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Gibe III and Dam Problems

February 18, 2010
Satellite image of Lake Turkana. Note the jade...

Satellite Image of Lake Turkana via Wikipedia

Last week, the Gibe III hydroelectric power plant in Ethiopia has to shut down following a tunnel collapse, a problem similar to one suffered by Gibe II, but this is not a permanent closure. The impact of this project highlights some of the paradoxes and problems of hydroelectric energy, as subject I’ve blogged about before in the contexts of China and the American Pacific Northwest. While dams provide electricity without the greenhouse emissions of coal-burning plants, they can hardly be called green or clean given the damage they do to local ecosystems. Gibe III endangers the balance of the world’s largest desert lake, Lake Turkana, and in so doing it threatens the ability of more than half a million people who live around the lake to get enough to eat. The hundreds of thousands of indigenous people who live in the Omo River Valley will see their agriculture disrupted by changes to the river’s flood cycle. These groups were not consulted during the dam planning process.

Gibe Dam Map

Gibe Dam Map via Richard Leakey of Wildlife Direct

On the other hand, Gibe III will more than double Ethiopia’s capacity to generate electricity. If accompanied by improvements in the power grid, it will allow for some of the 70% of people in the country who lack access to electricity to have it. It will also make the power supply more reliable for those who already have access. A lot of the energy will be exported to other nations, including Kenya, but this can have positive local effects as well, assuming that that the income from those sales go to help people who need it (admittedly, this is quite an assumption).

None of these positives make the displacement of indigenous people acceptable, however. What they do show is why it isn’t enough for environmental or other groups simply to say no to dams. Instead, we need to work on developing genuine green energy and income options. In particular, those of us who live in nations that have grown wealthy by exploiting the resources of indigenous people in the lands where we now live and of other nations entirely, need to start using that wealth to help some of those other nations develop in ways that damage neither the environment nor other people’s ways of life. We need to substitute the bridge this wealth can build for backs of other less powerful people. This means sponsoring projects that allow individuals and individuals to generate their own electricity through small-scale solar developments. It means paying for initiatives driven by the people who live in these areas.

Opposing projects may be important and necessary at times, but it’s not enough—at least not if you believe in environmental justice.

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