Hydro-Politics on the Jade Sea - Addis Dam Project Electrifies Donors but Powers Global Opposition
“The Jade Sea is an apt synonym for Lake Turkana (Rudolf). It is particularly appropriate for, at least in its southern half, it is the colour of Jade.” writes WANJOHI KABUKURU
These are the words of Ian Parker, renowned conservation writer, romanticising Lake Turkana on Kenya's northern fringes bordering Ethiopia. Parker, who took an adventurous boat tour around the lake with his wife, has recorded his experiences in his book Jua Kali’s Voyage on the Jade Sea.
Three years after Parker penned his travel book, the Jade Sea is now threatened with losing its allure. The lake is situated between the Chalbi Desert in the east and Turkanaland in the west. Lately this inland sea, best known as the world's largest desert lake, has become the centre of power play pitting the powerful Kenyan conservation lobby with their counterparts in the West in a battle of wits all aimed at stopping the Ethiopian Government's construction of Gibe III hydro-electric power dam on the River Omo.
The Omo drains into Lake Turkana. Gibe III is now said to be Ethiopia's biggest investment. The Kenya-Ethiopia border begins at the Omo’s delta. The Omo is the main feeder of Lake Turkana.
Gibe III Dam is situated 190km southwest of Addis Ababa on the Omo. On completion Gibe III Dam is expected to produce 1,870 mega watts of power, which Addis Ababa expects to sell to Kenya, Sudan, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea and Yemen.
In its hard-hitting report entitled “Ethiopia's Gibe III Dam: Sowing Hunger and Conflict”, International Rivers, a global riparian lobby, argues fervently that the “Omo River is affecting ecosystems and livelihoods all the way down of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people in southwest Ethiopia and northern Kenya. Gibe III Hydro Power Dam, already under construction, will dramatically alter the Omo River’s flood cycle, harming livelihoods and bio-diversity 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 the 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 story of Gibe III Dam is a high stakes tale of international politics, environmental arm-twisting and Big Money. It began to take shape in 2006, when the Ethiopian Government awarded the tender for the construction of the dam to the Italian firm Salini reportedly without any bidding process.
The dam, which is partly financed by the African Development Bank (AfDB), was projected to cost $1.7 billion. The cost has now escalated to $2.7 billion. The Gibe III Dam is no small matter — it has attracted the interest of other capitals, namely Tunis (AfDB), Washington, Paris, Madrid and Rome.
A consortium of the environmental lobby bringing together Friends of Lake Turkana, International Rivers, the Bank Information Centre and Campagna per la Riforma della Banca Mondiale have all teamed up with scores of both Kenyan and Ethiopian civil society groups to campaign against the dam. Their efforts have however not stopped the Ethiopian Government from proceeding with the project.
At of 240 metres high, and expected to have a reservoir of 151 square kilometers, Gibe III, part of Ethiopia's 25-year energy master plan, is made of roller-compacted concrete and is expected to be the second biggest dam in Africa.According to a cluster of eight scholars and consultants under the name African Resources Working Group (ARWG), who dismissed the environmental and social impact assessment report by the Ethiopian Government, Gibe III poses serious dangers, notably a recession of the lake's depth of water and breadth. One analyst has observed: “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 region where Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya intersect.”
Who is backing Addis Ababa? What other interests are at play in these Jade Sea hydro-politics? Addis's main backers are led by Nairobi, which is hungry for power to spur her economy in its quest to achieve the blueprint known as Vision 2030, the roadmap for transforming Kenya into a middle income country (MIC).
Apart from Kenya’s need for more power, both Addis and Nairobi have been allies for close to 50 years and have a binding military pact, thanks to Somalia's expansionist tendencies of old. Others giving Addis moral and financial support include the East African Power Pool, the African Union, the Italian Government, Salini Construttori, the European Investment Bank, and AfDB.
During the January/February African Union Heads of State and Governments Ordinary Summit in Addis, no less a personage than AU Commission Chief Jean Ping hailed Gibe III as “a success and on course”. These financially well-heeled backers have however not silenced the environmental lobby, which continues to petition all financiers of the project. Their petition to the AfDB notes:
“Construction of Gibe III Dam commenced in 2006 without an approved environmental impact assessment, a flagrant violation of Ethiopian environmental law. No project documentation addresses this issue nor evaluates project impacts incurred during construction, prior to approval of the environmental social impact assessment (ESIA) in July 2008. Project documents do not identify this situation nor any concerns about the impacts of this violation. The Bank has not identified how its involvement could be affected by this egregious violation.”
The lobbyists go on:
“Gibe III Dam poses serious social and environmental impacts. The project’s Environmental and Social Impact Assessment, Additional Downstream Study, Environmental and Social Management Plan and Resettlement Action Plan were approved by the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority in July 2008.
“These documents do not sufficiently acknowledge or assess the project’s impacts. The ESIA documents misrepresent project benefits and risks and are of overall poor quality. Analysis is often simplistic and conclusive statements are consistently made without a reasonable basis. Risks to health and livelihoods of affected communities are particularly poorly addressed. Comprehensive baseline studies have not been conducted.
“Mitigation measures are inadequate, unrealistic and do not acknowledge the failure of similar mitigation measures in Ethiopia.
“We believe that the inadequacy of the ESIA documents represents numerous violations of the Bank’s Environmental and Social Assessment Procedures and numerous safeguard policies, including policies on Involuntary Resettlement, Gender, and Poverty Reduction.”
According to Birdlife International, Lake Turkana is an important bird area (IBA): “Turkana is an extremely important water bird site: 84 water bird species, including 34 Palearctic migrants, have been recorded here. Over 100,000 Calidris minuta may winter, representing more than 10% of the entire East African/South East Asian wintering population.
“…The lake is a key stop-over site for birds on passage. Water birds are distributed all around the lake, but the highest densities are on mud and pebble shores; particular concentrations occur in sheltered muddy bays and the Omo Delta.”
The polemics informing the conservation versus development debate have been with us for ages, and will continue to be debatable in the future. However, regarding Gibe III, it appears as if the development side has won. There is no stopping Gibe III. But will the conservationists relent? Ikal Angelei of the Friends of Lake Turkana sums it up: “There is no question that Ethiopia needs power. But the irony of the Gibe III Dam is that while it threatens the economy of the Turkana region, a large share of its electricity will be sold to consumers in other parts of Kenya.
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