Where do things stand with respect to Ethiopia’s partially built Gibe III dam on the Omo River?
What is to be done concerning its anticipated profoundly harmful impacts not only upon the lives and fortunes of thousands of Ethiopians who face involuntary displacement and resettlement, but upon Kenyan communities dependent for their livelihoods upon Lake Turkana whose ecology the dam profoundly threatens?
How will these profound adverse ecological, socio-economic and cultural impacts be ameliorated? How can the interests of both Kenya and Ethiopia be brokered so as to maximise the gains and ameliorate the adverse impacts? To what extent might third-party mediation be required by the two countries for these purposes, and to what extent have those good offices already been engaged through IGAD, the Africa Union or some other appropriate venue?
The complexities of the dam’s impact are too extensive and far-reaching to be comprehensively summarised in a single opinion piece. Some of the essentials, however, are as follows. Lake Turkana is fed to fluctuating levels almost entirely by rainy season runoff from Ethiopia’s southern highlands that flows into the Omo River.
Desert winds evaporate part of its volume, which is replenished by water from the Omo. Ethiopia initiated the dam project during the last decade with the encouragement of international development agencies, apparently notwithstanding its project’s adverse impact upon thousands of the continent’s poorest peoples, the same agencies that have also stood behind poverty reduction efforts such as those of the Millenium Development Goals.
The same implicit tradeoff for international development agencies between large-scale macro-economic development projects and advancing economically by promoting the interests of millions of small producers has described a transformation in Ethiopian policy over the two decades of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front regime.
Having come to power committed to peasant farmer-based democratic political economy, Ethiopia has become one of the African countries with the most extensive large-scale allocations of land to external developers leaving uncertain the status, circumstances, and prospects of many communities of small producers with strong ancestral ties to portions of those lands, communities in which land tenure insecurity may have been markedly insecure already.
The situation of Kenyan communities dependent upon a viable Lake Turkana region ecology is very different and more complex than for those of the Ethiopians reliant upon the Omo. First, Kenya has a new land policy that commits the country to equity and justice in land tenure relations as well as economic efficiency.
In particular it recognises the validity of community land, though the specifics of what this means have yet to be established. Second, as a report by the California-based International Rivers firm observes, Kenya has been on a democratising path through the 2010 Constitution and its on-going implementation.
By contrast, a thoroughly authoritarian Ethiopia remains committed to cultivating legitimacy effectively on the basis of the outcomes of its macro-economic transformation, of which the dam is a significant dimension. How well and productively Ethiopia is in the process of resettling those displaced by the dam, improving on the abysmal record in this regard, is a matter of debate.
It is pertinent that Ethiopia’s calculations concerning the economic impact of the dam include the salethroughout the region of electricity generated by the dam, including to Kenya, because its own domestic market will be too small to recoup the production costs.
The impacts of the dam on the peoples of the Lake Turkana region are expected to be profound and serious.
Prof Harbeson teaches political science at City University of New York. Gitau Warigi’s column returns next week.
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