They don’t give a dam about development

Greens must have very hard hearts if they can look at flood-hit Ethiopia and still say ‘don’t build dams’.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics World

Recently, a group of international NGOs has been leading a campaign to stop the building of the Gibe III hydroelectric dam in Ethiopia. They say the dam will disrupt the local ecosystem and the traditional lifestyles of ‘indigenous people’. So why are these groups, normally so vocal about geographical displacement, not up in arms about the tragedy that has unfolded in Ethiopia over the past few weeks? At least 19 people have died and 25,000 have been displaced because of floods.

The UN expects 300,000 to be affected by the floods in Ethiopia this month, and with the ensuing health risks, including malaria and Acute Watery Diarrhoea, as well as the severe damage caused to crops, livelihood assets and infrastructure, the impact of the heavy rains has certainly been devastating. One reason why this hasn’t been big news might be because Ethiopia experiences severe disruptions every year during the rainy season. Over 183,000 people were affected by floods in 2007, and the year before 600 people were killed, with a further 300,000 affected.

So why are NGOs like Survival International and International Rivers, which are spearheading the protest against Gibe III, not focusing their efforts on lobbying for investment in smart, ambitious and truly sustainable solutions to prevent the disastrous, and avoidable, effects of floods which every year displace, kill and plunge thousands into poverty? Why are they opposing large-scale development projects – like dams – that could contain the impact of both droughts and torrential downpours?

The answer is because their interest in preserving the lifestyles of ‘indigenous peoples’ really means that they do not want Ethiopia and other poor nations to modernise and have what we in the West have: industrialisation.

In the case of the anti-Gibe III campaign, NGOs say the dam will disrupt the lifestyles of tribes living along the Omo River, who depend on flood-retreat cultivation to (barely) sustain themselves. They say the dam will ‘end the [Omo] river’s natural flood cycle, on which the downstream communities have depended for growing food, fishing and grazing animals for thousands of years’. But this dependence effectively amounts to river-enslavement, with Ethiopians living at the mercy of nature rather than taming it.

The NGOs’ ostensibly humane impulse to protect ‘indigenous tribes’ in fact represents an abhorrent, paternalistic attitude to Africans, whom they treat in the same way that a zoologist might treat an exotic animal species. They regard these people as belonging to nature rather than to human society, as being part of a fragile ecosystem which should be preserved at the cost of social progress and material development.

International Rivers has described the Omo river as ‘the heartbeat’ of the region, and the floods as ‘nourishing’, providing the people living along the river’s banks with their most reliable sources of food. Yet these people live in abject poverty, with many suffering from chronic hunger. To describe their reliance on precarious flood-retreat farming practices as a sustainable, harmonious lifestyle is deranged.

The floods currently wrecking havoc in Ethiopia have been in the central and north-eastern parts of the country rather than in the southern Omo region. Yet this southern area has experienced devastating floods, too. In 2006, 400 people and thousands of livestock were washed away in the Omo delta and according to the United Nations World Food Programme, the floods there regularly inundate crops and have displaced over 20,000 people.

Ethiopia’s rivers will continue ruining lives unless controlled. Sure, dams are not risk-free and, like any large-scale development project, they force some people to move. Such people should of course be duly compensated. Yet instead of campaigning to halt development altogether, NGOs would do better to focus on ensuring that everyone benefits and no one is left behind. The environmentalists protesting against Gibe III do not seem interested in providing any alternative to people who live in abject poverty, or as they would say ‘who have traditional lifestyles’.

No doubt, a major objective for the investors in Gibe III, which, when completed, will be Africa’s second largest hydroelectric dam, is profit. In addition, however, the dam is expected to extend electricity access to large swathes of Ethiopia, a country where, in the year 2010, 70 per cent of the 80million-strong population still can’t even switch a light on in their homes. In addition, the impact of the droughts is expected to be reduced through new water storage capacities and the dam will regulate the flows of the Omo river, containing the impact of its annual floods.

It is not surprising that Ethiopians themselves find the Stop Gibe III Dam campaign patronising, insulting, irresponsible and dangerous. Some Ethiopians have launched a counter-petition called Stop the Campaign Against the Gibe III Dam of Ethiopia. It might not be the catchiest of campaign names, but anyone who believes that there should be more to life than survival would do well to support it.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


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