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Ethiopia Must Complete the Construction of Gilgel Gibe III Dam
IDEA Editorial
August 30, 2010
Ghelawdewos Araia, Ph.D.

From the outset, I like to make my position clear that Ethiopians must transcend politics when it comes to development agendas in their country. I have been one of the foremost critic with respect to the policies, political undertakings, and governance of PM Meles� government, but in regards to Gilgel Gibe III Dam, which is already under construction, I like to extend my support to the government initiative and encourage the present regime to complete the project, as scheduled, in 2013. I have done the same kind of support to the former government of Mengistu Haile-Mariam when it undertook major projects such as the Melka-Wakena despite my fierce opposition to the oppressive and murderous polices of the Derg. In the late 1980s, thus, in my doctoral dissertation, I wrote, �The Melka-Wakena is a major undertaking in recent Ethiopian history�To realize the project, it was necessary to harness the Wabie River and this undertaking required a heavy capital intensive technology and skilled human power�Above all, the Project is not just on-site development program: 25 kilometers of feeder roads, Belly bridges, telephone lines, potable water holes, houses for workers etc. were also installed to facilitate the construction of the Project. On top of this, construction facilities such as garages, workshops (repair, carpentry, electrical), plants (oxygen, air compressor, concrete batching) and construction machineries such as bulldozers, drilling rigs, cranes, vibrators, rollers, trucks (transport, fuel service, water, cement delivery) were necessary to finish the Project.�

I wrote the above thesis on the Melka-Wakena, not in praise of the Derg but in looking ahead for Ethiopia�s development projects. Same logic applies to Gilgel Gibe III. It is in light of this spirit that I like to underscore the significance of Gilgel Gibe and other similar projects that could contribute to the overall development of Ethiopia, not only in terms of controlling the Omo River for the purpose of hydroelectric power but also for potable water and future dike agriculture in the area. 

Since almost the dawn of history, humankind attempted to control the flow of rivers by constructing dams and hence creating artificial lakes or reservoirs. The ancient Egyptians, for instance, constructed a dam (102m x 87m) about 2800 BC at Wadi Al Garawi, 25 kilometers south of Cairo, to control the flow of the Nile, but the structure was unable to withstand the inundation of the Nile and it was destroyed. All other succeeding civilizations and the modern nation-states, in one form or another, have emulated the ancient Egyptians in the construction of dams and canals.

Amsterdam (old name Amstelredam or a dam through the Amstel) and Rotterdam are two cities that actually were founded on the construction of dams beginning the 13th century AD, and for obvious reasons they bear the name �dam� as their suffix. Through out Europe dams are constructed for hydroelectric and other purposes. From Belgium to Russia, the small continent of Europe is dotted with dams; Russia has numerous dams and reservoirs, but its pride is the Sayano-Shushenskaya Dam, an arch-gravity dam 245.5 meters high and the sixth largest in the world. In the United States there are at least 75,000 dams and more than 8000 of these dams were built as recent as 2005. In Connecticut, one of the smallest states in the US, there are 500 dams and canals and as much reservoirs. The Hoover Dam of Arizona, one of the largest concrete dams in the world ever built, was constructed between 1931 and 1935 and now provides electricity and water for irrigation agriculture for the three states of Arizona, Nevada, and California. 

The Aswan High Dam of Egypt, commissioned by the government of Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952 but completed in 1970 is the largest embankment dam in the world built with the help of the Soviet Union. Close to four million ton of rich alluvial soil that mostly comes from Ethiopia is dumped into the dam every year and this largest artificial lake in our planet generates 10 billion kilowatt-hours every year.

In the entire continent of Africa, there are 1272 dams and only six are considered major by world standard: The Cabora Bossa Dam in Mozambique; Katse Dam in Lesotho; Hassan I Dam in Morocco; Akosombo Dam in Ghana; Kariba Dam at the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe; and Bine El Quidane of Morocco. The total number of dams in Africa is a drop in the bucket compared to the number of dams in the United States and they are only two times that of Turkey, a country that boasts 625 dams. Iran has 66 dams, Syria 41, and Saudi Arabia 38, six times the number of dams in Ethiopia. So what is the fuss about Gilgel Gibe?

