Power to the People

© Published in  New World Magazine

Addis Abeba – Gamatscho Lemma, a gaunt herdsman, lives with his family in the village of Kute, about 300 kilometers (190 miles) north of Addis Ababa – or six hours by car. His life differs very little from that once led by his father, his grandfather or, for that matter, all his other ancestors. Although the family tends the cattle of richer farmers, they’re not allowed to drink a single drop of the herd’s milk. Together with their neighbors, they also cultivate a small field of wheat using a team of oxen. Their annual income, augmented by selling pottery jugs, comes to around $140 – just about enough to send the eldest son to school. That costs the family 100 Ethiopian birr, or some $14 a year.

Home to Gamatscho Lemma, his wife and their seven children is a mud hut with a sloping straw roof. The kids have decorated the outside walls with pictures of flowers. Now that a bumpy road leads past to Mekele, they’ve added a painting of a car to the gallery. Some 150 meters (500 feet) behind the hut an overhead power line is visible. But as far as the Lemmas are concerned, electricity – not to mention running water – might as well be light years away, for all the benefit it brings to their little mud hut.

Or so it seemed for many years. But now the family has every reason to hope that within a decade, electricity could well be lighting up their lives – along with those of a good number of their compatriots. Their hopes are concentrated on a stretch of the Gilgel Gibe River, some 600 kilometers from the village of Kute, in the southwestern province of Kafa, one of the country’s main coffee-growing areas. Coffee is, of course, Ethiopia’s most important export.

One of the most inhospitable areas in the Ethiopian highlands, the Gilgel Gibe River region is shrouded in heavy rain clouds for nine to 10 months of the year. It is, without exaggeration, an ideal place for a dam. During the rainy season, the Gilgel Gibe – or „Small Gibe“ – swells to a foaming torrent of earth-colored water. Moving around in the surrounding countryside is difficult because of the soft and marshy ground. At present, the site where the dam will one day stand is nothing more than a primitive network of rough, unmade roads winding their muddy way between pasture land and cultivated fields. For local folks, visiting the daily market to trade produce is a slippery affair.

At first glance, the lush greenery of the mountain slopes and broad highland plateaus disguises the devastating erosion that has ravaged large tracts of the Gibe region. Not that it matters much now. In less than five years, the land here will be at the bottom of a 48-square-kilometer (20-square-mile) artificial lake. To make way for the huge $295 million dam, the government is forcing some 10,000 people to up sticks and abandon their huts and villages. And most of them won’t be resettling locally. This is because the immediate vicinity of the lake is to remain uninhabited. The experts fear that the water will provide ideal breeding conditions for mosquitoes, which transmit malaria.

A $200 million loan granted to the Ethiopian government by the World Bank last December is to go toward funding the immense project. The loan, which will run for 40 years, is being co-financed by various sponsors, including the European Investment Bank. Scheduled for completion by 2003, the new dam on the Gilgel Gibe River, complete with hydroelectric plant, will boost Ethiopia’s power generation capacity by almost 50 percent. International tendering for the hydroelectric power plant contract closed this summer.

Following a thorough cost-benefit analysis of the various sites under consideration, a World Bank feasibility study opted for Gilgel Gibe. None of the other proposed hydroelectric schemes, the report concluded, could guarantee an operational power plant within five years. Nor could any other site promise the 250,000 prospective consumers such a high capacity – not to mention the lowest electricity prices in the entire country. Overall control of planning and realization of the project has been placed in the hands of the state-owned Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCO), which is also responsible for choosing companies and subcontractors to undertake construction of the dam and power plant.

In a country known to the outside world for little more than its catastrophic famines, the Gilgel Gibe project has rapidly become a national symbol of economic and social upturn. To see why, it is informative to take a closer look at this northeastern African nation. Per capita income in Ethiopia is $120 a year. Annual exports of some $220 million are dwarfed by imports costing more than four and a half times that sum. Foreign debt stands at $3.9 billion. Sixteen percent of children die before the age of five, and average life expectancy is a meager 47. Only one child in six goes to school, where teaching has to take place in three shifts because there are not enough classrooms, teachers or teaching materials. At 2.9 percent, population growth is one of the highest in the world. It is estimated that the current population of 60 million will have doubled by the year 2020. At present, some 90 percent of Ethiopians are without electricity.

