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Dam Controversies: Contested Governance and Developmental Discourse on the Ethiopian Omo River Dam



State mega‐infrastructure projects in developing countries evoke challenges to citizenship and reconstruct the imagery of statecraft. The Ethiopian government's construction of a large dam in the Omo River evoked contesting accounts of development and legitimate governance among a variety of actors. Debates between relevant actors centre on classic topoi of the ‘development’ discourse but present seemingly irreconcilable views. In the process, discourses of technocratic expertise claiming to evade ‘politics’ as well as culturally grounded socio‐economic narratives are mobilised. They are juxtaposed here to develop an anthropological interpretation of the discursive positions, connecting the analysis to a consideration of precarious citizenship and coercive state consolidation in Ethiopia.
Dam controversies: contested
governance and developmental discourse
on the Ethiopian Omo River dam
State mega-infrastructure projects in developing countries evoke challenges to citizenship and reconstruct the
imagery of statecraft. The Ethiopian government’s construction of a large dam in the Omo River evoked
contesting accounts of development and legitimate governance among a variety of actors. Debates between
relevant actors centre on classic topoi of the ‘development’ discourse but present seemingly irreconcilable
views. In the process, discourses of technocratic expertise claiming to evade ‘politics’ as well as culturally
grounded socio-economic narratives are mobilised. They are juxtaposed here to develop an anthropological
interpretation of the discursive positions, connecting the analysis to a consideration of precarious citizenship
and coercive state consolidation in Ethiopia.
Key words dam building, ethnic conflict, ‘development’, modernism, state-making
This paper discusses some socio-cultural aspects of ‘high-modernist’ projects in
Ethiopia. James Scott’s (1998) term is as relevant as ever in today’s globalising world,
where developing countries have taken over an unreconstructed modernism in their
infrastructural and technocratic approach to socio-economic development. While this
brief account does not aim to provide a major new contribution to social theory,
I advance the argument that evolving modernist governance modes in developing
countries like Ethiopia reinvent modes of coercive state legitimacy by grounding their
political practices in global developmental discourse that reflects the practices and
power strategies of elite institutions and ‘donor country’ governments. In the process,
the subjects and citizens of developing countries are seen as entities whose political
agency and identity are to be neutralised or overcome in a technocratic discourse of
developmentalism that allows no counter-voice. Large infrastructural projects in many
countries now appear to be the ‘ideal’ manner in which to realise this and to ground
or extend the authority and ‘legitimacy’ of the state and redefine citizens’ status in
terms of dependency and ‘displaceability’. In the Ethiopian case discussed here, the
state is recast as a strong ‘developmental state’, similar to those seen in Asia in the
1970s–90s but with a notable extension of surveillance techniques, combining classic
policing with military as well as new technological (ICT) means, and ideologically
Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale (2012) 20, 2 125–144. C
2012 European Association of Social Anthropologists. 125
anchored in a discourse of technocratic developmentalism. The development path
outlined by the Ethiopian party state elite is not seen as open to critical debate or
alternatives, and does not allow scope for different cultural registers. In its effects,
this phenomenon resembles the classic case described in Ferguson’s (1990) oft-cited
study on Lesotho, but this time more comprehensive, as the state – while acting
quintessentially political – denies its own political role and the very contestability of its
An anthropological approach to dam impacts (building on the contributions of
Scudder 2005; Johnston and Gracia-Downing 2004 or Campregher 2010) not only
needs to highlight the observable effects such as displacement, livelihood loss and social
decline, but also the dissonances in cultural discourse around dam constructions as state
infrastructural engineering feats incapable of incorporating views and interests of local
people, who often have a long-established relationship to the land in the socio-economic
and ritual sense.
I present the outlines of a multi-vocal debate on modernist engineering in Ethiopia
and assess its political and policy contexts. I do this by presenting a brief descriptive
overview of the several modes or genres of discourse that one can discern in Ethiopia
around the building of the large Gibe III dam in the Omo River, and connect them
to developmental, state building and governance issues. My interpretation is that
the disparity between those discourses – as social and historically situated forms of
presentation of reality, reflecting power and/or hegemonic claims of emerging parties
involved – tends to increase. This makes negotiated compromises, to be established in
discursive spaces delineated by international law, impossible. The positions are seen
to be incommensurable, driven by either monopolising claims to power and ‘being
right’ from the side of governments and the international financial and development
institutions, as well as activist organisations principally opposed to such grand
engineering. Independent academic observers and researchers constitute a fourth group,
usually not entrenching itself in taking position. A fifth party, the local people directly
impacted by the schemes, is seldom heard, because they are inaccessible, ignored in
research or in reporting, shielded off by the government, or sometimes not even
aware (informed) yet of what exactly is happening. In the course of this paper I will
discuss these five forms of ‘discourse’ that I think can be distinguished, and specifically
reflect on the perception of citizens, in this case local people in the project areas, as
‘dispensable’, as surplus populations to be resettled, moved or shifted around as part
of the national project of (re)building the state and consolidating its power (cf. Li
2009, 2010).
My aim in this article is not primarily to bring a judgment on whether schemes
like the Gibe III dam are beneficial or disastrous for development and economic
growth and people’s well-being: it is foremost to show the problematic interplay
of discursively antagonistic parties on an issue of major public interest, as well as
to highlight the production of images of ‘dispensability’ of state citizens, happening
in the wake of economic-modernist projects conceived on the national level and
not on that of the everyday life of citizens and common people in a negotiated
social order. Nevertheless, the evidence indicates that dominant political practice of
the main players, notably the Ethiopian state, may have deleterious effects on local
development, livelihoods and political and human rights of the people in the areas
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The damming of Ethiopia as a feature in state
Africa has currently more than 1270 dams, and after a backlash in the 1980s, when
the disadvantages of dams and their aftermath were being taken seriously, a new era of
large-scale dam construction seems to have been started (Richter et al. 2010: 16). The
World Bank, the African Development Bank and obviously African governments are
in the forefront of resuscitating this effort. In 1998 a World Commission on Dams was
founded for the purpose of monitoring this.
Ethiopia is one of the enthusiastic participants in massive dam building. Poverty,
socio-economic ‘backwardness’ and material underdevelopment can, in the view of the
state elite, be decisively pushed back by grand schemes of energy infrastructure building
imposed from above. The building of dams all over the country is one crucial element
in this effort, next to large-scale agrarian land leases to foreign investors (and sometimes
they are connected, for example when grand post-dam irrigation schemes are proposed,
see below). In the past 20 years – since the post-Marxist EPRDF party came to power
in 1991 after a civil war – dams and hydropower stations have been built or expanded
in a significant way1, like the Tendaho, the Tekkeze and the T’ana Beles. But the new
Gibe dam cascade, consisting of a projected five big dams on the Gibe-Omo River in
Southwest Ethiopia, beats all. And even additional dams – beyond the Gibe dams –
have been announced in the 25-year master plan of 2003.2The Ethiopian government
has shown a perhaps inordinate desire to build these dams and seems to push the donor
community and global financial institutions into supporting this venture financially and
ideologically as being beneficial for development.
Dam building also has connections with the other hot issue in Africa: land access and
large-scale (foreign) land acquisitions, because: (a) much of the land used by downstream
peoples on the banks of the Omo River will no longer be inundated and exploited by
flood retreat cultivation, an intricate and essential supplementary food resource for the
local people, and (b) the water collected in the huge lake reservoirs behind the Gibe III
dam (and the future Gibe IV dam) is advertised to be used for large-scale irrigation on
lands to be given out to (foreign) investors, near the dam lake and in some downstream
areas and that are envisaged to import tens of thousands of foreign workers as well.
The two-pronged approach to development was outlined in the Ethiopian
government’s various development plans. The fact that these ambitious plans exist
already makes a good impression on the donor community and the World Bank and
creates goodwill, but often leads to naive or unwarranted assumptions among these
1 Some of them started under previous regimes, such as the Gibe I, Alwero and Tekkeze, dams and
the Finch’a hydroelectric power station. The T’ana Beles hydropower station that started in May
2010 is producing below capacity (460 MW) because of reduced water flows caused by drought.
The resettlement consequences of T’ana Beles were negative (cf. Gebre 2009) and the adverse effects
on Lake T’ana are also problematic. Tekkeze is also precarious and not in optimal use either. The
Gibe II hydropower plant (a turbine tunnel structure) faced serious problems in 2010 due to tunnel
collapse and was still not fully operational in mid-2011.
2 Others are the Chemoga Yeda (five smaller dams on Blue Nile tributaries) and Genale Dawa (two
dams on the Genale river, between Oromiya and Somali regional states), with more to come. The
largest of all is to be the ‘Millennium’ or recently renamed ‘Renaissance’ dam on the Blue Nile. It
was started in 2010 and is to be financed by Ethiopia itself via ‘voluntary contributions’ and bonds
to be bought by the Ethiopian public (notably state employees, many of whom had to donate one
month of salary for it). The plan for building it has in 2011 caused tensions with Egypt.
