Hydro Industry Shuts Out Critical Voices
By Peter Bosshard
April 16, 2013
The international hydropower industry is meeting in Ethiopia for their
big Africa 2013 conference this week. The event's mission is to bring
together "experts from the international water resources community" and
help African nations "achieve their development goals." Yet when Rudo
Sanyanga, the director of International Rivers' Africa program and a
noted freshwater biologist, signed up for the event, she was rejected
because of her critical views. This illustrates an approach to dam
building that increasingly silences dissenting voices.
International Rivers has regularly attended conferences of the dam and
hydropower industry over the years. Such gatherings help us understand
how dam builders think, meet informally with government and company
representatives in the corridors, and bring some ground realities into
often one-sided discussions. Our proposals for presentations were
usually rejected, but I was invited to address the annual meeting of the
International Commission on Large Dams in 2001, and the International
Hydropower Association allowed Kurdish protesters to present a statement
on the Ilisu Dam at its conference in Turkey in 2007.
This week's Africa 2013 conference will discuss dam projects such as
Grand Renaissance in Ethiopia, Grand Inga in the DRC, Merowe in Sudan,
Bujagali in Uganda, and Mphanda Nkuwa in Mozambique. Participants will
also visit the Gibe II and III dams in the Omo Valley on what has been
billed a study tour. All these projects are of great concern for African
civil society groups, and so my colleague Rudo Sanyanga decided to
attend the pricey event. Rudo, a native Zimbabwean, holds a Ph.D. in
Aquatic Systems Ecology from Stockholm University and has a
distinguished track record as an expert on the ecology of the Zambezi River.
On February 20, the conference organizers informed Rudo that they had
been "instructed to decline your registration for Africa 2013." The
conference, they informed the freshwater biologist, was "a
technical/scientific event, rather than dealing with policy." After our
protests, Alison Bartle, the main organizer, argued that the conference
would not weigh "the benefits or disadvantages of water infrastructure,"
offered only limited space for attendance and was not the appropriate
place for a "political body" like International Rivers. Never mind that
tickets for the event are still being advertised today and several
(pro-dam) politicians have been invited to address the gathering.
Africa 2013 is a private event, and the organizers are free to admit
whoever they want. Given their exclusion of dissenting voices, they
should however drop their pretense of promoting Africa's development.
The African Union in turn, at whose headquarters the conference is
taking place, should not give credibility to an event that suppresses an
open debate and free scientific exchange.
Unfortunately, the stance of the organizers reflects the repression that
often accompanies hydropower projects nowadays. Many dam activists have
been killed or forced into exile because of their engagement. Only this
month, Brazilian military police entered indigenous lands along the
Tapajos River to enforce an environmental assessment which the Munduruku
community had rejected. And the Burmese military is currently clearing
the ground for dams proposed on Shan indigenous lands on the Salween River.
The Ethiopian government, with whom the hydropower industry loves to
join forces, is one of the worst offenders when it comes to human rights
in dam projects. The government does not allow any dissent on projects
like the Grand Renaissance and Gibe III dams, and has jailed a
journalist who questioned the financing of the Renaissance Dam on the
Nile (and who won UNESCO's World Press Freedom Prize today).
International Rivers has been threatened with murder and rape for our
reporting about the Gibe III project. Save the Omo Valley and other
sites document the ongoing abuses which the Ethiopian military inflicts
on the indigenous communities that stand in the way of the Gibe III Dam
and the sugar plantations that are linked to it.
I have met many decent dam builders who abhor the repression that
shrouds some of their projects. But I have yet to see public statements
from the hydropower industry associations that denounce such practices.
When they join forces with repressive regimes, organize propaganda trips
to notorious projects like Gibe III and shut out critics from their
events, they become complicit in the growing repression that has become
a hallmark of their trade.
Peter Bosshard is the Policy Director of International Rivers
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