The Gibe III Dam must be stopped

You may have heard about the raging controversy regarding a massive dam that is under construction on the Omo River in Ethiopia. It is called the Gilgel Gibe III dam and it has a wall that will soar 240 metres high – this is the tallest of its type anywhere in the world. It will hold back a reservoir 150 kilometres long.

Map of Gibe III dam

The Ethiopians say that they need this dam as it will provide 1800 megawatts of electricity. That will more than double the country’s current generating capacity in one hit, and according to their Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, it will solve a national energy crisis.He says they can’t afford not to have Gilgel Gibe III. He also claims that it will enable the country to store water and regulate the flooding downstream in the Omo River.

Gibe III dam

This new dam will produce far more electricity than the country is capable of consuming, most will be exported to neighbours like Sudan and Kenya.

I think that this project is fatally flawed in terms of its logic, in terms of its thoroughness, in terms of its conclusions.

It looks to me like the Environmental Impact Assessment was an inside job that has come up with the results that they were looking for to get the initial funding for this dam.

I and the Environmental Resources Group believe that rather than being beneficial to the river valley as the Ethiopian government say, the dam will produce a broad range of negative effects, some of which would be catastrophic to both the environment and the indigenous communities living downstream.

Even if the science is in dispute – this is reason enough to invoke the precautionary principle and stop the project before it is too late because if the Ethiopian government is wrong, those communities living along the lower Omo River Valley all the way down into neighbouring Kenya will pay a heavy price. I believe that one immediate consequence will be the aggravation  of armed conflict in a war over the shrinking natural resources.

What do you think, should Ethiopia be allowed to go ahead despite the concerns of down stream environmental and social impacts affecting over 500,000 people and Lake Turkana in Kenya?

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  1. Posted March 26, 2009 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    It is a real catostrophe! And it is very sad, that there is only the voice of Richard Leakey to be heard! Where were all the others? Now it is too late to stop the project. It should have been published earlier and much louder.


  2. Peter Bayley
    Posted March 26, 2009 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    The fisheries of L. Turkana and the Omo R. are vital to riparian peoples in terms of subsistance and cash earnings. Apart from the massive limnological changes in the lake itself expected from the ‘suggested environmental flow’ of 25 m3/s (, stopping the periodic inundations that replenish floodplains in the R. Omo and it’s delta region will have a direct effect on several commercial species that depend on those areas as nurseries. All large mainstem dams curtail flooding, an effect seen by promoters as only an advantage. The L. Turkana system has only adapted to periodic droughts because such events have been countered by floods from the Omo catchment. Sufficient flooding, in addition to maintaining the long term magnitude of water supply, are essential for maintaining long-term viability for local human populations, their fisheries and agricultural systems, and the resident fauna. It is impossible to imagine that both these requirements can be met by a project the size of Gibe III.

    Former fisheries researcher on L. Turkana,
    Dr. Peter B. Bayley
    Dept. Fisheries & Wildlife
    Oregon State University

  3. Adam Hardy
    Posted March 26, 2009 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    The Ethiopian government should form a water resources management group with the other nations which share the river, and should share the responsibilities and benefits of the dam.

    Another factor to consider is what the impact of climate change will have on this watershed – what is the expected life of the dam and is it worth building if it runs out of water in 25 years?

  4. John
    Posted March 26, 2009 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

    Not sure if any dam is affecting lake turkana. BBC reported today about it but they also said tribes along lake turkana have been fighting for scarce water resources for many years and decades. this shows the Gibe dam will be just another part of the various problems, not the cause of the problem.

