A human rights advocacy organization has filed a criminal complaint against a German engineering firm over its involvement in the Merowe Dam project in northern Sudan. The company has denied all allegations.
Sudan's Merowe Dam has triggered a controversy on human rights issues
With an electricity production capacity of 1250 megawatts, the Merowe Dam is Africa's largest hydroelectric project. The dam on the Nile River in northern Sudan was designed to provide power and water for farming to the entire country.
But the large-scale project has also had a significant impact on the community. Historical sites were flooded, and thousands of people were reportedly forced to flee their homes.
In 2007, UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing Miloon Kothari responded to "numerous reports of violations of civil and political rights" by calling for suspension of the Merowe Dam's construction until an independent evaluation could be conducted.
Alleged failure to comply with international guidelines on evicting residents near the project has prompted one human rights group to take action.
The Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights filed a criminal complaint earlier this month against one of the firms involved in the project, Lahmeyer International, based in Bad Vilbel near Frankfurt. The company has denied any wrongdoing.
The ECCHR charges that the company was involved in the flooding of 30 villages and the forced displacement of more than 4,700 families in the region near the dam in northern Sudan.
Hundreds of families were reportedly displaced by construction of the dam
A local voice speaks out
The area around the Merowe Dam is now cordoned off and Sudan's government has allegedly barred journalists from accessing the site.
Anyone who publicly opposes the project and the forced relocations due to the dam become potential targets for harassment. What started as peaceful protests by local residents in previous years reportedly turned violent, ending in the shooting and arrest of demonstrators by Sudanese security forces.
Despite the risks, Ali Askouri, a native of the region near the dam and community representative, refuses to be intimidated. He has since moved to London, but Askouri frequently visits his family in Sudan – and has a first-hand perspective of the project's impact.
"It's a complete disaster," he said. "All (residents') farming land is gone, all their crops are gone; they lost their animals, they lost their harvests." Askouri said some villages were completely flooded, and families became divided over whether to stay or go.
His was among those families separated by construction of the dam. While some of Askouri's relatives relocated to the hillside, which wasn't affected by floodwaters, others moved to a plot of barren land which the Sudanese government provided the family as compensation.
A criminal complaint was filed against Lahmeyer International
Askouri had little faith that pressuring the Sudanese government would deliver any progress. So he opted to join forces with the ECCHR in Germany. Together, they're challenging one of the companies involved in the dam's construction and have filed a criminal complaint against two of their executive employees.
Lahmeyer International was the engineering firm in charge of planning and supervising the Merowe Dam project. In 2006 and 2008, two areas behind the dam were flooded - but according to human rights advocates, Lahmeyer employees knew that thousands of people were still living there.
"Lahmeyer began construction even though the resettlement plans had not been fully negotiated with the affected population - as demanded by international World Bank standards," the ECCHR's website stated.
The organization alleged that the company's personnel did not inform residents ahead of the flooding, forcing them to flee almost empty-handed. Many of them lost everything they owned.
"With these kinds of dam projects, it's important to have cooperation and participation with the local population," said Ulrich Delius, Africa consultant for the Society for Threatened Peoples.
"And here, the participation was such that 90 percent of the local population demonstrated against it, these demonstrations are quelled with armed violence and people get arrested."
"You just can't say there was any participation in the planning," he added.
Lahmeyer International has rejected all claims made against the company.
Although it declined to be interviewed by Deutsche Welle, Egon Failer, one of the company's dam construction managers, told German news magazine Der Spiegel that "residents were given due notice" of the construction plans.
"Consultants spent years conducting surveys and discussions in the villages and even counted the date trees to tally up compensations."
It's not the first time the company has faced challenges on its overseas projects. In 2006, the World Bank sanctioned Lahmeyer International for its role in a corruption scandal connected with a project in Lesotho. The company was barred from receiving World Bank-funded contracts for seven years.
The purpose of the dam was to provide electricity and water for agriculture
More hydropower projects?
The Sudanese government said the Merowe Dam would supply enough power to meet the entire population's energy needs. But even more dams are slated for construction in the country - meaning that another 175,000 people could face displacement from their homes. In addition, Lahmeyer International is involved in at least one of the future projects.
"If the company insists on going into other projects, that means the company has no respect for human rights," local community representative Ali Askouri said. "They have had the experience - how can you go into another project with the same government, with the same group of officials, who pay no attention whatsoever to the rights of the affected communities?"
The Merowe project has the potential to boost prosperity in Sudan, but it leaves behind a troubling legacy. Human rights advocates hope the current complaint will set a new precedent for how companies approach human rights issues.
Reporter: Adrian Kriesch (arp)
Editor: Nathan Witkop