„Gilgel Gibe,“ says Negede Lewi, project officer at the World Bank in Addis Ababa, „will bring a real improvement to the quality of life here. And not just for the villages and towns about to get electricity for the first time. The regions plagued by power cuts will also benefit.“ Given its present generating capacity of 371 megawatt-hours (MWh), the country is obviously hard pushed to cover even 75 percent of the 500 MWh and more actually required by its citizens. The shortfall has to be generated using imported diesel. The problem is that electricity generated in this manner costs 19 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is double the price of hydropower. „We shouldn’t have to import at all,“ says Berhanu Feleke, head geologist at the Energy Ministry. „Ethiopia has the potential to produce some 32,000 MWh of hydroelectric power. That’s 86 times more than our total generating capacity today.“

Gilgel Gibe stands as a beacon of hope in this developing country. Thanks to such ambitious projects, Ethiopia may even be able to export power sometime in the 21st century. But the history of the project is also indelibly tainted by the sort of failures and political confusion that have brought this country – the third most heavily populated in Africa – to its knees. The idea of the dam was first floated almost 30 years ago, back in the days of Emperor Haile Selassie. However, in 1974, the Ethiopian leader was toppled in a military coup led by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariams, who headed the so-called Dergue, a Marxist junta backed by Moscow.

Famine was a constant scourge during the first years of the Dergue. By 1977, the chief preoccupation of the junta was to suppress uprisings in the provinces – with Soviet and Cuban military support, of course. It was the start of Ethiopia’s journey towards disaster. That same year, the Gilgel Gibe project was put on ice and, with it, the now almost prophetic plan of Haile Selassie to build a hydroelectric plant every five years.

In 1991, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) overthrew dictator Mengistu and began building a new decentralized and federalist Ethiopia. So successful have they been that Roman Herzog, the German President, praised the country’s constitution as a model for the whole of Africa during a visit in 1996. And having served as a judge in the Federal Constitutional Court, Germany’s supreme court, Herzog should know what he’s talking about. Right from day one, the EPRDF showed much more interest in social than military matters. By slashing the defense budget from 70 to eight percent of public spending, it proved possible to increase the proportion directed toward infrastructure and social projects to 75 percent. The strategy is bringing tangible economic benefits. Not only is per capita income forecast to double, but in a country where all the tax paid on gasoline goes directly into road building, the World Bank has recently authorized additional loans of $300 million to further develop the road network.

Yet the legacy of the mass brainwashing by Mengistu still casts a long shadow over everyday life, hampering all efforts to privatize and decentralize. „The regime systematically drove out any inclination people had to think for themselves or take on responsibility,“ says government spokesperson Salome Taddesse, herself a political exile in the U.S. and Germany during the Dergue years. „Anyway, since the country is desperately short of trained people in administration, the present government had little choice but to retain the old bureaucracy. Some of these people were comfortably ensconced behind a government desk back in the days of the emperor. They stayed put under Mengistu and they’re still there today serving President Meles Enawi.“ It’s like trying to turn a supertanker, she says. Before the ship responds to the rudder, its momentum keeps it moving in the same direction for a while.

Symptomatic of this cumbersome, entrenched bureaucracy is, in the words of the World Bank, a „lack of management autonomy“ in Ethiopia. „It’s the same in nearly every company and government department,“ says Taddesse. „The CEO or general manager sits on his throne like minor royalty. They’re utterly incapable of delegating even the most trivial responsibilities.“

As a result, it can take days to decide even minor matters; many firms practically go into paralysis when the boss isn’t there.

In the eyes of the Ethiopian government, the Gilgel Gibe project is just a first step. The ultimate goal is to be able to convert water power, the country’s most important natural resource, into an export commodity and hard-currency earner within the space of 10 years. There would be enough takers just among the sub-Saharan countries.

But Feleke from the Ethiopian Ministry of Energy is quick to dampen too much optimism. He has learned to think in decades. „In the short term, Gilgel Gibe will help resolve the country’s current imbalance between supply and demand in the energy market. Additional projects to generate hydroelectric and geothermal power will further stabilize things. But it’s going to be 40 years before the highlands – and that’s where the core of Ethiopia’s population lives – are fully hooked up to the electricity network.“ The real problem is that supply continues to lag way behind the rate at which the population and the economy are growing, he says. When, and only when, this battle has been won can Ethiopia even begin to think about exporting power – and only on the condition that the government also manages to curb the birth rate. However, that’s still very much a taboo issue in a county where religious teachings strictly forbid any form of contraception.