If all countries in the world could construct dams to satisfy social services to their respective consumers and meet the demand of internal and, in some instances, external markets, why is it all of a sudden that of Gilgel Gibe a concern for the environmentalists, anthropologists, politicians, and development-oriented agencies? Why the uproar against dam construction in Ethiopia, when in fact on the contrary the world community should have been supportive of any development initiative in Ethiopia? If Ethiopia tries to uplift itself (irrespective of regime type), the world should congratulate it, not undermine its development programs. 

Neil Shea, writing for the National Geographic (March 2010) thinks that the Omo will be chocked if the Gilgel Gibe III Dam is built. He argues, �In the wilderness, amid swirling dust and the gnawing sounds of heavy machinery, a dam is being built some 320 miles upriver from the Kara homeland. The construction site is enormous, with camps, bunkhouses, cookhouses, and winding service roads. The Dam called Gilgel Gibe III, will be one of the largest dams in the world. It will create an equally massive reservoir, and the water will be used to generate up to 1,879 megawatts of power that Ethiopia plans to sell to energy-strapped neighbors, such as Kenya and Sudan. It is not scheduled for completion until 2013, but contracts have already been signed. 

Gibe III will bring cash to Ethiopia and produce much needed electricity in a country where only 33 percent of the population has electrical power. But it will also reduce the river�s flow and tame the seasons of flood and recession that the tribes living downstream, such as the Kara, the Nyangatom, and others, rely on to nourish their crops. The indigenous people have little power to oppose a project that has official blessings and massive momentum. Many are unaware of the dam�s potential to transform their lives; many others support the government, even if they do not fully understand its plans.�

The narration made by Neil Shea on Gilgel Gibe III could be made for all the other dams world wide mentioned above, and as such he is not telling us anything new in relation to the adverse consequences of the Dam except for possible food shortage and as a result tribal warfare in the Omo valley. I think this concern could be overcome with the right policies of the government. The Ethiopian government must seriously consider the possible negative consequence of Gibe, such as scarcity of water for transhumans traversing in the area and agro-pastoralists and other inhabitants of the region. The government must also employ short-term and log-term plans to alleviate the difficulties that the local people could encounter: 1) teach and introduce conflict-resolution mechanisms to the competing tribes such as the Kara and the Nyangatom; 2) implement long-term strategies especially in agriculture, animal husbandry, and poultry for sedentary life, which could minimize and altogether mitigate competition and infighting for scarce resources in the Omo valley. The assumption in both the short-term and long-term strategies is that the government will educate the local people so that the people could intentionally tackle their newly fashioned life style and also participate in the making of the dam itself. On top of this, if some of these tribes had to make a shift from agro-pastoral life style to a sedentary farming life, the government must extend provisions such as seeds, fertilizer, oxen or tractors for farming, and all necessary tools including water-conservation techniques to the farmers in the respective villages of the tribes. The government must also open up clinics and provide medicine to combat the unintended consequences of reservoir-induced mosquito infestation, which could, in turn, infest the Omo valley with malaria. 

Other than some possible impact on the livelihood of tribes such as the Bodi, Kwegu, Mursi, Banna, Bashada, and Dassanech, the advantages of the Dam outweigh its disadvantages. Gilgel Gibe III will not only enable Ethiopia to sell hydropower to neighboring countries but it could also generate tremendous power for rural electrification in Ethiopia itself and an agro-industrial development in the Omo valley. However, the 1,879 megawatts that Gibe could generate is a tiny fraction compared to what Aswan High Dam uses, but Ethiopia has bright prospects in energy and rural development if it manages to tame and conquer the hundreds of its small and major rivers that flow without being used by the local people. 

The World Bank and the IMF and other international development agencies, including the governments of the United States and the European Union countries should support the making of the Gilgel Gibe III Dam in Ethiopia. If they have legitimate concerns they must present them in very candid manner and not simply and cynically oppose the project initiative; and if they have adopted a new policy against dam construction elsewhere other than their own turfs, then we will challenge them for their ill-conceived foreign policies. Ethiopians in the Diaspora who have entertained ideas opposing the Gilgel Gibe project too must rethink there stands and carefully delineate the distinction between a seating regime and the long-term development of Ethiopia. In the meantime, the government must bolster its initiative in an effort to expedite the construction of the dam and must seek alternative avenues, including capital and technical assistance from any government that would support the Gilgel Gibe III project.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright � IDEA, Inc. 2010. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for educational and constructive feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org