Thursday, May 10, 2012

Another earthquake waiting to happen

I read a poem in Poetry24 just over a week ago which renewed my interest in large dams and the devastation caused to communities relying on rivers which feed such dams for their existence. The poem was written by Lavinia Kumar and called ‘Lake Turkana’. Poetry24 publishes poems which link to a news item. This was one from the BBC world service ‘Water proves a prize asset’. A campaign is underway launched by a young Kenyan woman called Ikal Angelei.

Briefly Lake Turkana is fed by the Omo river and further upstream a new dam, which would be the fourth largest in the world, is planned for construction in Ethiopia. Gibe-3, as the project is called, could have devastating consequences for inhabitants of the country. While acknowledging that the dam can bring benefits Ikal Angelei wants ‘ to have the issues discussed thoroughly and openly, with all factors on the table’. One factor that will not be the most popular topic on the table is the well-known and accepted research that large dams cause earthquakes. I covered this in some detail when I predicted in 1999 the earthquake in the Gujurat area that took place at the beginning of 2001. Pressure from construction companies and financiers is unfortunately too powerful for governments to make an issue of events that can quite easily be blamed as ‘acts of God’.

Unfortunately for the people of Ethiopia, if the project goes ahead − and a small pressure-group is unlikely to have any impact when balanced against the power of big money − an earthquake is inevitable. Predicting exactly where this event would take place is not easy. However, there have already been earthquakes in Ethiopia and the quake is most likely to take place where the tectonic plates are weakest. Gibe-3, as well as taking water sourcing Lake Turkana, would put pressure on the mountains which form the valley through which the river Omo passes. Something would have to give.

To get some idea of how this happens think about the countless tons of water pushing the mountains apart. It takes a long time for these super-dams to fill. The mountains are unlikely to give where the dam is constructed due to modelling for the best-suited location. The impact is going to be felt somewhere else. Last year there was an earthquake in the Sidama region which caused an Orange alert. There were no hydro-electric dams in the region. However, once Gibe-3 starts to fill it will not be a fictional event like ‘Salmon fishing in the Yemen’ but a real life tragedy, like Gujurat. I will not be planning any holidays to Ethiopia for a few years.

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