2012 European Association of Social Anthropologists.
donors about the actual processes of implementation, financing, and social and political
effects of the plans. For example, in the 2003 74-page Rural Development Policy and
Strategies document, large-scale agricultural development was announced, much of it via
foreign investments. In 2010 a new development plan, the Growth and Transformation
Plan (GTP), was promulgated, a managerial blueprint with many good points though
strongly infused with the ‘revolutionary democratic’ ideology of the ruling party
EPRDF, which sees itself as the vanguard party solely able to direct the national
development effort, on the basis of a political model of top-down implementation
and wholesale re-engineering of Ethiopian rural society (i.e. of smallholder farming and
The massive and ambitious investment in the national energy structure via mega-
dams is seen as a key strategy both to generate electricity for domestic economic growth
and for the country to become energy-independent and even an exporter of hydropower.
Built and ideally financed largely by foreign parties, among them China, the Ethiopian
government hereby escapes domestic accountability pressures and can act politically
independently. Nevertheless, there is a likelihood of tensions being created not only
between local communities and the state but also on the international political level.
Local opinion in Ethiopia is divided on the need for such a massive debt-generating
investment in energy structures, for which there is as yet no domestic demand (and no
sufficient national grid). In addition, and not surprising in view of what is known about
the effects of mega-dams worldwide, social costs as well as group tensions will likely
follow the construction of the dams: forced resettlement, decline of quality of life and
well-being, more water-borne diseases, loss of productive land and incomes, more local
group competition, not to speak of cultural and heritage loss. While beneficial effects
of dams for directly affected local people can in the long run of course not be excluded,
the advantages will first and foremost be on the national level: the sale of dam energy
abroad (planned by the government) is estimated to yield hundreds of millions of US
dollars annually, rivalling the revenue of coffee, the largest export crop. This is in the
expectation that neighbouring countries will continue to need and buy the power for
the coming decades, and also that rainfall over the Ethiopian highlands will not diminish
over time. Both assumptions are somewhat problematic.3
Needless to say, modernisation ideology is alive and well in Ethiopia, which in
pursuing these multiple dam-building schemes is showing itself to be a classic ‘high-
modernist’ state indeed (cf. Scott 1998: 4), bent on technology-driven ‘development’ and
top-down planning at all cost by a self-declared all-knowing state elite. In this respect,
there is a seamless continuity with earlier socialist-modernist planning in Ethiopia,
which in the 1980s saw large-scale resettlement schemes under the previous, military-
socialist Derg regime, with huge human cost and little economic returns (cf. Pankhurst
and Piguet 2009). The common theme in both regimes is ‘state building’ via development
in the fast-forward mode; and the mega-projects confirm the aims and policies of a state
elite bent on establishing its undisputed hegemony domestically and internationally.
The massive investment in mega-dams and foreign land leases may for recent Afro-
optimist observers mean the reaffirmation of ‘Africa in the world’ and indicate the
hopeful ‘economic upturn’ of a neglected continent long seen as ‘behind’ others (cf.
Juma 2011; Roxburgh et al. 2010). However, one should have an eye for the human
3 See ‘Where the water ends: Africa’s climate conflicts’ (
ends_africas_climate_conflicts/2331) Accessed 15 August 2011.
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costs and the long-term social and environmental problems that may come in the dam’s
wake, and for which several expert warnings were given. Of course, it is easy to neglect
them, especially when one is not a member of one of the local peoples that will be facing
such problems. This is common among the new Afro-optimists who, in a new move
of political correctness, appear to have an eye mainly for the economic growth figures
and not the human elements, political democracy or the nature and durability problems
of this growth. Mega-dams, however, pose many problems that should be considered
holistically and not only economically (cf. Scudder 2005; Cernea 1997; D’Souza 2010).
Local people often observe such a dam project as a constraining grid coming down
on them and disconnecting them not only from their livelihoods but also from the
political process. The analytical point is that the states in question redefine and move
local people to detach them from the land so as to make it a ‘free resource’. This is also
reflected in the legal arrangement in Ethiopia: all land is still state property, not private;
and there being no recognised cultural or even viable economic link between land and
people dependent on it, the latter appear as ‘displaceable’ and as objects easily moved
The Gibe III project: what is it?
The Gibe III dam was started in 2006 and is still under construction, to be completed
in 2013. Its location is 450 km southwest of the capital, Addis Ababa, on the border of
the Wolaitta and the Dawro Zones.4A work force of ca. 3500 people is busy working
on it, on a large, double-zoned and fenced site virtually closed to the outside world.
The dam is to be a 245-m high barrage in the Gibe-Omo River (Gibe is the name of
the upper course of the river up to the Gojeb tributary). The dam is a roller-compacted
concrete dam with an associated hydroelectric power plant. Its power output is officially
expected to be about 1870 Megawatt (MW), more than double the total electric capacity
of Ethiopia from its 2007 level of 814 MW. Notably, in 2008 Ethiopia’s total electrical
power use was not more than 587 MW, so domestic demand is far below the projected
production capacity (even below its capacity at the time). The Ethiopian government
wants to use this and other dams as a resource for generating foreign revenues, planning
electricity export to Sudan, Djibouti and Kenya. The dam is to be operated by the state-
owned Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo). Its initial costs were estimated
at 1.47 bn (US$1.9 bn); in August 2010 they had already risen to 1.7 bn, and are
likely to be higher.
In June 2013 the dam reservoir (ca. 14 bn m3) will have to be filled to power the
hydroelectric plant.5This will take two or three years, during which the Omo River flow
will greatly dwindle and directly impact riverbank livelihood systems downstream. The
natural flow of the Omo River will be decisively changed in the long run, also because
additional huge irrigation schemes are foreseen.6The local seasonal flooding along
4 Maps of the Gibe III project area can be found in the EEPCo report (2008a), Gibe III Environmental
and Social Impact Assessment, pp. 42–3.
5 See Salini Costrutturi, ‘Gibe III: the Survival figures are obviously incorrect’, Press release, Rome,
30 March 2010.
6 See
(Accessed 2 June 2011), and PM Meles Zenawi’s speech during the 13th Annual Pastoralists’ Day
celebrations, Jinka, South Omo, 25 January 2011.
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the river bank zones, essential for the agrarian and pastoral livelihoods of ca. 180,000
people (see Turton 2010: 4) will be dramatically reduced. Local economic systems will
thereby be affected, despite the promise in the official Gibe III impact assessment
documents that an annual 10-day water release will try to imitate that flooding.7But
this is economically not helpful for local people. While not all local people can be
assumed to have an inherent, ontological attachment to the land where they live or could
not survive without it, social research has shown that for most communities a long-
established, meaningful and economically significant bond exists between them and the
local environment. Most of them prefer also to be consulted on future developments.
But communities will probably have to move out, as prime grazing lands and cultivation
sites will be alienated from them. Foreign and highland Ethiopian labourers (there is
talk of 100,000) will move in, and local people will have little competitive power or
inclination to work on the plantations on the lands expropriated from them – if they
are allowed.
Environmental and social impact assessments (ESIA) of the dam have been made,
as required by Ethiopian and international law. The first environmental assessment
came in 2006 when construction started, but the more complete ESIA study came out
only about two years later, i.e. when construction had already advanced significantly,
and it drew a lot of criticism. Local people were consulted, but they were mainly
local administrators (i.e. government people), and none could change the plans, only
talk about some mitigating measures and compensation sums for what was to come.
The approval process for the project was suspect, because there was no competitive
bidding (thus easing the Ethiopian government’s commanding role but leading to the
withdrawal of various potential backers; cf. Mwanda 2011) and funding for the full
construction costs was not secured. Only the African Development Bank in 2010 gave
a loan of US$250 million, and has generally not been critical of the project. Later
the Italian government, in a bid to support the Italian construction company Salini
Costruttori SpA, the contractors of the dam, provided hundreds of millions of US
dollars as well. The World Bank and the European Investment Bank did not participate.
In 2009 China, a close political and economic partner of the Ethiopian government,
provided US$500 million in equipment, funded by the Industrial and Commercial
Bank of China (ICBC).
Dam studies – experiences so far
Large dams for hydroelectric power generation are making a comeback because they are
seen as a quick road to ‘clean energy’ and, once the capital investment in the structures is
made, a relatively reliable source of electricity is available. Due to the continent’s natural
features, the ‘potential’ for hydroelectric power generation in Africa is always said to
be great. It has indeed become a new mantra of the development elite. Of Ethiopia it
is often said in official documents that the country has the potential to generate 45,000
7 Turton cites a 2010 statement by Salini Costruttori, the Gibe III builders, from where it appears
that the local people ‘are expected to switch from flood-retreat agriculture to more modern forms
of agriculture’. This statement reveals that ‘the controlled flood is not, and possibly never has been
seen by the dam builder as a permanent mitigating measure for downstream impacts’ (2010: 6). It
can be predicted that in, say, five to ten years’ time, this conclusion will be vindicated.
