Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sustainable Hydropower – Ethiopian Style

Sustainable Hydropower – Ethiopian Style
By Peter Bosshard
July 13, 2011

[You will find the original text of this commentary with all links to
background documents at A more
general comment on the human rights obligation of business enterprises
and the response of the dam industry just appeared at]

At the end of June, Reeyot Alemu, an Ethiopian journalist, was thrown
into jail after she dared to raise questions about the proposed Grand
Millennium Dam. This is only the latest example of the severe repression
that the Ethiopian government metes out against anybody who takes a
critical position on its massive hydropower projects. In spite of such
repression, the International Hydropower Association recently recognized
Ethiopia's power utility as a "Sustainability Partner." This is a
telling example of the dam industry's current propaganda effort – an
effort that is at best naive and at worst cynical.

Ethiopia is rich in rivers, geothermal and solar energy. Given the
country's huge needs and limited resources, the government would be well
advised to follow a rational planning process and mobilize all forces of
society as it develops its energy resources. Yet Ethiopia's energy
sector is utterly politicized. The government has pulled multi-billion
dollar projects such as the Gibe III Dam on the Omo River and the Grand
Millennium Dam on the Blue Nile out of thin air. It stitched up both
projects with an Italian company that received big no-bid contracts for
them – without comprehensive evaluation, a public debate, or notifying
its partners in the Nile Basin Initiative.

Ethiopia's politicized approach to hydropower is underpinned by severe
repression. Dam-affected people, academics and journalists cannot afford
to question government pet projects such as Gibe III and the Grand
Millennium Dam. A detailed report by Human Rights Watch documents how
the Ethiopian regime uses development projects to systematically
suppress critical voices. "Ethiopia's practices include jailing and
silencing critics and media, enacting laws to undermine human rights
activity, and hobbling the political opposition," the report states. As
if to drive home the point, several farmers and a journalist who wanted
to provide input into the report were detained. The ripples of this
repression have even reached our office, as we have received death
threats and other abuse for our efforts to stop the destructive Gibe III

A few months ago, the Ethiopian government and the International
Hydropower Association (IHA) organized an international conference in
Addis Ababa under the motto of Hydropower for Sustainable Development.
The sponsors included China's Sinohydro, the World Bank, and the
Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation. In spite of the event's
alluring motto, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi did not mince his
words. In a blistering opening statement, he condemned activists who
opposed dam projects as "hydropower extremists" and "bordering on the
criminal." The government's thugs will know how to take care of people
whom the Prime Minister has branded as "extremists."

Industry representatives, including from the IHA, have in the past
spoken out against death threats to civil society activists, and I
respect them for this. Yet the IHA has not expressed any concerns about
the human rights abuses in Ethiopia's hydropower sector, and has not
answered our questions on the subject. On the day after Prime Minister
Zenawi lashed out against environmental activists, the organization
embraced the government's power utility as a "Sustainability Partner."
The IHA and its-co-organizers also announced the establishment of a
"centre of excellence on sustainable hydropower" in Ethiopia.

I am not opposed to dialogue with repressive regimes if it brings about
measurable progress for human rights and the environment. But you need a
long spoon to sup with the devil, and define clear rules if you partner
with repressive regimes. The IHA has not done so. Dam builders don't
have to fulfill any social or environmental minimum standards for
becoming its "Sustainability Partners." All they have to do is assess
one of their projects under the dam industry's new Hydropower
Sustainability Assessment Protocol over the next three years, and pay
the IHA a fee of 65,000 Pounds. As we explain elsewhere, they can hire
their own evaluators and control the process when their projects undergo
assessments. Irrespective of the outcome, the IHA plans to give their
projects a "Sustainable Hydropower" logo at the end of the process.

The new Protocol foresees that affected people and civil society experts
can provide input when projects get assessed. Anybody who gives critical
feedback when a project is evaluated in Ethiopia will risk landing in
jail or worse. Yet such real-life impacts don't seem to matter in the
brave new world of the IHA's propaganda initiative. By going through the
motions of the new Protocol and paying a fee to the hydropower industry,
the Ethiopian dam builders can greenwash their image in an international
arena while silencing critics like Reeyot Alemu at home. The notion of
sustainability has often been mistreated, but has rarely come so cheap.
Yet partnerships cut both ways. With bedfellows like the Ethiopian dam
builders, the IHA has put its own legitimacy on the line.

Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. He blogs
at and tweets

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