Dams are about people, not power: The trouble with Gilgel Gibe

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Posted  Monday, April 5   2010 at  00:00

As Caterina Amicucci of the Italian group CRBM put it, “Gilgel Gibe demonstrates that cutting corners does not speed up development, but can rather produce costly disasters.”

It is a lesson that governments and funding agencies are loath to learn.

For example, during her visit to Kenya in November last year, World Bank vice president for Africa Obiageli Ezekwesili raised concerns about the manner in which the Ethiopian government was managing the project, in particular the environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) which was not conclusive (a group of scientists calling itself the African Resources Working Group has completely rubbished it) and the award of the contract to Salini without competitive bidding.

Three months later, Ken Ohashi, the Bank’s country director for Ethiopia and Sudan, while confirming that the omission of a competitive tender meant the Bank couldn’t loan the Ethiopian government money for the project, nevertheless declared its willingness, “to help mobilise financing from the private market... by providing a guarantee.”

A document prepared by the Italian embassy in Ethiopia enumerates another lesson from Gibe II.

“The Project was defined without a comprehensive sector support strategy,” it says, and lists as possible negative consequences, “limited scope for supporting best practices for (socio) environmental impacts of large infrastructures.”

In this regard, the World Bank, the EIB and the AfDB are co-ordinating their activities on Gibe III.

The three institutions have fielded at least four major missions together in Ethiopia as part of their due diligence.

Transparency, another feature of successful projects, is missing from Gibe III.

When the Kenyan government sent a fact-finding delegation to Ethiopia, they pointedly left out the organisations, such as Friends of Lake Turkana, who had called for it.

Their finding that the dam poses no threat to the lake, comes as cold comfort to the communities there.

Within Ethiopia itself, people opposed to the dams are afraid to speak up.

Those interviewed for this report even feared the identification of their communities.

Not surprising in a country considered only “partly free” by Freedom House and which in 2006 was ranked 160 out of 168 in the Reporters Without Borders’ Worldwide Press Freedom Index.

While, for this report, the Ethiopian embassy did provide the opportunity for a short interview with Yelibu Lijalem, the deputy head of mission, as well as a statement extolling the virtues of the project, this misses the point. It is not the press that needs convincing.

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