2012 European Association of Social Anthropologists.
MW in the future so that there is scope for much expansion – although this would mean
that most if not all suitable gorges and rivers in the entire country would have to be
dammed, and no attention would be paid to wider environmental, ecological, seismicity
and agronomic variables (apart even from the landscape-aesthetic ones).
There is a respectable tradition of comparative dam studies, with many from
anthropology (see Scudder 2005; Richter et al. 2010) and some of the conclusions
are that, while a substantial domestic energy resource is usually created, the following
drawbacks may occur: (a) significant environmental problems, among them loss of
biodiversity, loss of agrarian land, land slide problems, water seepage and evaporation;
(b) recurrent technical problems, such as silting of the reservoirs, seismic pressure and
unexpected construction weaknesses discovered after operating the dam; (c) proper
cost-benefit analyses are hardly made; livelihoods of people near the dam areas and
downstream are negatively impacted, ranging from loss of lands and livelihoods to
loss of resources and income, and displacement to poorer areas, rarely sufficiently
compensated (cf. Cernea and Mathur 2008); (d) more health problems may appear
among people close to the lake reservoirs (notably malaria or bilharzia; cf. Ligon et
al. 1995; Tedros et al. 1999); and (e) local people had little say, if any, in any dam
venture and government promises to compensate them or offer alternatives are rarely
kept. Interestingly, on the basis of local evidence, many dams are being reassessed,
for example the Chinese Three Gorges dam. China has recently admitted the serious
long-term problems with its Three Gorges dam (Hvistendahl 2008; Watts 2011). But it
has continued funding similar risky projects in Africa (Giles 2006), and still funds the
current Ethiopian dam-building ventures.
In Ethiopia itself there is also a perennial problem of the maintenance of projects,
structures and machines once built or installed, and of unforeseen environmental,
socio-economic and engineering problems, usually acknowledged only when serious
problems occur some years later. Upkeep of products delivered is weak, as is evident
from the Beles and Tekkeze dams, damaging performance and durability. Remarkably,
in the fever to build new dams the lessons of the past are not taken into account,
not even by the donor countries and institutions providing the funding. Studies of
the aftermath of various large Ethiopian dam projects (like the T’ana-Beles and the
Tekkeze), however, have made clear that they were not an unmitigated success and
have had disturbing social and environmental effects.8Often small dams, while not
so spectacular, are much more suitable, as they are less vulnerable to mechanical and
engineering failure, avoid massive displacement and resettlement of people (cf. Richter
et al. 2010), and pose fewer maintenance problems.
Relation of the Gibe III dam and the surrounding
socio-economic and societal environment
Most prominent in the global discussion on the Gibe III dam’s impact is not the
threatened displacement of people in the immediate area of the dam, because most of
8 Cf. the analysis of an engineer on the drying out effect of the T’ana Beles scheme on Lake T’ana:
Grawa Samuel (2011) T’ana hayq derqo, beSudan t’eref sint’allel’ [‘While Lake Tana dries up it [the
water] is on display near the Sudan border’] (
Accessed 10 June 2011). See also Gebre (2009) on resettlement problems and the general demise of
the Beles scheme (p. 123).
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the lake gorge is indeed sparsely populated or uninhabited; only some 230 families
were estimated to be moved, and the land lost is low-intensity pasture and hunting-
gathering territory. The threat is to the livelihoods of ca. 200,000 people downstream
(in Ethiopia) because of the disappearance of the floods and the recession of the water
level (Turton 2010: 4). At least a similar number of people in Kenya will also be affected,
due to the expected drying out of Lake Turkana and its delta, which may see a large
drop of its water level (cf. Avery 2010), reduced fish stocks, and perhaps more salinity
of the water so as to make it undrinkable and unsuitable for irrigation agriculture. In
addition, the Lower Omo Valley as well as Lake Turkana, a unique desert lake with
natural and economic value, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites (respectively since
1980 and 1997).9The Valley is also an important location of hominid finds and ancient
habitation. Near the dam site itself, parts of two medieval defence walls of the Walaitta
and Dawro kingdoms will be flooded by the future lake. In July 2011 the World Heritage
Committee of the UN called for a halt of the construction of Gibe III until all negative
impacts of the dam had been independently investigated and evaluated.10 It advised the
Ethiopian government to consider the universal heritage value of the Omo Valley and
called upon it to fulfil its obligations to protect the sites. Needless to say, the call was
brushed aside11 by government spokesmen in the usual denial mode, with Ethiopia on
the way to endanger universal heritage of humanity.
In southwest Ethiopia there are a number of ethnic groups living along the
downstream Omo banks: the Bodi, Mursi, Nyangatom, Kwegu, Chai, Kara, Bashada,
Me’en, and Dassanech, the latter living in and near the Omo delta near Lake Turkana.
They will lose not only some of their hunting and gathering areas but, as noted, also
their flood-retreat cultivation sites, which are currently an essential and stable food
production niche in an area with precarious rainfall. In addition, fishing and livestock
pasture areas will be sharply reduced and a general receding of groundwater reserves
will be seen also. This will undermine food security (already precarious in the region)
and trigger migrations and possibly more inter-group conflict. The government has
been quick to promise water pumps to enhance irrigated agriculture along the river
banks, but there are many practical and socio-cultural obstacles to this. And what the
government basically seems to have in mind is to lease the lands to new investors for
big irrigated agricultural schemes where displaced local people probably are envisaged
to be wage labourers.
Kenyans, including some MPs and local NGOs, have lodged complaints12 with
Ethiopia because of the threats to Lake Turkana and the negative impact on the
livelihoods of the Turkana, Elmolo, Rendille and other peoples, but – as expected –
the Kenyan government signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ethiopian
government, agreeing to the dam without considering local effects in a (for them)
marginal area in the semi-arid North.
9 See (Accessed 20 May 2011).
10 See A. Ashine, ‘UN calls for suspension of giant Ethiopian hydropower dam’, Daily Nation
(Nairobi), 28 July 2011; J. Mwanda, ‘Ethiopia’s world heritage site tribes threatened’, International
News Magazine (Sydney), 1 August 2011.
11 As reported in ‘Ethiopia continues dam construction over UN objections’, Addis Fortune (Addis
Ababa), 7 August 2011.
12 Most recently in August 2011: see ‘MPs join opposition to Ethiopian dam’, Capital FM (Nairobi),
10 August 2010.
2012 European Association of Social Anthropologists.
There is no doubt that due to the dam construction the surrounding socio-economic
and societal environment will be irretrievably altered and that local peoples will have to
adapt and change (cf. Angelo 2010) to the point of abandoning most of their way of life.
There is no evidence that they will be given a choice in this. Formerly ‘isolated’, now
tourist-visited ‘tribal’ groups in the area will be more visible and connected to the wider
national society. Education, migration, socio-cultural assimilation and new economic
activities will follow, perhaps preceded by a phase of disorientation and more local group
conflict. No one in the local population doubts that income loss and economic decline
will affect the people impacted by the dam. In general, the promises of compensation
and provision of services are not believed. There are reports that protesters can land
in jail.13 In practice, the possibility to resist seems slim due to government pressure
and military presence. While previous studies of the impacts of dams (Richter et al.
2010; Scudder 2005; Cernea 2004) have advised government and aid agencies to consult
the locals and make them a partner in change, nothing of this kind seems to occur
in Ethiopia, except in a very formal, top-down manner. The enormous body of
sociological and anthropological knowledge on these societies, and on their value for
the comparative study of humankind, of local ecology, or of environmental practices, is
In addition, a general expectation for the wider natural environment in the dam
project areas is that species decline, deforestation and loss of biodiversity will result,
not only in the immediate dam location area but also downstream, because of the likely
receding of the river and of the lake and its changing chemical composition (with a
likelihood of it becoming more salty and alkaline).
The EEPCo Impact Assessments as well as critical reports by various concerned
experts, NGOs, advocacy groups and local people all indicate substantial effects and
impacts on the environment, socio-economic systems, livelihoods, and the social
organisation and culture of the people living near the dam or downstream. This is,
of course, to be expected in view of all the studies made on dams elsewhere. Only the
EEPCo reports make nothing of it, suggesting easy adjustments. Neither does the media
noise about the ‘sustainable development’ impact of the Gibe III dam (and of the others
planned), claimed during a conference in Addis Ababa in 2011,14 demonstrate that for all
those impacted by the dams the idea of sustainability is valid. In the recommendations
of this conference,15 nothing is said on the role, value and knowledge of local peoples
and stakeholders living in the dam area.
