Three gazes on water, dams, and development in Ethiopia

A recently published article illustrates how photography can help clarifying our perspective on water and infrastructures while acknowledging others.

Omo Change. Credits: Fausto Podavini

In an article published in the latest issue of the journal “Africa e Mediterraneo” I discuss three photographic projects on water, dams, and development in Ethiopia in which I have been somehow involved in the past years. When sharing this analysis at the 6th Annual IHE Delft Water and Peace Seminar (17-18 April 2024) I reflected on the role and potential of photos and photography for water cooperation and diplomacy.

The Water Tower of Africa

The first project is a book called The Water Tower of Africa, commissioned by the construction company Webuild, one of the world leading players in the infrastructure sector. This company has Italian origins and a long history of work in Ethiopia, where it is mainly known with its former name, Salini. Since the 1950s, Salini-Webuild has been involved in the construction of the most important dams in Ethiopia, including the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. In 2019 I received an invitation by the book’s editors to contribute with a text on water, dams and development in Ethiopia. I have to admit that at the beginning I got a bit surprised by this invitation: my only previous publication explicitly focusing on dams and on the presence of Salini in Ethiopia – written with the historian Luca Puddu – was a chapter in a book titled Aid and Authoritarianism in Africa. In the end we could not find an agreement and I did not take part to the project. However, the exchange with Webuild public relations office was very informative.

The Water Tower of Africa is a big volume of almost 200 pages. In the first part of the book there are several landscape photos of water basins and dams (the photos are linked in the text as I did not get the right to reproduce them here), with calm water reflecting the blue or golden light of the sky, and the green of the luxuriant vegetation surrounding the water bodies. That water flows in the Nile and Omo rivers, along which Webuild is currently building several dams for the Ethiopian government. These photos present water as a pristine natural resource, ready to be harnessed for the development of the country. Infrastructures are almost invisible in the landscape:  a natural and uncontested presence, a matter of fact. One thing that surprised me is the absence of people and of signs of human presence – beside of course the almost invisible dams – in most of these photos. The first photos portraying people and putting them in relation to infrastructures are the photos of a few workers in the construction sites featured only at page 135.

However, saying that people are not present in the book is not completely true. If not in the photos, they are represented in the watercolor drawings by the Italian artist Stefano Faravelli. Faravalli drew the people met during a trip in Ethiopia he did upon invitation of the company Webuild: children playing, women carrying water, Orthodox monks with their religious symbols, crosses and books. Beside people, the artist draws a rich catalogue of animals: baboons, camels, crocodiles, fishes, several species of birds for which southern Ethiopia is well known. At my eyes of an Italian reader, these characters look exotic and premodern: it is a quintessential orientalist representation. The drawings bring us in a different dimension, in terms of space and time, separated from the dams and the water pictured in the photos, both in aesthetics and political terms. I found such representation symptomatic of the removal from the public discourse in Ethiopia – and in Italy as well – of any discussion about the dams’ social and environmental impact. Equally absent from the book is a critical reflection on the colonial relation between Ethiopia and Italy.

Omo Change

South Ethiopia. 2011. Omo Valley. Credits: Fausto Podavini

A few days before receiving the invitation by the editors of The Water Tower of Africa, I had joined an online crowdfunding campaign to support the publication of another photography book on water, dams, and development in Ethiopia. In Omo Change (2020) the Italian photographer Fausto Podavini documents the social and environmental impact of the complex of dams that Webuild has been building on the Gibe and Omo rivers, in the south of Ethiopia. In these photos, water reflects the grey sky typical of Ethiopia’s rainy season. Such light gives a looming tone to the whole narrative of the book. Here people are at the center of the scene, and they are portrayed as the victims of development. Take for instance one of the iconic photos of Omo Change, with children from the Karo ethnic group playing on the banks of the Omo river, near their village. The caption of the photos recalls how the livelihood of this people, based on fishing and agriculture linked to the seasonal river floods, have been disrupted the construction of the Gilgel Gibe dams. The caption also mentions that the forest in the background of the photo has been cleared to male space for a sugarcane plantation.

