launched an online petition, urging Western donors and banks to withdraw their funding for the dam. They say it will negatively effect ecosystems and, in the words of International Rivers, one of the groups opposed to the dam, it will disrupt the livelihoods of ‘hundreds of thousands of indigenous farmers, herders and fishermen, who depend on [the Omo River’s] nourishing floods to sustain their most reliable sources of food’.
One such ‘nourishing flood’, in 2006, killed nearly 400 people and thousands of livestock. And according to the United Nations World Food Programme, the floods regularly inundate crops and have displaced over 20,000 people. The NGOs who are up in arms about the Gibe III dam, ostensibly because it will displace indigenous people, overlook the fact that the river itself will keep ruining lives unless human beings tame it.
It is true that many people are dependent on the Omo River, which flows from southern Ethiopia into Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, for some form of subsistence, mainly through flood-retreat cultivation. But they also live in abject poverty and many suffer from chronic hunger. The fact that the precarious Omo is their most reliable source of food is a travesty, not a situation anyone in their right mind would campaign to sustain. Yet International Rivers refers to the Omo as a ‘lifeline’ for Ethiopians and says ‘the rise and fall of the Omo waters is the heartbeat of the Lower Omo Valley’.
If the NGOs that have launched what they call ‘a campaign to stop manmade disaster in Ethiopia’ are truly concerned about the wellbeing of Ethiopians, why are they not campaigning for the people living at the Omo’s mercy to be freed from their river-enslavement? Why are they not fighting for Ethiopians’ rights to benefit from modern facilities, like electricity, which sustain International Rivers’ offices in sunny California?
It is because these NGOs (International Rivers, the Counter Balance Coalition, the Campaign for the Reform of the World Bank, Friends of Lake Turkana and Survival International) do not want ‘indigenous people’ to change. Instead they want to preserve them in a state of noble savagery.
As Lori Pottinger of International Rivers’ Africa programme put it in an article for the LA Times last year, ‘Gibe III will change forever the Lower Omo River Valley, one of the world’s most isolated regions. It is the homeland of a handful of indigenous communities, half a million farmers, herders and fishermen who are largely untouched by modern society. Damming the Omo will wreak havoc with its natural flood cycles, which underlie the cultures and the traditional “flood retreat” farming practices of the Mursi, Bodi, Kara and other communities along it.’
And of course, it is impossible to lift people out of poverty while at the same time ensuring that they remain ‘untouched by modern society’. The needs of the millions of Africans who will benefit from the dam are clearly not a priority for environmentalists, who are more concerned about preserving local biodiversity. They may claim to be campaigning on behalf of disempowered people, but this is only insofar as they regard Africans who are ‘untouched by modernity’ as part of the ecosystem, as belonging to the natural kingdom rather than human society.
Pottinger explained that ‘a group of affected people and the organisation I work for, International Rivers, already have filed complaints with the African Development Bank’. So based on the wishes of a Western NGO and their tiny local focus group, Pottinger and her colleagues have taken it upon themselves to ensure that millions of Africans stay without electricity and remain at the mercy of the Omo River’s moods.
Sure, the Gibe III project is not risk-free and, like any large-scale development project, it will force some people to move. They should of course be duly compensated. But the environmentalists protesting against the dam are not interested in providing any alternative to people who live in abject poverty, or as greens would say ‘have traditional lifestyles’.
When I visited Ethiopia in 2001 I was shocked at the degrading conditions its rural population had to endure. Families as big as nine or 10 people – and sometimes a cow – were crammed into dark mud huts with thatch ceilings, precarious constructions that would fall apart during heavy rains. One family wanted to share some homemade beer with us from a filthy, rusty tin while children ran around in rags. Some kids I met had never even seen a camera before and would come up to me and my friend to touch our skin and hair or shout ‘faranj, faranj!’ (foreigners).
For some tourists, this is all very quaint of course. And in order to get the full, poverty-porn, exotica extravaganza experience, some incorporate a tour of the communities along the Omo River into their itineraries. Here tourists can travel between villages on dirt roads in jeeps and take National Geographic-style shots of curious, dark-skinned tribes such as the Surma, whose women walk around top-less and with clay lip plates. It’s like a human safari.
It is astonishing to think that in the year 2010, some 70 per cent of Ethiopians are unable even to switch a light on in their homes and that those fortunate enough to have access to electricity have to endure regular power cuts. Gibe III will alleviate this abhorrent situation, but even though the dam is expected to realise more than twice the amount of electricity currently generated in Ethiopia, adding some 1,800 megawatts to its current 790 megawatts, it will not go far enough. As Seleshi Bekele and Jonathan Lautze of the International Water Management Institute wrote, in response to Pottinger’s article, Ethiopia has the potential to generate 30,000 megawatts of hydropower electricity.
Still, Gibe III is a crucial and ambitious step forwards. As a result of the dam project, Ethiopia will be able to export energy to neighbouring African countries, which will increase its national revenues, helping to lift the annual per capita income above its current paltry level of about $150. The impacts of droughts will be reduced through new water storage capacities and the dam will regulate the flows of the Omo river, containing the impact of its annual floods. A reservoir of approximately 200 sq km is set to be used as a fishery.
Yet to conservationists, Ethiopia’s dam projects are simply too big, too bold and too bad. For them, it is an affront that human beings are trying to tame nature rather than live at its mercy. They think the people living along the Omo River should be happy to wait for the river to retreat so that they can cultivate the land and live off whatever scraps Mother Nature can spare them. Thankfully, Ethiopians are defying Western greens who want Africa literally to be a ‘dark continent’, and we should too.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.