Divergent views on the dam
At least five, often antagonistic, positions can be distinguished on the use and impact
of the Gibe III dam, touching upon matters of basic engineering, economic use,
13 As has happened with those objecting to large-scale land acquisitions, see Ed Butler, ‘Land grab
fears for Ethiopian rural communities’, BBC news message, 16 October 2010 (
news/business-11991926) Accessed 5 May 2011. Survival International even reported that human
rights abuse was already on the way among local opponents of the dam: ‘Exposed: Ethiopia
gives farmland to foreigners while thousands starve’ (
Accessed 5 August 2011.
14 Sponsored by the Ethiopian government and the International Hydropower Association (IHA),
held 31 March–1 April 2011; see (Accessed 19 August 2011).
15 Downloadable from (Accessed 20 August 2011).
2012 European Association of Social Anthropologists.
environmental impact but also on those of state legitimacy, governance, developmental
obsessions, and the place of and respect for the local people affected. I summarise them
Government positions
The Ethiopian government, led by the EPRDF as the sole ruling (vanguard) party for
20 years, expresses total and unconditional commitment to dam building in order to
develop the country. Dams are seen as necessary, and as the best way to attain energy self-
sufficiency and boost the power of central government, who will own them and operate
them. Few if any objections were listened to – not domestically, not internationally.
Public debate on the dam construction has been absent, it having become a dogma that
this was the right road to ‘poverty eradication and economic growth’. Interests of local
people or the environment seem immaterial, and any problems resulting from the dam
‘can be solved’. For critics, it is a case of state hubris in the classical sense.
Ethiopia’s PM has repeatedly expressed the state’s (ruling party’s) attitude best. In
August 2010 he vowed to complete the dam ‘at any cost’, saying about critics of the dam
that ‘They don’t want to see developed Africa; they want us to remain undeveloped and
backward to serve their tourists as a museum.’16 And in a speech on 2010 ‘Pastoralists’
Day’ in the southern town of Jinka, he said:
Our efforts to build a dam on the Omo River to eliminate the flood, to create a
huge irrigation system and give pastoralists a sustainable income and a modern
life, are facing roadblocks. Our limited capacity to execute this work, and limited
financial aid, did not allow us to go as fast as we wanted to. There are some people
who want to block our freedom to use our rivers, and to save our people from
These words speak for themselves; no comment needed. He continued:
They just want to keep the pastoralists as a tourist attraction and make sure
no development happens in pastoral areas. They team up with the people who
don’t want us to use our rivers to broadcast their propaganda. There can’t be
anyone more concerned for our environmental conservation than we are. We are
determined to speed up our development in an environmentally-friendly way. We
want our people to have a modern life and we won’t allow our people to be a case
study of ancient living for scientists and researchers.17
The rest of the speech contained promises that all ‘backwardness’ of the local people
and their civilisations would be addressed. In this well-meant government discourse
there is no reflection on the value of alternative views or on the local knowledge or
the wishes of those people – their narrative is not taken seriously, because they are
backward, ignorant and not yet sharing in the graces of development (although all these
terms are of course very relative).
16 In New Business Ethiopia (an Ethiopian weekly), 11 August 2010.
17 Speech by PM Meles Zenawi during the 13th Annual Pastoralists’ Day celebrations, Jinka, South
Omo Zone, 25 January 2011.
2012 European Association of Social Anthropologists.
All state institutions and the ruling party follow suit. There are the state media,
the pro-government website Walta,18 and the various Ministries. Also EEPCo, as chief
agency responsible for the dam projects, gave its views. For instance, a report by the
EEPCo Head Office of August 2010 pictured no negative consequences of the Gibe III
dam whatsoever, on the surrounding area or on the peoples downstream, nor on the
biology and ecology of Lake Turkana (EEPCo 2010). Remarkably, even no hint was
made here to any of the concerns mentioned in EEPCo’s own previous 2008 reports
(EEPCo 2008a, 2008b), where adverse effects were at least recognised. The Gibe III
project also has its own website,19 which has no word on possible problems and mainly
sings praises of the project and its progress.
Also a significant part of the Ethiopian public, including in the diaspora, is proud of
the dam construction, seeing it as ‘empowering Ethiopia’ and raising its importance on
the African continent. They often adopt a blanket nationalist economic point of view,
countering critics with the statement that Ethiopia has the right to development and that
(Western) critics are ‘jealous’, or ‘denigrating Ethiopia’. No one would deny this right
‘to develop’. But in this approach the diversity of local interests and the risk of negative
impacts on certain peoples are all too easily bypassed. There is little if any evidence that
recent international conventions and declarations adopted in the UN on the rights of
‘tribal’ or indigenous peoples are being respected.20 Here the modernisation discourse
of the government has made converts to the extent that any discussion of such eventual
problems and disadvantages is avoided or delegitimised. The larger part of the politically
quite vocal Ethiopian diaspora, however, is against mega-dam building, seemingly not
primarily because of the specific project (Gibe III) but because of their general political
objections to the regime in place.21
International financial institutions and international law and monitoring
These groups of commentators and policy-making institutions have a facilitating role,
in practice usually supporting national developmental efforts and plans of developing
countries, providing expert advice, financial aid and legal counsel. They point to
legal obligations, impose conditions and call for following internationally agreed
upon protocols, such as environmental and social impact assessments and the legal
representation of stakeholders. Among these groups are the World Bank, the IMF,
the African Development Bank, the European Investment Bank and USAID. Also the
World Commission on Dams (WCD), set up by two unlikely partners, the World Bank
and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), can be included
here. In 2000, this Commission issued a report stating that decisions to build large
hydroelectric dams must be guided by ‘indigenous people’s free, prior and informed
18 See ‘Gilgel Gibe III’s detractors continue their campaign’, Walta, 26 February 2011
( =com_content&task =view&id =25560&Itemid =96).
19 See (Accessed 19 September 2011).
20 See the UNHCR Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 1989 (no. 169), the Declaration on the
Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities (Resolution
47/135, December 1992) and the UN General Assembly Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous
Peoples (A/61/L.67) of 7 September 2007.
21 Some also object to the generation of the huge debt that may result.
2012 European Association of Social Anthropologists.
consent to the project’ (WCD 2000). But this principle has not been applied (yet) to
the Gibe III dam. In its 2000 report the WCD also did not provide an estimate of
the impact of river flow alteration (to be major in the case of the dammed Omo) on
the downstream peoples and ecosystems (Richter et al. 2010: 15), although indications
are that such impact will be far-reaching. Occasionally, these international agencies
voice objections over the non-competitive bidding procedures for construction or on
the absence or neglect of proper (i.e. independent) environmental and social impact
assessments (ESIAs).
This category of institutions also remains rather dependent on national governments
in developing countries and is also strongly embedded in, and subservient to,
international ‘donor discourse’, notably of the larger powers. Nevertheless, a study
by Avery (2010) for the African Development Bank has outlined a few major problems
of the project for the Lake Turkana environment and economy.
The world press and critical NGOs
Most criticisms, often rather alarmist, on dam building and impact assessment have
been offered by the international press, and increasingly by many advocacy civil society
groups and NGOs. While the first aim to represent the whole gamut of interests and
describe the initial problems encountered, the latter make usually an unambiguous
choice against dam building and take the side of the people affected who are losing their
lands, livelihoods and socio-cultural heritage.
Characteristic of world press reporting has been an influential 2009 article by the
BBC’s Peter Greste, called ‘The dam that divides Ethiopians’.22 Journalists now find
it difficult to access the site of the dam and are rarely accorded interviews. This again
leads to more suspicion, criticism and breakdown of dialogue.
Various NGOs and interest groups are active in this domain of dam monitoring,
among them International Rivers, StopGibe3,23 Survival International (2009, 2010),
Friends of Lake Turkana,24 Indigenous Peoples of Africa, Campagna per la Riforma
della Banca Mondiale (2008), and the Bank Information Center and some have been
joined by big names, such as Richard Leakey, the Kenyan scientist and conservationist. 25
They are usually adamantly opposed to the building of the Gibe dams and request
governments, donor countries and international institutions to critically approach
dam projects, to apply the relevant legal clauses and guidelines for evaluating and
monitoring, and often to withhold funding for it if all ‘stakeholders’ are not consulted.
They also organised petitions (for instance, on World Water Day 201126 ) and targeted
demonstrations near the headquarters of such organisations. Characteristic headings
of International Rivers articles are: ‘Big dams: bringing poverty not power’, and
22 See (Accessed 7 February 2011), with accompa-
nying video reports. Also (Accessed 10 February
23 See (Accessed 28 June 2011).
24 See (Accessed 10 June 2011).
25 See
are-devastating-the-antarctic (Accessed 9 October 2011).
26 See (Accessed 4 September 2011), mentioning
that 400 organisations had signed a petition against the dam.