According to Feleke, hopes of a comprehensive, nationwide power supply in Ethiopia are Utopian, anyway. Far too many people live in remote regions. „On average, there’s only 127 inhabitants per square kilometer here, so we’ve got to look at other solutions, like the local and even individual use of solar power. Another problem is that our people are very poor. It’s no good giving them the chance to acquire such technology unless you offer them long-term loans to help pay for it.“

This is precisely where foreign aid agencies should step in. At least that’s the standpoint of Western diplomats stationed in Addis Ababa. And not least because of growing environmental fears in the region. At the dawn of the century, 40 percent of Ethiopia’s 1,104,300 square kilometers of land were covered by forests. In the meantime, more than 90 percent of those trees have disappeared. For most Ethiopians, firewood is the only fuel they have for cooking and heating purposes. From the cabin window of any domestic flight, the extent of the devastation is all too plain to see. The unmistakable scars of soil erosion disfigure the highlands; deforestation has carved up the once continuous expanse of forest into countless small groves and copses. Markets selling firewood are a common sight. Many people scrape a living systematically clearing trees and carting finely chopped firewood on a donkey or, if need be, their own backs, to far-off towns and villages. A small bundle can be sold for a few cents, even if tree felling has been outlawed. Anyway, the government’s apparent concern sometimes seems to be little more than a symbolic gesture. In Bahir Dar on Lake Tana, for example, the police effectively guard the firewood market, which is located right next to their headquarters.

The few reforestation projects the government has managed to launch have more or less all failed. „How can they stop me getting firewood from the forest if I have nothing else to cook or heat with?“ asks Lemma. In the inhabited part of the highlands, which extends to altitudes of around 2,500 meters, it can get pretty cold. In fact, during the rainy season, which lasts from June through September, it can be as cold as late fall in Central Europe.

In the Lemmas‘ round hut, an open fire smolders away day and night. Now and again, it suddenly flares up into a blaze. Located right next to where the family sleeps, it gives off a welcoming warmth – and a steady stream of acrid smoke. The children’s eyes are red and the six-month-old baby, his eyes streaming, has a nasty cough. Close to a small window, a faint breath of fresh air is quickly consumed by the choking atmosphere inside.

„Electricity,“ says Lemma, „would really change life for me and everybody else in the village. My daughters have to fetch water from the Lagadadi river up to four times a day. The journey there and back takes one and a half hours.“ With heavy, black earthenware jugs strapped to their backs, the women cart between 15 to 20 liters (four to five gallons) from the distant river or, during the dry season, a spring. For generations now, the sole occupation of three to four members of the Lemma family has been to fetch water, day in, day out. A common sight in the villages and the slums of Addis Ababa are the long lines of people patiently waiting their turn at the well. Only around 10 percent of the Ethiopian population have running water in their homes.

An electric pump would spare the Lemmas and their neighbors the daily trips to the river. Instead, the women could make things to sell, or help out with the pottery jugs. Anyway, predicts Debebe Mihret, general manager at Ethiopia’s energy utility, large families like the Lemmas are likely to become a thing of the past in the next century. „Increased access to power will also bring about economic growth. In turn, an increased number of people will then be able to afford the electricity and much more besides.“ More prosperity will also put an end to the idea that children are a resource – a source of cheap labor. „That’s the key,“ says Mihret. „We need to move towards family units with two kids. Parents will then be able to afford a decent education for their children.“

Laudable as this goal is, it remains a distant speck on the horizon. More than 100,000 Ethiopians are already on a waiting list to be wired up to the grid. Like many of his compatriots, Gamatscho Lemma continues to hope for a better future. Water on tap – that would be a dream come true for the people of a small obscure village, some 300 kilometers north of Addis Ababa.

A freelance correspondent in the Middle East for the print and broadcast media, MICHEL RAUCH is also a book author.

AXEL KRAUSE works for the Cologne photo agency „laif“ in the Middle East. Both live in Cairo, where they have learned to appreciate the benefit of having electricity and running water in their apartments.

© Copyright 1998 Michel Rauch