The building of the $1.8 billion dam, the Gilgel Gibe III dam, in Ethiopia, began in 2006 and has since become an international point of contention. The government has branded this development project as setting the people in the Lower Omo Valley of Ethiopia on the path to development and modernity. However, it has been reported that the dam has lowered water levels and has negatively impacted agriculture.
The former prime minister of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi dismissed international critics as “wanting [Ethiopians] to remain underdeveloped and backward to serve their tourists as museums.” The Gibe III dam is a huge economic venture for the country as the hydroelectric dam is expected to increase energy output by 85 percent, according to the Atlantic’s reporting. Furthermore, Ethiopia has agreed to sell electricity to Kenya once the dam is complete.
The claims made by the government about the Gibe III dam project counters the narratives told by members of the Lower Omo River Valley community, who are the most heavily impacted by the construction. Over the past few years, students and residents have protested the wide-scale evictions and land grabs all over the country by the government for these development projects that result in mass displacement and the loss of generational assets. The government has been known to use force against demonstrators, killing dozens in 2015, with no inquiry by the state following the tragic incident.
While the government has a long-term economic upturn in mind, it has disregarded the needs of residents in the river valley and remains woefully unconcerned about the agricultural and environmental detriment that comes as a result of the dam. First, residents were not consulted about the building of the dam, and therefore, had no input as to how the government could ensure their security while pursuing this development endeavor. Second, there was little concern about the effects that the low water levels as a result of the dam would have on the economics of the region, seeing as local populations rely on the river for food, resources, and revenue generation from fishing. National Geographic reported that the construction of the dam is affecting people’s ability to respond to the already-existing drought.
Bigger than these two key issues highlighted, there are larger questions to consider about the Gibe III dam as a development project that transcends economic gain and the shift to “modernity” as highlighted by the Ethiopian government. This situation begs the question about development efforts and the ethics of such a project that the government advertises as being a massive improvement to people’s everyday lives. The building of this dam has been proven to threaten the human and economic security of the river valley’s population, all of which one might consider integral aspects of the conversation surrounding development. Given that members of the community were not consulted about the dam or its impact on their livelihoods, it begins to look less like a project meant to improve people’s lives and more like one that has an adverse effect on their human, economic, and environmental development.
The importance of development projects amounts to more than the actual project itself, and there are important lessons to be learned from the dam construction in the Lower Omo Valley. Taking development efforts seriously, as well as cooperation and communication between the government and the people most affected by these large-scale projects, are critical to finding sustainable and long-term solutions to issues of development. However, until states understand this, meeting developmental ends will be perpetually conflictual.
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