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‘Ethiopia’s Gibe 3: sowing hunger and conflict.’27 Survival International (2010) noted:
‘Giant dam to devastate 200,000 tribal people in Ethiopia’.28 Ikal Angelei, director
of Friends of Lake Turkana, said in a statement in February 2011: ‘Construction
of Gibe III is the most outrageous social injustice of our time.’29 The approach
of these organisations is ecological or conservation-based and therefore legitimate,
but also protective and perhaps paternalistic to the local people and their ethno-
cultural traditions, thereby tending to somewhat underestimate their adaptive capacities
and agency. These organisations exert significant pressure but have mostly not been
successful in engaging the Ethiopian government or the international institutions in a
meaningful dialogue or exchange of views on the dam projects, and as a result both
parties become even more antagonistic.
Ethiopian diaspora political opposition
As domestic debate in Ethiopia, as well as civil society action critical of the dam ventures
within Ethiopia, is barred (notably following a very restrictive NGO law issued in 2009),
the Internet is a major site for debates on controversial political issues, including on
the Gibe dam scheme. Websites of Ethiopian opposition groups are very vocal (cf.
Lyons 2007) and contain often strongly voiced but often well-documented critiques
on Ethiopian party/government policies. Interestingly, government people, especially
the Prime Minister or top policy advisors, often respond to such critiques in their own
speeches and statements, despite the fact that the Internet users and the general public
in Ethiopia are prevented from accessing the diaspora websites, because if censorship
by the sole Internet provider in Ethiopia (ETC).
The often vociferous tone of the diaspora cyber-criticisms undermines the substance
of relevant critiques issued on the same websites,30 and serves to polarise the issues. Both
the government and its radical critics thus construct a mutual recrimination discourse
that hardly advances debate on the merits of any policy, including dam building. One
website, for example, speaks of ‘dictatorial death dams’31 , another of ‘looming eco-geno-
cide’ due to the ‘destructive path’ of Gibe III.32 Such epithets cloud the discussion and
do neither good service to local people nor contribute to properly evaluating the serious
impact of the dams.
Independent experts and researchers
Several independent observers, experts and scholars have offered their reasoned views
on the Gibe controversy, giving technical, economic or social-science analyses of the
entire context or on aspects of it, such as the environmental and biodiversity impacts.
27 See for such papers (Accessed 12 September 2011).
28 See (Accessed 16 June 2011).
29 See ‘Groups to protest against China-funded dam’, at
201102210227.html (Accessed 20 June 2011).
30 Such sites also contain expert assessments that make good points, among them, Samuel and Samson
(2010), Mitchell (2009) and Johnston (2009, 2010).
31 See: (Accessed 15 August 2011).
32 See Khadija Sharife (2010) ‘East Africa’s looming famine – Gibe III’ (www.huffingtonpost.
com/khadija-sharife/east-africas-looming-fami_b_577789.html Accessed 5 April 2011).
2012 European Association of Social Anthropologists.
Some called for following accepted international procedures of social assessment and
compensation, participatory policy, alternative livelihood procurement, and human
rights respect. Examples are Mitchell (2009), Samuel and Samson (2010, although on
Gibe II), Johnston (2009), ARWG (2009), the SOGREAH report (2010) and Turton
(2010). Some social scientists who know the Omo area well also have commented, for
example, in journalists’ reports,33 but few fieldwork-based contributions have yet been
made by social science researchers (except Turton 2010 and Johnston 2009, 2010) on
attitudes to the dam and its possible impacts. There are already a significant number
of studies allowing politicians, policy makers, researchers and constructors to picture
and take into account the ‘pre-dam social conditions’ (Richter et al. 2010: 25) of the
people to be affected. As I suggested above, it is advisable and legally warranted to use
this corpus of knowledge that sociologists, historians, geographers, anthropologists and
others have produced on these peoples over the past decades. It can help to understand
the history, the ecological management, social systems and also the humanity of these
societies, to assess their social and cultural features, and understand the future costs that
these peoples affected by dam projects may have to pay.34 This knowledge can then also
be drawn upon to design realistic ‘mitigation measures’ and adaptive mechanisms, to be
facilitated by the state. In a recent article in Nature, Tollefson (2011) noted that at least
a ‘mechanism for evaluating, and perhaps mitigating, the impact of dams before they are
built’ [my emphasis, J.A.] would be advisable. This seems rational and self-evident, but
not all those involved are convinced of this or can even imagine it. All independent work
on the Gibe project concludes that the social and environmental impact aspects were
not considered with the necessary amount of caution and sensitivity and consistently
wish away any problems.
The local people
I discuss the local people here last, because, characteristically, little is known of their
ideas and opinions. There is a large gap in knowledge, both about their exact relation
to the lands they inhabit as well as their viewpoints: they were not asked or rarely
consulted by policy makers, experts or independent researchers, and as yet no one
can speak for them. They are not even recognised as ‘indigenous’ (see note 35) by the
Ethiopian government. But several media articles contain interviews with local people,
and various social scientists, including some anthropologists, have given estimates, based
on in-depth knowledge and recent visits to the area. But clearly more comprehensive
research is needed. In an influential BBC article, one of the Mursi community leaders
said that they were never officially informed of the dam and that ‘We will suffer because
there will be no more floods ...I don’t think the government likes the Omo tribes.
33 See the BBC report at (Accessed 10 February 2011).
34 There is also the international context, already referred to above: the Declaration on the Rights
of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the UN on 13 September 2007 states, inter alia, that ‘States
shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their
own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the
approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in
connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources’
( Accessed 2 May 2011.
2012 European Association of Social Anthropologists.
They are going to destroy us.’ Nyangatom people cited said that they did not
believe or understand the government in its promises of providing irrigation
Most of the ‘consulting’ of local people seems to have been done by the Gibe III
project Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (EEPCo 2008a, with another one
in January 2009 by CESI and Mid-Day Consulting 2009), for which the authors stated
to have talked to about 2000 people. But only 80 were from directly affected Lower
Omo area ethnic groups, most of them administrators (EEPCo 2008a: 198–200), and the
findings and measures proposed were minimal (EEPCo 2008b: 158). The Additional
Study on Downstream Impact (EEPCO 2008c) was very thorough, but again very
meagre on community consultation (pp. 160–2). Informants’ input could not change
anything, because the terms were biased. The problem was also, as said above, that
these social assessments came almost two years after the construction of the dam had
started and with all plans already determined and approved by the state authorities. In
addition, the experiences so far of impact assessment and redress mechanisms in similar
grand schemes, such as T’ana Beles, Tekkeze and resettlement projects, do not inspire
much confidence. In view of land and water scarcity, poorer environmental conditions,
loss of livestock holdings, policies of ethnic closure that have reduced the absorptive
capacity of local societies to resettlers, and low compensation sums and inputs provided
by the government, people downstream will face, certainly in the initial stages, serious
declines of livelihood and well-being.
Important information on the local situation and people’s views was also provided
by Turton (2010), a long-time researcher and expert on the Lower Omo region. His
contribution, based on visits in 2010 to the impact area downstream, confirmed the many
insecurities and adverse consequences feared by local ethnic groups. Interestingly, he
noted that one of the reasons given by the Ethiopian authorities for building the dam
was to prevent seasonal floods that allegedly had killed ‘hundreds of people’, notably
in 2006 (EEPCo 2008c: 141). But in interviews with Turton, local Dassanetch and
Nyangatom individuals were not able to recall any victims of such a flood. Floods do
occur, but people are used to them and the casualty figures seem to be incorrect and
My own interviews with representatives of two other ethnic groups from the
Lower Omo area in Addis Ababa in September 2010 and October 2011 revealed
great apprehension about the uncertain future (for example, they expect more food
insecurity), with a rejection of projected new irrigation-based mega-plantations on
their grazing lands, and even fears of group conflicts due to disputes about grazing
land and water in the wake of the dam construction. They also had little confidence
in the compensation sums and the plans for irrigation and pump installation that were
promised. They were ambivalent about the expected loss of tourist income (because
this phenomenon was already contested), and also rejected official statements by the
authorities that they had a ‘backward civilisation’ or were all ‘poor’ or ‘unemployed’.
This is indeed one of the most sensitive points: it is one thing to observe that local people
could benefit more from measured and considerate state support, but for ‘developers’
35 Other local views are presented in the short video documentary by M. Angelo (
com/watch?v=otpu8bcOzv0 Accessed 2 September 2011) of the Kara people, and in the
campaign video on Turkana Lake made by International Rivers (
0mFjZnKeOnE&feature=player_embedded#at=17 Accessed 2 September 2011).
2012 European Association of Social Anthropologists.
to deny them (they are also citizens) the human and survival value of their ways of life
is problematic, to say the least.
The dam may in theory carry benefits for the local people. But seeing this impending
decline in livelihoods, living spaces and environment (cf. Richter et al. 2010: 15), and the
constant denigration of their so-called ‘primitive and backward way of life’, as expressed
in official state documents, as well as the bypassing of their existence and interests, does
not bode well (RNW 2011). The discourse of belittling the people and seeing their
sacrifices unquestioningly as necessary for the ‘greater good’ recalls the long historical
experience of suffering that rural Ethiopians have endured (cf. Dessalegn 2009: 24 on
the highland peasants, admirably expressing this). This condition of suffering may now
be entering a new phase, this time affecting the southern agro-pastoralists.