The looming framing of this photo stands in stark contrast with the lightheartedness of the children playing in Faravelli’s drawings, where the background and context are visually absent. Omo Change tells stories of loss. The same infrastructure celebrated in The Water Tower of Africa is represented here from the people’s perspective, looking like a project imposed and looming over the local population and dispossessing them from their land, water, and social fabric. What seems missing in these photos is the agency of the local communities: their capacity to act and re-act to the project. Local communities and people are represented simply as victims of a problem to which there seems to be no solution.


It is still home. Credits: Martha Tadesse for #EverydayNile

While these two books were published, I was working at a project called #EverydayNile, in which we invited photo-journalists from different Nile basin countries to repicture the river beyond mainstream narratives based on the national interests, by focusing instead on everyday practices, emotions and connections that people have with the Nile. I found it interesting to compare the gaze of the Italian photographers with those of two Ethiopian photographers that have been involved in #EverydayNile.

The first, Martha Tadesse, in her story “It is still home”, documents the aftermaths of floods along the Baro river, a tributary of the White Nile flowing from South-west Ethiopia into South Sudan.  She pictured a fisherman paddling in muddy waters reflecting a troubled grey sky. The light and the fisherman movement transmit a feeling of tension, but also a sense of agency and resilience. The framing of this photo is very similar to another one by Fausto Podavini, picturing a fisherman sitting idle on his boat on Lake Turkana, to denounce the negative impact of the dam on the lake ecosystem. In Podavini’s photo, the light and the stillness of the fisherman evoke a feeling of calm but also resignation in front of a loss.

Omo Change. Credits:Fausto Podavini

Also the second Ethiopian photojournalist, Mekonnen Tollera, pictured a story of action and agency, Washing Away the Blue Gold of Ethiopia, on soil erosion along another tributary of the Nile in Ethiopia. While Martha Tadesse pictured stories of individual resilience, Mekonnen Tollera focused on a technical solution, reforestation. I found it telling that the protagonist of the story, the men planting trees, walks away giving his back to the camera. It seems symptomatic of the tendency to walk away from conflictual and controversial issues. Both topics, floods and soil erosion are highly political in Ethiopia. The photo-journalists could not – or preferred not to – engage with the political dimension of these issues. These two stories also recall that not all Ethiopians look at water, dams and development from the same perspective, showing a plurality of aesthetics, gazes, ethical and political stands.

Washing away the blue gold of Ethiopia. Credits: Mekonnen Teshome for #EverydayNile

Emotions, perspective, and ideology

What do these three photographic projects tell us about the role of images in water conflicts and their potential for water cooperation and diplomacy? Photos are very good at eliciting emotions. And emotions are an important element of knowledge. They might not give us a lot of information about the object – what we are looking at – but on how we are looking at that object. Reflecting on the emotions elicited by a photography can help us to critically reflect on our own perspective. If you take the perspective of a dam builder and you want to picture a dam, then people become invisible. If you want to take the perspective of people, then it is very difficult to have a full picture of the dam and balance the national and regional impact against the local one, that most of the time is a negative one. Photos reveal how emotions are linked to perspective. It is a revelation in the literal meaning of the word, implying a double movement. First, unveiling a topic, in this case water and dams, to show and document it. Second, implicit in the prefix re-, there is the idea of veiling again, thus unsettling and troubling a clear picture and understanding of the topic. The veil, in the case of these three photographic projects, seems to me the veil of ideology. Thus, comparing photos and commenting them together, can be an interesting exercise to reveal our emotions, perspectives, and ideologies on dams, to acknowledge those of our interlocutors, and hopefully to start a conversation and negotiation about these differences.

Cite this blog post
Emanuele Fantini (2024, May 6). Three gazes on water, dams, and development in Ethiopia. FLOWs. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

Emanuele Fantini

Emanuele (@emanufanti) is senior lecturer and researcher at the Water Governance Department of IHE Delft. Committed to public engagement and crossover projects with artists and journalists, Emanuele coordinates the project “Open Water Diplomacy. Media, science and transboundary cooperation in the Nile basin”, he hosts the podcasts “The Sources of the Nile”, “Water Alternatives Podcast”, and “Si dice acqua”, and he is the editor of IHE Delft Water Governance Blog, FLOWs.

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1 Response

  1. 06/06/2024

    […] « Washing away the blue gold of Ethiopia ». Credits : Mekonnen Teshome for #EverydayNile (source de l’illustration) […]

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