The construction of the Gilgel Gibe III dam on the Omo river in Ethiopia has been condemned by conservationists and indigenous rights campaigners as a white elephant, a monument to government myopia, incompetence and greed. In return, the authorities accuse these “do-gooders” of romanticising rural misery from the comfort of their ivory towers. In between are the people of the region, whose interests both sides claim to be championing.
Such controversy is not new. The World Commission on Dams, which reviewed the effectiveness of large dams, seemed to capture both sides of the issue when it wrote, “There can no longer be any justifiable doubt that dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development, and that in too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits, especially in social and environmental terms, by people displaced, by communities downstream, by taxpayers and by the natural environment.”