These five categories of ‘stakeholders’ hardly meet in a shared discursive space,
despite efforts to redefine and reshape reality: some because they do not feel the need
(like the state and some of the international players), others because they appeal to reason
and public opinion only or assume the role of attorney for local peoples (advocacy
groups, activists), or are powerless (local peoples). Neither is there a legal process
for negotiating the plans and adapting or confronting them with customary laws and
local practices that have been resilient for so long: state policy is a non-negotiable
‘Governance’ aspects: the production of dispensable
The last category of voices discussed above was that of the local people in the lower
Gibe-Omo river basin. Here the nature of governance in neo-modernist states is
most clearly articulated. The resurging development discourse and the economic–
technocratic approach to natural and social engineering confirms local people as
obstacles, as ‘resistant material’ that has to be processed and treated in a specific manner.
They are seen as having little or no specific contribution to offer. Their practical, or as
Scott (1998: 6–7, 335) called it metis, knowledge is not deemed relevant. Their status and
alleged socio-cultural ‘backwardness’ can be remedied by displacement, re-education
and training, so as to allow them to ‘partake’ of modernity and development. No
tolerance is displayed of their customary livelihoods because they are declared by state
leaders and policy-makers as ‘non-sustainable’. (This is no doubt the reason why these
pastoral peoples and cultivators have survived in this area for hundreds of years ...).
As a matter of fact, the global discourse on Millennium Development Goals and
development emanating from donor countries and UN agencies constantly reiterates
this point of ‘backwardness’– despite the formal calls made in their research reports to
properly deal with human development factors. This global discourse was taken over
uncritically and carried further by the Ethiopian state – there is no effort to modify
or build on local models and approaches to development; it hereby falls back on the
old pattern of the ‘politics of emulation’ (cf. Clapham 2006), seeking again models and
solutions from abroad. Obviously Ethiopia is not the only case, but it is indicative of
the wider trend and goes to show the pervasiveness of the global, prescriptive model of
development. Only time will tell whether the Ethiopian state can keep up its claims to
control socio-political processes or at some point make compromises in its practices of
2012 European Association of Social Anthropologists.
Focusing on the issue of ‘subject formation’, I come back to Scott’s pioneering
analysis (1998) of ‘seeing-like-a-state mechanisms’. He claimed (1998: 4–5) that four
characteristics are usually recognisable in state efforts at social engineering and making
subject populations ‘legible’ to the state: (a) a simplifying, administrative ordering of
nature and society; (b) a high-modernist ideology geared to the expansion of production,
the use of a ‘scientific-technical’ approach and planning, and a quest to master nature;
(c): an authoritarian state willing to use coercive power to realise its aims; and (d) a
prostrate civil society incapable of effectively resisting those plans. It is no exaggeration
to say that in Ethiopia these conditions have been fulfilled. The issue of the decentring
of citizens’ political relevance and agency is enhanced in the Ethiopian dam schemes
because of the accompanying plans to start massive, foreign-run irrigation schemes and
plantations to be stocked with thousands of foreign imported workers and management.
This socio-economic population engineering may yield profits for the state treasury and
increase agricultural exports. But it will also underline the disempowerment of local
people (who are not enabled to take the lead in rural development) and thus confirms
their subject status. The foreign worker communities are not accountable to anyone but
the Ethiopian government and, being dependent on it, they cannot ask for rights and will
not strike. Thus central state power is strengthened, local citizens’ status diminished.
Some critics have labelled this innovative form of governance as state feudalism. The
concomitant result is that the state’s subjects are, in a way, dispensable, or as Tanya
Li suggested, ‘surplus’ (2009: 68): they have little political autonomy and are accorded
only marginal agency – at least in the regions discussed here. In the case of the peoples
of Lower Omo region, a cultural dimension is added to it: they are always declared
to be in need of reform and ‘civilising’ to bring them into line with modernity and
with the dominant society’s norms (which apparently have no problems and are the
Conclusion: the clash of narratives and the
(un)making of political subjects
Dam building in developing countries is a prime locus of state assertion and governance
claims and can certainly prove to be a beneficial investment in the energy infrastructure
of a developing country. As such, a categorical judgment on the (un)desirability of
dams is not in order, in general or on the Gibe III dam. Problematic is, however,
that their development and construction are in many countries conceived as inviolable
exercises immune to critique, negotiation or amendment. This includes Ethiopia. In
line with the authoritarian nature of its political system and the virtual imperviousness
of the political elite to consultative debate or compromise, dam building has become
a national developmental obsession in the country, and one that in practice cannot be
questioned. Citizens may be informed and ‘consulted’, but they cannot alter the plans
– this has been clear in all the official statements made. This underlines that the making
of dams in Ethiopia, as elsewhere (cf. Mitchell 2002: 21, 38, 45, on Egypt), is clearly
also an exercise in state-making and regime consolidation. Techno-economic projects
conducted by central state authorities are presented as depoliticised, ‘necessary’ ventures
but (re)define the powers of the state, advance its hegemonic governance model, and
shape citizens in the process: displaceable, expendable subjects that can be relocated and
re-educated. In some cases this entails the typical unreflected, modernist approach to
2012 European Association of Social Anthropologists.
citizen making, ordering people to leave behind their ‘backward ways of life’. That this
approach and the policies resulting from it may even be in contravention to the letter and
spirit of national constitutional clauses seems not to bother anyone. It is thus remarkable
to see how resilient the old topoi of top-down state-making and ‘disciplining’ are, even
in this global day and age. The locals, with their ‘vernacular’ or m´
etis knowledge
(Scott 1998) of the socio-economic conditions and ecology of their own society, are
not appreciated and are, in a political sense, ‘surplus’ subjects in the wider scheme of
In addition, the apparent incommensurability of the various discursive accounts
or positions of the Ethiopian dam project and its likely impact, as outlined above,
is produced by the very nature of developmental governance and power as practised
by the sovereign surveillance state and its ruling party. Inheritor of a statist if not
Marxist political ideology turned developmentalist, it sees its mode of non-negotiable
governance as the preferred way to secure domestic stability as well as international
In the ongoing global efforts to raise GDP levels and enhance development,
conceived materially and ‘universally’, in most countries the ecological resources
dependent on m´
etis knowledge and management are in danger of being irreparably
damaged, and the socio-cultural structures replete with such local, practical and often
adaptive skills are sidelined or devalued. The totalising and simplifying narrative
of statecraft in the modernising mode – with states as a kind of franchise of a
transnational institutional discourse – has indeed received new leases of life in the
current competitive, globalising conditions, despite the planetary crisis of social
and environmental management36 and the limits of the unfettered economic growth
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... (Abbink et al. 2014;Abbink 2018;Kamski 2019)); and the Didessa sugar plantation in Oromia region (since 2015; (Tolessa et al. 2019)) had major deleterious impacts on pastoralism and the environment. These projects reduced the viability of pasturelands and livestock productivity by limiting the pastoral space and herders' mobility to take productive advantage of spatial and temporal variability of the pasture and water resources (Abbink 2012;Gabbert et al. 2021;Mulugeta et al. 2019;Turton 2011). These exogenous factors, which are given free reign, significantly disturbed the existing dynamic equilibrium of the ecosystem and its carrying capacity (cf. ...
... Crops were also cultivated along the banks of the Omo River (Tornay 1981;Tornay 2001;Turton 2011), which flooded seasonally until late 2015, when the Omo Gibe III Dam became operational and cut off the natural flow (cf. (Abbink 2012)). The zone thus has large land and water resources exploited for the development of large-scale commercial farms with lowland crops such as oilseeds, cotton, spices, fruits, and certain staple food crops. ...
... All respondent households in Nyangatom and most in Dassanech and Salamago stated that they did not have formal land title deeds regardless of private ownership and had not received compensation due to land/property lost ensuing the investments. The majority of households claimed to have lost access to fertile river banks due to the reduction in the volume of the Omo River (cf. (Abbink 2012;Hodbod et al. 2019)). For the loss of access to river retreat cultivation, the agro-pastoralists need to be compensated with functional irrigation systems, instead of being provided with short-term food aid, which only increases their dependency. ...
