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You are here: Home Resources Further reading Refugees of their Own Country - Water and Land Grab in Ethiopia

Refugees of their Own Country - Water and Land Grab in Ethiopia

last modified Feb 13, 2012 01:57 AM
Ethiopia, a land-locked and densely populated country, has one of the lowest rates of electricity access in the world. In 2006, the government launched the Gibe III project, an aggressive plan to develop hydropower for exportation with the aim of doubling Ethiopia's power capacity upon completion in 2013.

Tribal peoples will be devastated by the current boom in dam-building. Photo: E. Lafforgue/Survival
Tribal peoples will be devastated by the current boom in dam-building.<br /> Photo: E. Lafforgue/Survival
On the one hand, partly financed by the African Development Bank, the project aims to develop, 'modernise' and diversify Ethiopia's economy, which remain one of the world's poorest country. The project comes in line with the institutional and policy reforms that have been undergoing for the past 20 years.

These reforms have underpinned efforts to reduce poverty and increase spending on key sectors such as agriculture, education, health, water, transport and telecommunications. The dam project has also for object to relieve the country from its heavy reliance on foreign aid, which accounts for 90% of Ethiopia's national budget at the moment.

On the other hand, the government's decision to move forward comes amid concerns raised by environmentalists and human rights activists that the construction of the dam constitutes a serious threat to the ecosystems and livelihoods of thousands of indigenous people in south-western Ethiopia and northern Kenya. International Rivers, an NGO working at defending the rights of communities that depend on water resources, argues that the project could increase the risk of conflict and hunger for the people who live by Lake Turkana and the Omo river.

Lake Turkana, Africa's biggest desert lake, provides 90% of the region's water and supports 8 distinct agro-pastoralists groups, whom depend on its annual flood to support riverbank cultivation; flood retreat cultivation and grazing lands for livestock. A study by the Africa Resources Working Group found that the dam will lead to the elimination of the river's natural flood cycle and reduce water levels by 10 to 12 meters, drying up fish stocks, and drinking water.

Further, advocacy groups have warned that the project could lead to increased food insecurity and increased food aid dependency, precisely what the government is trying to avoid. Already the effects of the project are being felt and it has led to territorial tension over natural resources between two pastoralists groups, Kenya's Turkana and the Dasenach Merille people of Ethiopia. There is also fear that Ethiopia's increased dependance on hydropower will leave the power sector vulnerable to droughts and climate change and might hinder export revenues in the future.

The 2 billion dollar project comes against the backdrop of the current 'land rush' and the necessity to increase the amount of irrigated land throughout the nation. The Gibe III dam will help irrigate 150,000 hectares of sugar farmland from a 150 kilometers long reservoir. The government's efforts to promote large-scale agricultural and biofuel schemes, by leasing often disputed land, is motivated by its intention to help alleviate endemic poverty in the region, and reverse the 'backward lifestyle'. In 2011 only an estimated 3.5 million hectares were allocated, while the projected figure for 2015 is 7 million hectares, an area twice the size of Belgium.

While a lot of attention has been focused on 'land grabs', cases like this have prompted groups such as the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) to talk about 'water grabs'. Problems arise from the fact that a lot of contracts do not include water regulation, and would therefore allow unrestricted access to water. For example, just outside Hana, a national sugar company uses 150,000 fertile ha on the lake shore and has used up to 3 billion cubic meters of water. The project is part of a larger governmental scheme that's aim is to transform the 'under-utilised' fertile land into a cash crop producing farmland.

Human rights groups have called on the United Nations to put an end to this project but it has yet to stop the construction or even increase consultation with local population. For thousands of years, pastoralists and nomadic herdsmen have roamed the harsh semi- arid lowlands of the Horn of Africa, in search of water and grazing lands, and have always been able to adapt.

More recently, it has been argued that pastoralism as a livelihood is not sustainable but current events seem to point to a much more complicated problem. In light of the construction of the Gibe III dam, along with the large land acquisitions that are undergoing as well as climate change, it is apparent that economic interests and political decisions play a key role in the vulnerability of pastoralists groups.

A more transparent and objective approach is needed to ensure that the people affected by the dam are involved in the benefits it creates. The project Gibe III dam should be halted until the project's design, costs and impacts have been properly reviewed and addressed, consultations have been conducted and a public debate about the country's energy sector planning has taken place. Otherwise, this likely to trigger more hunger and conflicts in the region, making local populations refugees in their own countries.

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Text: Genevieve Lavoie-Mathieu

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