03 October 2012

The Grand Renaissance Dam

I visited the dam a few weeks ago. I am not an engineer. Looking at big messy structures, lots of equipment, bulldozed landscapes, and blown up mountains does not excite me. I am a natural scientist and now I am straddling the social sciences...in my heart I love the earth and I love mankind...so what happens when I am traveling with engineers really excited about this dam? I get excited to an extent, but I am also distracted. I found myself distracted at the dam site by the incredible natural beauty of the valley. I was fascinated by all the birds, reptiles, trees, flowers, butterflies, and small mammals that darted across the road. We drove through part of the site at night and our headlights caught a huge owl, who was surprised, but not daunted by our presence.

I understand that things like dams are a solution to things like poverty. I also see poverty as robbing the dignity of many Ethiopian people - when I see people begging, children alone and dirty abandoned on the street, defecating on the side of the road, sleeping with farm animals in the house - I see a different type of suffering. One of my colleagues told me about seeing a truck pass by that dropped a cake off of the back on accident. Immediately a man in rags raced into traffic and started eating the cake off of the ground. That is not dignified, nor is it something someone should have to resort to, ever. So I appreciate the average Ethiopian's hope in this dam.

But I also see a landscape that will be swallowed up by a massive reservoir (2 times the size of the largest lake in Ethiopia, Lake Tana, which when you are on one side, you cannot see the other side). I grieve for such a loss. Ethiopia is diverse. It has at least 82 recognized ethnic groups, each with their own language and this diversity of culture must have been shaped, in large part, by the diversity of climates - this is something that Ramona, a Peace Corps Volunteer who lives in Bale National Park, pointed out to me. She is so right. Every landscape I have encountered here is dramatically different than the last. There are so many endemic species here, and probably many that have not been yet identified. Watching Ethiopia sacrifice its natural diversity, its biodiversity, and in some ways sacrifice some of its ethnic diversity, in the name of progress is sad to me. It is sad because this has happened so many other places with devastating repercussions. Perhaps those costs aren't measurable in dollars, but they are in tears. Cultural loss, like biodiversity loss, is somehow a violent tragedy all over our world. I do not understand where exactly we think we are moving toward?

So I look out over this valley and my heart is moved. The place has an energy, and I did not expect to feel this feeling. So many people told me that the place is a barren land. When I could slip away on my own, a couple days in the oppressive afternoon sun and heat, when others were safe in air conditioning, I walked away from the chaos of the dam site, sweating down the road to find peace, to look at birds, to try and find a way to the riverside. Dip my toe in the Nile. I did not find a barren land.

I saw so many beautiful birds. Felt that the place is so alive. Thriving. I know it is the rainy season, so everything turns green, but I cannot help but know too, that this is not the only reason this valley feels special.  Something will be lost, will be sacrificed, when this project is complete. The gain is much for the people, literally and psychologically, but something for future generations will be lost. As it always is in our modern world.