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This study assesses the impact of a large, state-sponsored sugar plantation scheme on agro-pastoralists’ livelihoods and local land use change in southern Ethiopia, specifically in the lower Omo Valley. The study compares the local perceptions on the ongoing Omo-Kuraz sugar project — sugar cane plantations and a cane-crushing factory — and describes how it has affected local communities’ environmental and livelihood strategies vis-à-vis the alleged ‘new development opportunities’. Focus group discussion, key informant interviews, and field observations were applied to get in-depth information about the socio-economic and environmental impacts of large scale land acquisitions. The results show that the implementation of large scale land acquisitions in the lower Omo Valley has put enormous pressure on local land use and land management systems. The Omo-Kuraz I and II projects, started in 2011, neither met the stated economic purposes of the then Ethiopian federal government nor satisfied the pastoral communities’ needs. The LSAI project is still highly contentious among the local community, the project office, and the local government. Our study recommends that shifting the perspective towards the local agro-pastoralists’ activities, understanding their views and ways of ‘using’ the environment, and creating a broader consultation platform with them may create opportunities for cooperation and synergy to optimize benefits and sustainably adapt the development project to the local context.
... The Blue Nile contributes up to 70 per cent of the water flow to the Nile River basin, a basin shared by ten other countries in the east and horn of Africa. Although beyond the remit of this paper, it is important to note that over the years, a number of studies have been carried out to investigate its impact on the environment (Aziz et al., 2019;El-Nashar & Elyamany, 2018;Liersch et al., 2017), transboundary water management (Wheeler et al., 2020;Yihdego et al., 2017), regional geopolitics (Gebreluel, 2014;Hussein & Grandi, 2017;Nasr & Neef, 2016), and the communities that live around the construction site (Abbink, 2012;Vaughan & Gebremichael, 2020;Veilleux, 2013). ...
... Rather, it is a developmental project which determines the bright future of Ethiopia' (Ethiopian Herald, 2011; as cited in Fantini & Puddu, 2016). Furthermore, framed as an embodiment of national pride, any criticism of the scheme is automatically equated with a lack of patriotism (Abbink, 2012;Cuesta-Fernandez, 2015). ...
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Anchored by ambitions of economic growth and energy security, governments in developing countries are building large-scale energy infrastructures at a fast pace. While committed to making modern energy accessible to all, many are also reconfiguring their institutions to hasten the sector transformation into a market-oriented entity. In some cases, these ambitious agendas are also being pursued in the context of deteriorating infrastructure and supply shortfalls. The paper uses the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) to explore how political elites and citizens construct visions of the desirable future to be realised through large scale energy projects. After documenting how dominant accounts align with and diverge from citizens expectations, the paper explores how urban households reconcile the energy abundance large-scale projects promise with their experience of inadequate and increasingly expensive access to electricity. Furthermore, noting the absence of a meaningful and effective citizens engagement in the sector governance, the paper highlights the inherent risks of large-scale projects from an energy justice perspective.
... For Ethiopian leaders, poverty is an 'existential threat' in an increasingly globalized world that jeopardizes the country's survival and can be overcome only by a state-led development process(Gebresenbet 2014: S67). However, like many scholars, I recognize that the Ethiopian government has fallen far short of achieving its developmental objectives of bringing about an 'African Renaissance' for its citizens(Abbink 2012;Mains 2012; Abbink and Hagmann 2013; Rahmato and Ayenew 2014;Di Nunzio 2019). ...
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Not long after his election as prime minister of Ethiopia, Dr Abiy Ahmed declared that the country would privatize state-owned enterprises (SOEs) such as Ethiopian Airlines and Ethio Telcom, opening up sectors once considered off limits to foreign capital as part of his medemer reforms. On the surface, it might appear as if the Ethiopian leader was signalling a greater embrace of neoliberal (or market liberalizing) policies through his advocacy of privatization. However, this article interprets the call not as an ‘opening up’ to the demands of global capitalism, but as a calculated policy decision existing within the logics of the state’s developmentalist ideology. Through an analysis of the intellectual foundations and institutional evolution of the country’s privatization programme, I argue that the Ethiopian government privatizes SOEs as a revenue-generating strategy that augments state economic power by capitalizing on incomes gained through development investments – using the case of the domestic beer industry as my ethnographic example. By doing this, I unsettle assumptions about the meaning and uses of privatization within a developmentalist framework, demonstrating how Ethiopian leaders contend with global ideas, producing innovative strategies of resource mobilization to promote economic growth while protecting local sovereignty – a distinct form of African state capitalism.
... Our intervention aimed to focus on a variety of contextually appropriate behavioral factors rather than knowledge alone. Given the low fidelity of the intervention delivery, further capacity building of federal, regional, and local-level government officials as well as community-level change agents may be necessary for the successful implementation of approaches that move beyond dissemination of information and messages [88][89][90]. ...
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Behaviors related to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) are key drivers of infectious disease transmission, and experiences of WASH are potential influencers of mental well-being. Important knowledge gaps exist related to the content and delivery of effective WASH programs and their associated health impacts, particularly within the contexts of government programs implemented at scale. We developed and tested a demand-side intervention called Andilaye , which aimed to change behaviors related to sanitation, personal hygiene, and household environmental sanitation. This theory-informed intervention was delivered through the existing Ethiopian Health Extension Programme (HEP). It was a multilevel intervention with a catalyzing event at the community level and behavior change activities at group and household levels. We randomly selected and assigned 50 kebeles (sub-districts) from three woredas (districts), half to receive the Andilaye intervention, and half the standard of care sanitation and hygiene programming (i.e., community-led total sanitation and hygiene [CLTSH]). We collected data on WASH access, behavioral outcomes, and mental well-being. A total of 1,589 households were enrolled into the study at baseline; 1,472 households (94%) participated in an endline assessment two years after baseline, and approximately 14 months after the initiation of a multi-level intervention. The intervention did not improve construction of latrines (prevalence ratio [PR]: 0.99; 95% CI: 0.82, 1.21) or handwashing stations with water (PR: 0.96; 95% CI: 0.72, 1.26), or the removal of animal feces from the compound (PR: 1.10; 95% CI: 0.95, 1.28). Nor did it impact anxiety (PR: 0.90; 95% CI: 0.72, 1.11), depression (PR: 0.83; 95% CI: 0.64, 1.07), emotional distress (PR: 0.86; 95% CI: 0.67, 1.09) or well-being (PR: 0.90; 95% CI: 0.74, 1.10) scores. We report limited impact of the intervention, as delivered, on changes in behavior and mental well-being. The effectiveness of the intervention was limited by poor intervention fidelity. While sanitation and hygiene improvements have been documented in Ethiopia, behavioral slippage, or regression to unimproved practices, in communities previously declared open defecation free is widespread. Evidence from this trial may help address knowledge gaps related to challenges associated with scalable alternatives to CLTSH and inform sanitation and hygiene programming and policy in Ethiopia and beyond. Trial registration : This trial was registered with ( NCT03075436 ) on March 9, 2017.
... Contradictions between local customs or values and human rights are proving difficult to resolve. What is central to a group's identity may not be easily understood from the outside, or may be contradictory to to small irrigation farms along the Omo River can be seen as part of these efforts (Abbink 2012, Turton 2011 While the number of children attending school has increased in the last two decades, so far only a few of them have completed higher education. The number of university or college graduates from Hamar differs from kebele to kebele. ...
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Being a home to more than 80 ethnic groups, Ethiopia has to balance normative diversity with efforts to implement state law across its territory. This volume explores the co-existence of state, customary, and religious legal forums from the perspective of legal practitioners and local justice seekers. It shows how the various stakeholders' use of negotiation, and their strategic application of law can lead to unwanted confusion, but also to sustainable conflict resolution, innovative new procedures and hybrid norms. The book thus generates important knowledge on the conditions necessary for stimulating a cooperative co-existence of different legal systems.
The Soil & Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) is a useful model for evaluating socio-ecological tradeoffs and analyzing coupled natural-human system dynamics in agricultural watersheds. However, reservoir operating options in SWAT are limited. This study advances the representation of reservoir operations in SWAT by adding an option for closed-loop, multi-reservoir operating policies that can be optimized using Evolutionary Multi-Objective Direct Policy Search. This enables water managers to evaluate the tradeoffs across more coordinated reservoir operations in SWAT while capitalizing on the model's ability to physically simulate hydrological processes better than traditional reservoir simulation models. Comparing our advanced reservoir operations with SWAT's existing operating options in the Omo River basin of Ethiopia, we find a wider range of policies for managing conflicting stakeholder objectives that better compromise across them and are more robust to climate change. These advances to SWAT's reservoir module show promise for informing integrated water resources management.
In late 2014, disputes around land, displacement and compensation related to the roll-out of big infrastructure projects across Ethiopia mutated into much deeper conflicts about the authoritarian nature of the state, the political marginalization of particular ethnic groups and the legitimacy of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF). As security forces continued to quell mounting protests, the federal government imposed a state of emergency. This article explores how the EPRDF navigated this period of political fragility and why infrastructures were used as strategic vehicles for the party’s discourse. Drawing on the Addis-Djibouti Railway as an analytical lens, this research explores how the party strategically deployed posters, images and speeches centred around infrastructure to directly respond to protestors' grievances. This choice to deliberately embed visuals and rhetoric descriptions of such megaprojects in its political messaging about Ethiopia’s aspired ‘unity in diversity’, ‘democracy’, and ‘good governance’ illustrates how infrastructures were effective carriers of the party’s narratives. Roads, railways, and dams rendered EPRDF’s abstract ideas of political reform and economic renaissance tangible. At this critical juncture, these tangible discourses not only expose how the party attempted to restructure state-society relations in Ethiopia, but also how centrally anchored infrastructure was in the EPRDF’s self-styled developmental state project.