  5. Tewodros
    Posted March 29, 2009 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Dear Richard Leakey,

    Am an Ethiopian, environmental engineer by profession, I really admire you work on conservation and advocacy about the environment. Recently you become a center voice in opposing the construction of Gibe III. I had followed the news from both side since the project start construction, but I am not convinced by the opposition of the construction. Pushing the contractors to include mitigation measure in avoiding down stream effect is what I believe to be the solution. The impact of the dam on lake turkane is during filling, i believe that can be done in a way that doesn’t affect the lake. Lack of scientific reason in opposing the construction is what the pro dam organization argue that the argument is shallow. Therefore, conducting the appropriate research to address this issue will be the right way to proceed. If u have any plan to work on this that will be the right reason, but I don’t like the conclusion, would you please consider your conclusion of stopping the dam construction. I don’t think this conclusion without tangibel scientific reason is fair for those who leave in the dark and put all their hope on this project.

    with best regard,

  6. Mekuria Tilahun
    Posted March 31, 2009 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    Dear Richard Leakey;

    First of all I would like to extend my appreciatio for the attentin you give to th environmental impact of Gibe III.
    My question is: 1). How much effort have you exrted to study the problem that will come becuase of Gibe III? 2). What about othe side of the project (the benefits to the residents: like floud control and the like)? 3). Have taken into account, the social relationship of Ethiopian nations and nationalities concerning resource sharing?
    I belive these and further studies must be made before coming ino such a conclusion.

    I beleive the construction of the Dam must be completed and transform Ethiopia’s power supply to the targeted goal.

    Thanks and regards;


  7. sisay
    Posted April 4, 2009 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Is your idea “…must be stopped” or think about win-win solution? I am really sad to read and listen such an intellectual idea that shift side ways rather than search for all sided solutions. What about the existence of 80 million people upstream where 90% of their water is transboundary? We (all the country) are living 6 days a month with out electricity at this moment. It is difficult to work on computer, to get hot tea, to produce factory products with full capacity, to attend night education, and so on. It is too difficult for to old and to young persons to move with out trouble at evening time due to shifted use of electricity in the whole country. It is known that millions lost their life due to famine derived from water shortage. Are we Ethiopians not important as at least equal to the wild animals for this world? A great number of biodiversity and ecosystem services has affected by clearing of vegetation for house hold energy. This continued process harm not only Ethiopia but also the world and it must be cull out from the vicious circle of poverty.
    For an intellectual who think about wholosm-partism interaction, it is clear that the continual effect of vegetation clearance and desertification at the boarder of Rift Valley of Omo River basin will affect Mursi and Nyangatom regions as well as Lake Turkana more than Gibe III dam. If properly used and regulated, the dam has more positive effect for the whole basin by regulating water during the challenging time of this climate change era.
    Dear readers, think about the whole basin as one to understand sustainable ecosystem services.
    We Kenyans and Ethiopians know and take care more for our ecosystem and wildlife than others. That is why we conserved them until now. We will have to be benefited from our natural resource in the future. Leave such kind of propaganda and let´s discuss how we will benefit more from our resource than now sustainably, feasibly and viably. Gibe III will increase the sustainable and brotherhood relationship with people of both upstream and downstream areas of the basin and our ecosystem including the lake.



  8. Tahir B.
    Posted May 11, 2009 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    this is a prime example that since the Rio Earth Summit that external states still continue to explout or over-rule other states resoruces or environment. You would think that these diplomates and construction firms will take account to the wider implication of the Gibe III dam been constructed, more so with two local tribes livielihood depending on the natrual state of the Omo River. Human ingenuity in the Omo River might bring similar discourse alike to G. Hardin’s ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ and J. Diamonds Collapse. It is crucail that both sides are given a fair voice in this case, however at the moment it would seem that only State officals are addressing the wider public about this; what about the voices of the hunter-gatherers?

  9. Richard Sandstrom
    Posted December 6, 2009 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    Dear Richard Leakey,

    There is an EXCELLENT critique of the Gibe III Dam at the following website. This DETAILED and REASONED critique is produced by the Africa Resources World Group (the ARWG) – a group of scientists and policy experts who have much experience in the region. I highly recommend it to all who are concerned about this absolutely devastating potential development.

    The website is:

    Thank you,

    Richard Sandstrom, Ph.D.

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