Beware of the inevitable political dimension of ESIAs

GIBE 3, a hydro-electric project currently under construction in Ethiopia is a good example of how politically motivated project approval and funding can lead to an inadequate consultation of local peoples and consideration of environmental impacts.

The definition of an Environment and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) is almost identical to the definition of an EIA; the difference being the focus on equal consideration of the social and environmental components [1].

The hydroelectric dam, when completed, will be the fourth largest dam in the world [2] (Figure 1).

Figure 1: GIBE dam [2]

Figure 1: GIBE dam [2]

The ESIA on the Gibe 3 dam was written with the purpose of convincing funding agencies (namely the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and the African Development Bank) to invest in a project that would bring widespread economic benefits to Ethiopia with minimal environmental and social impacts [5].

The construction began in 2008, but the ESIA was only available publically two years after the construction began [2,4]. After its release, NGOs started a petition to stop the GIBE 3 project and urged funding agencies not to support it [3]. Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International stated:

“The Gibe 3 dam will be a disaster of cataclysmic proportions for the tribes of the Omo valley. […] The government has violated Ethiopia’s constitution and international law in the procurement process. No respectable outside body should be funding this atrocious project.” [2]

To this day, NGOs argue that the dam will threaten the land and livelihood of 500 000 tribal people in Ethiopia and Kenya by changing the flow of the river on which livelihood and survival of the local communities depend [2,3,4,8]. The dam will reduce the water flow to Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake, in Kenya, that depends on the Omo river for 80% of its water [2,3,7,8,9]. Lake Turkana was excluded from the evaluated project boundaries of the ESIA [5]. An independent panel of scientists from around the world, the African Resources Working Group (ARWG) studied the impacts that the Gibe 3 project will have on the surrounding ecosystem and people and found that the Omo River’s downstream flow would be reduced by at least 60 to 70 percent [7,11].

The affected people know very little about the project; many do not even know what a dam is [2,3,4]. In addition, independent information about the project is not available to them [2,3,4]. The literacy rate in local communities is approximately 10%. The ESIAs are published in English and Italian though the official language in Ethiopia is Amharique [2,3,4]. As the local population become more informed, questions are raised and opposing viewpoints emerge. Government authorities have responded with the use of intimidation and pressure tactics such as beatings, arrests and the use of tasers [6].

The Ethiopian government has gone to great lengths to promote this project with a positive image and minimize outcry to attract investors. Nonetheless, NGO pressure was strong enough to force the World Bank to abandon its plans of financing Gibe 3 directly. However, they contributed US$684 million to build a cross-border power line from Ethiopia to Kenya which will carry electricity generated from it [10,11].

Political agendas are part of every project, but governments, funding agencies and the international community must ensure that they do not affect the quality of ESIAs.

“The danger is that if the complex array of social forces including power relations in particular contexts are ignored, deliberative processes will simply become yet another procedural requirement in EIA open to political manipulation” [12].

The political dimension of EIA cannot be ignored, particularly in developing countries where human rights are often less protected than in developing countries.


[1] Energy Regulatory Commission (2012) Environmental and Social Impact Assessment and Audit Guidelines. Available from: Last accessed: March 6, 2012.

[2] British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)(2012) Water proves a prize asset. Available from: Last accessed: March 6, 2012.

[3] (n.d.) Stop Give 3 Dam. Available from: Last accessed: March 6, 2012.

[4] (2010) NGOs appeal to halt Gibe III dam in Ethiopia. Available from: Last accessed: March 6, 2012.

[5] Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCO) (2009) Gibe III Hydroelectric Project: Environmental and Social Impact Assessment. Available from: Last accessed: March 6, 2012.

[6] Oakland Institute (2011) Press release: Investigation exposes half a million lives threatened by land and water grabs for plantations in Ethiopia’s lower Omo Valley. Available from: Last accessed: March 6, 2012.

[7] Carr, C. J. (2012) Humanitarian catastrophe and regional armed conflict brewing in the Transborder region of Ethiopia, Kenya and South Soudan: The proposed Gibe III dam in Ethiopia. Available from: Last accessed: March 6, 2012.

[8] (2012) Fighting the dam: Kenyan activist Ikal Angelei wins goldman environmental prize. Available from: Last accessed: March 6, 2012.

[9] Bosshard, P. (2010) China’s Biggest Bank to Support Africa’s Most Destructive Dam. Available from: Last accessed: March 6, 2012.

[10]The World Bank (2012) Ethiopia-Kenya Eastern Electricity Highway Project: First Phase of Regional Eastern Africa Power Integration Program. Available from: Last accessed: March 6, 2012.

[11] International (2012) World Bank to Fund Gibe III dam through the backdoor? Available from: Last accessed: March 6, 2012.

[12] Boyco, M.W. (2010) Political Opportunity and Public Participation EIA: in Northern Canada and South Africa. Available from: Last accessed: Marc 6, 2012.


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