Large scale agricultural projects driven by a high modernist ideology have been closely interlinked with the process of state building at the Ethiopian lowland frontier since the second half of the twentieth century. This paper provides a diachronic analysis of the political economy of agricultural development and the associated frontier effect in the western and north-eastern lowlands of the country across three different political regimes. A comparative assessment of these patterns suggests that the high modernist paradigm should be applied with some qualification to the agenda of the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), the coalition that ruled Ethiopia from 1994 to 2019. The EPRDF was far more pragmatic than its predecessors; the oscillation between different degrees of state intervention was based upon past experiences of success and failure in the territorialization of state power in contested borderlands.
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An important transition is underway across the world: we are relying less and less on fossil fuels to power our homes, offices, and industries, and more and more on inexhaustible sources like solar and wind power. But the sun does not always shine and the winds do not always blow. For this reason, we need to design our future electricity systems in a smart way, so that solar and wind power do not cause problems to security of supply. In Africa, where security of supply would require massively expanding currently inadequate power grids in the first place (or having a power grid at all, in some cases), this might seem to be a much larger challenge than elsewhere. However, as argued in this thesis, this also presents an opportunity for the African continent. An opportunity to contribute to sustainable development by reducing dependence on large hydropower. An opportunity to leapfrog the fossil fuel-based electricity grids of the "Global North". And an opportunity to become a global frontrunner and role model for large-scale renewable electricity generation.
The Ethiopian state increasingly seeks to enlist putative ‘traditional authorities’ to lend legitimacy to policies and interventions in the southwestern peripheries of the country. The underlying assumptions do not accord with the perceptions of the local populations: among the Kara in the South Omo region, legitimacy is predicated upon duty and accountability, and higher degrees of public legitimacy are disconnected from authority and direct command over other people’s conduct. The office of the Kara bitti, the highest spiritual leader, thus proves intractable to such attempts at enlistment and has been little affected by the radical transformation of the Kara’s lives through increasing integration into the Ethiopian state over recent decades. But even as the office has changed little, the lives of those expected to assume the role of bitti has, and the duties of a bitti strongly constrain the office holder and limit their personal ambitions and participation in politics at the local, regional and national level.
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Diaspora groups link processes of globalisation and transnational migration to homeland politics and conflicts. In some cases, diaspora groups produced by a specific set of traumatic memories create ‘conflict-generated diasporas’ that sustain and often amplify their strong sense of symbolic attachment to the homeland. Conflict-generated diasporas tend to be less willing to compromise and therefore reinforce and exacerbate the protractedness of homeland conflicts. Economists have focused on the links between remittances and civil war. Beyond resources, however, conflict-generated diasporas frequently have a prominent role in framing conflict issues and defining what is politically acceptable. Diaspora groups created by conflict and sustained by traumatic memories tend to compromise less and therefore reinforce and exacerbate the protracted nature of conflicts. The 2005 political opening and subsequent crackdown in Ethiopia illustrates how this diaspora shaped recent political developments and points to broader patterns of transnational linkages among diasporas and homeland political processes.
Introduction Of an estimated 600,000 people resettled in Ethiopia in the 1980s, over 82,000 were relocated from drought-affected and overpopulated areas to Metekel (Northwestern Ethiopia), a place already inhabited by the Gumuz shifting cultivators. At the time of the resettlement, the population of the Gumuz was estimated at 72,000 (Dessalegn 1988, in Agneta et al. 1993:256-7). Of the total 250,000 ha of land designated for resettlement, over 73,000 ha was cleared for cultivation and the establishment of 48 villages. In 1986, large-scale development programmes were launched with financial and technical assistance from the Italian government. In the late 1980s, the resettlement area was portrayed as an oasis in the middle of wasteland. Salini Costruttori (1989: 14), a contractor for the Italian cooperation, reported, ‘Food self-sufficiency represents the prime objective of the Tana-Beles Project. This objective has already been reached, at the end of 1988.’ Today, the once popular Metekel (Pawe) resettlement is nothing but a failed project and a reminder of despair. This chapter examines the 1980s resettlement to find out why the project failed and what lessons could be learnt. The outstanding flaws and deficiencies may be summarized as follows. The Pawe resettlement lacked clear conception, a feasibility study, proper planning, adequate physical preparation and responsible management.
Viewed by some as symbols of progress and by others as inherently flawed, large dams remain one of the most contentious development issues on Earth. Building on the work of the now defunct World Commission on Dams, Thayer Scudder wades into the debate with unprecedented authority. Employing the Commission's Seven Strategic priorities, Scudder charts the 'middle way' forward by examining the impacts of large dams on ecosystems, societies and political economies. He also analyses the structure of the decision-making process for water resource development and tackles the highly contentious issue of dam-induced resettlement, illuminated by a statistical analysis of 50 cases.
Protecting the worlds freshwater resources requires diagnosing threats over a broad range of scales, from global to local. Here we present the first worldwide synthesis to jointly consider human and biodiversity perspectives on water security using a spatial framework that quantifies multiple stressors and accounts for downstream impacts. We find that nearly 80% of the worlds population is exposed to high levels of threat to water security. Massive investment in water technology enables rich nations to offset high stressor levels without remedying their underlying causes, whereas less wealthy nations remain vulnerable. A similar lack of precautionary investment jeopardizes biodiversity, with habitats associated with 65% of continental discharge classified as moderately to highly threatened. The cumulative threat framework offers a tool for prioritizing policy and management responses to this crisis, and underscores the necessity of limiting threats at their source instead of through costly remediation of symptoms in order to assure global water security for both humans and freshwater biodiversity.
Focusing mainly on Asia, this article tracks a link between the collective, inalienable land-tenure regimes currently associated with indigeneity and attempts to prevent piecemeal dispossession of small-scale farmers through land sale and debt. Collective landholding is sometimes imposed by local groups on their own members as they act to defend their livelihoods and communities. More often, however, it has been imposed from outside, first by paternalistic officials of the colonial period and now by a new set of experts and advocates who assume responsibility for deciding who should and who should not be exposed to the risks and opportunities of market engagement. From the perspective of their proponents, however, attempts to institutionalize collective landholdings are not impositions at all. They simply confirm a culturally distinct formation naturally present among "tribal" or "indigenous" people. Yet rural populations have repeatedly failed to conform to the assumptions embedded in schemes designed for their protection. They cross social and spatial boundaries. Some demand recognition of individualized land rights as they respond to market opportunities. Others are unable to escape the extractive relations that visions of cultural alterity and harmonious collectivity too often overlook. Meanwhile, dispossessory processes roll on unrecognized or unobserved.
We have entered an unprecedented period in human history. By the vigor of our con- sumption and procreation, the human species has modified our global environment at wide regional and global scales. At the close of the twentieth century, global warming, biodiversity losses, ozone and freshwater depletion, to name a few, are now recognized as human-induced wide-scale environ- mental transformations. In spite of admirable efforts to arrest some of these processes and restore environmental vitality, the pace at which humans modify their environment continues with consider- able intensity. The future health of the biosphere for sustaining all life may be drifting close to the margins as environmental crises increase within a single generation. These destructive propensities have deep cultural and psychological roots that divide us from the rest of the environment. Signifi- cant social change is needed for improving our collective relationship with the earth. Humans, with our unique capacity for self-reflection, are beginning to understand that the underpinnings to our current ecological problems lie within our attitudes, values, ethics, perceptions, and behaviors. New ways to reconceptualize our unity with the biosphere, understand downstream impacts, and link social behavior with environmental transformations are increasing with corresponding intensity. Community-based restoration is a powerful means for facilitating this trend, by reconnecting commu- nities with their landscape, empowering citizenry, and fostering an environmental ethos based on ecopsychological health.
The damming of a river changes the flow of water, sediment, nutrients, energy, and biota, interrupting and altering most of a river`s ecological processes. This article discusses the importance of geomorphological analysis in river conservation and management. To illustrate how subtle geomorphological adjustments may profoundly influence the ecological relationships downstream from dames, three case studies are presented. Then a geomorphically based approach for assessing and possibly mitigating some of the environmental effects of dams by tailoring dam designed and operation is outlined. The cases are as follows: channel simplification and salmon decline on the McKenzie River in Oregon; Channel incision and reduced floodplain inundation on the Oconee river in Georgia; Increased stability of a braided river in New Zealand`s south island. 41 refs., 10 figs., 1 tab.