China's role in funding Ethiopian dam draws ire
Ethiopia says construction of a dam along the Omo River will create
needed electrical power for itself and Kenya, and channel water for food
production. Environmentalists worry it could drain a Kenyan desert lake
central to people's livelihoods.
By Fredrick Nzwili, Correspondent
Christian Science Monitor
August 16, 2012
Kenyan environmental activists want the Industrial and Commercial Bank
of China to hold off on a promise to invest $500 million in Ethiopia's
$1.7 billion Gibe III Hydro-electric Dam, which they say threatens Lake
Turkana - the world's largest permanent desert lake, and a crucial
source of water for half a million people.
The controversial dam is being built on the Omo River in eastern
Ethiopia, which supplies the lake in northwestern Kenya with 90 per of
its water. Once completed, the dam will affect the livelihoods of some
200,000 in the river valley and 300,000 more near the lake, the
Friends of Lake Turkana - a Kenyan organization representing indigenous
communities in northwestern Kenya whose livelihood depend mainly on the
lake - had earlier estimated that that Gibe III could shrink the lake,
which straddles the Kenyan-Ethiopian border, by 10 meters (about 30
feet). This could cause an increase in salinity in the lake's water,
making it undrinkable for indigenous groups who live around the lake
with their animals. Recently, resource-related conflicts have ignited
between the nomadic pastoralist communities, and are expected to
increase if the dam is completed.
"Lake Turkana is home to large number of some of the most massive Nile
crocodiles, hippos, and other large animals, all which would find it
hard to survive without the lake," said Dr. Richard Leakey, a renowned
Kenyan conservationist and paleoanthropologist.
There are also a wide variety of unique birds and other wildlife all of
which would find it hard to survive without the lake or if the water
nutrients were to change as drastically as studies have predicated will
happen if Gibe III is successfully completed, according to the groups.
The lake's survival hangs in the balance as China decides whether to
fund the dam project, says Ikal Angelei, founder of Friends of Lake
Turkana and the winner of the 2012 Goldman Environment Prize for Africa.
"The lake is in the danger of drying unless the Kenyan government and
international agencies step in to stop the unsustainable development
both within and outside Kenya," said Ms. Angelei at a news conference in
"While many would-be financiers have withdrawn ... China still holds [to
its] promise," she added.
The Kenyan government, which would benefit from a new source of
electrical power, has been quiet about the project. But In August 2011,
the Kenyan parliament passed a resolution demanding the suspension of
dam construction pending environmental assessment studies.
In June, UNESCO World Heritage Sites committee rejected an appeal by the
Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to place Lake Turkana in the
list of world sites in danger, a development that outraged environmental
"The lake needs all the protection it can get against the vagaries of
climate change, Gibe III, and the thirsty sugar cane and cotton
plantations that Ethiopia is developing along the Omo River," said Angelei.
Chinese company Dongfang Electric Corp. has been contracted to carry out
construction work, according to reports, as the country searches for
more funds to complete the dam. Two-thirds of the work reportedly is
already done. The Italian construction company Salini Costruttori is the
primary construction contractor, while Dongfang will be responsible for
the hydromechanical and electromechanical part of the project, the chief
executive of the state-owned Ethiopian Electric Power Corp., was quoted
as saying by Ethiopian news organizations.
Environmentalists also are angry at the World Bank, which declined to
fund the Gibe III dam project itself, but did approve a $684 million
loan to build a 1,000-kilometer (621-mile) transmission line from the
dam into Kenya. For them, this is an endorsement of the massive dam and
its associated irrigation projects, which affects the food security of
thousands. The bank argues that the transmission line will connect
Ethiopia's overall power grid with Kenya's to create a power-sharing
arrangement between the two countries, reducing energy costs and
promoting sustainable and renewable power generation.
Ethiopia plans to sell 60 percent of the electricity generated to Kenya
through the transmission line. Ethiopia will also use the dam to help
irrigate large swaths of land for cotton and sugar-cane cultivation.
In addition to environmental concerns, the dam project has drawn
criticism from human rights groups, who want the donors to ensure their
funding is not supporting activities that amount to an abuse of people's
"Ethiopia's desire to accelerate economic development is laudable, but
recent events in the Omo Valley are taking an unacceptable toll on the
rights and livelihoods of indigenous communities," said Ben Rawlence,
Human Rights Watch's senior African researcher, at a recent news conference.
The Turkana basin is also an important archeological site.
Archaeologists and scientists in August discovered three new fossils
near the lake that indicate previously undocumented early human species.
"This means Turkana basin is of global importance to the origin of
mankind," said Dr. Leakey, whose Turkana Basin Institute led the recent
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