Ethiopia Moves Forward with Massive Nile Dam Project
by Ker Than
for National Geographic News
Published July 13, 2011
This article is part of a special National Geographic news series and
initiative on global water issues.
Ethiopia has announced that it will construct a controversial
multibillion-dollar Nile River dam that could supply more than 5,000
megawatts of electricity for itself and its neighbors, including
newcomer South Sudan.
The projectï¿½the Grand Millennium Damï¿½has sparked worries about
environmental and human costs and is refocusing attention on the
countryï¿½s troubled history with large dams.
(Read more about South Sudanï¿½s energy situation in National
Geographic's Great Energy Challenge Blog: ï¿½Building a New Nation and
New Energy in South Sudan.ï¿½)
At a public ceremony in March, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi
laid the cornerstone for the new dam, a hydroelectric power plant that
will span a section of the Blue Nile River in the countryï¿½s
The Blue Nile originates in Ethiopiaï¿½s Lake Tana and is one of two
major tributaries of the Nile, the worldï¿½s longest river.
(Read about the Blue Nile in National Geographic magazine.)
When completed in 2015, the Grand Millennium Dam will be the largest
hydroelectric power plant in Africa. It will also create the country's
largest artificial lake, with a capacity of 63 billion cubic meters of
waterï¿½twice the size of Lake Tana in Ethiopiaï¿½s Amhara region.
In late June, Ethiopia announced that it would build four additional
dams on the Blue Nile that will work in conjunction with the Grand
Millennium Dam to generate more than 15,000 megawatts of electricity.
The cost of the four new dams has not been disclosed, but the Grand
Millennium Dam is estimated to cost about $4.7 billion.
Ethiopia has stated that it wants to become a major power hub for
Africa by generating hydropower electricity that it can sell to its
neighbors, and the country is in a unique position to succeed.
"They call Ethiopia the water tower of Africa," said climatologist
Chris Funk of the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). "If
you look at an elevation map of the continent, it's all pretty low
except for the Ethiopia highlands. So you have these big high
mountains that get a ton of rainfall and so the potential for
hydropower is pretty massive."
This potential has not been lost on the Ethiopian government.
According to environmental group International Rivers, Ethiopia has
more than 20 dams that are either currently operating or under
constructionï¿½more than any other African nation.
Ethiopia's government says the bulk of the Nile dams' generated
electricity will be exported to neighboring countries, but Egypt and
Northern Sudan have expressed concern that the mega dam project could
seriously reduce the downstream water flow of the Nile River in their
Conservationists also are worried about the Grand Millennium Dam's
environmental impacts. To date, no environmental impact assessment
report, or EIA, for the project has been published and the country has
not indicated that any studies are planned.
This isn't surprising, said International Rivers spokesperson Lori
An EIA report that Ethiopia released in 2009 for Gibe IIIï¿½another
large dam project on the country's Omo River that is currently under
constructionï¿½was widely criticized as flawed and inadequate and led
the World Bank, European Investment Bank, and the African Development
Bank to pull out of the project in 2010.
(Read more about plans to dam Ethiopiaï¿½s Omo River in National
Geographic magazine, on the National Geographic NewsWatch blog, and on
National Geographicï¿½s freshwater website.)
Ethiopia may be seeking to avoid a similar public backlash with the
Grand Millennium Dam, but the lack of an EIA report has made it
difficult to raise international funds for the project, Pottinger said.
Ethiopia also has a troubled history of large dam projects that does
not inspire confidence. The countryï¿½s dams have been linked to the
controversial government practice of "land grabs."
The Ethiopian government, which owns all land in the country, has been
pushing tribal people off their ancestral lands and is leasing large
tracts of land to foreign interests, critics say.
"The government has already initiated extensive agricultural
irrigation schemes . . . for private corporations and the government,
forcing large numbers of the indigenous population out of these
agricultural and livestock grazing lands," said Claudia Carr, a
professor of international rural resource development at the
University of California, Berkeley.
"Since they have nowhere to go for alternative survival, armed
conflicts in the region are sharply rising,." Carr added.
According to a 2009 Africa Resources Working Group (ARWG) report, the
Gibe III dam could reduce the level of Lake Turkana by as much as 66
feet (20 meters) and affect as many as half a million people living in
Ethiopia and Kenya.
Such a drastic drop in water level would not only threaten wildlife in
the regionï¿½including hippopotamus, crocodiles, and migrant waterfowlï¿½
but it would also increase the lakeï¿½s salinity because the salt
concentration in the lake increases as the water level drops, Carr said.
(See photos of aquatic species.)
"Lake Turkana is already just borderline potable for humans and
livestock,ï¿½ she added. ï¿½An increase in salinity would push conditions
over this limit, as well as disrupt the entire biology of the lake
Despite its difficulty in soliciting foreign funds, the government of
Ethiopia has said it is committed to the Grand Millennium Dam and that
it plans to fund the project without foreign aid by selling bonds to
ï¿½The Ethiopian population has agreed to build the Grand Millennium
Dam. All workers are giving one month salary, traders are buying
bonds, the diaspora is contributing to the dam,ï¿½ Ethiopian government
spokesperson Haji Ibsa Gendo told Bloomberg News earlier this year.
But even if the Grand Millennium and Gibe III dams are successfully
completed, it's still unclear who will buy their electricity.
According to the Sudan Tribune, Ethiopia has "initial agreements" to
export electricity to Sudan, Dijibouti, and Kenya. But dam critics say
the majority of Africans are not connected to the power grid, and that
Ethiopia will be generating far more electricity than it or its
neighbors currently need.
"It's anyone's guess how they're going to sell off this electricity,"
News reports indicate that South Sudan could also be a potential buyer
of Ethiopiaï¿½s electricity, but the situation is complicated by a 1929
agreement that gives Egypt and Sudan rights over all of the Nileï¿½s
waterï¿½an agreement that would now presumably include South Sudan and
which Ethiopia and several other African nations are challenging.
ï¿½Currently Sudan has a relatively large chunk of rights to the Nile
and itï¿½s unclear how those are going to be divided, who theyï¿½re going
to side with, and what theyï¿½re going to want from Ethiopia,ï¿½ Pottinger
said. ï¿½I donï¿½t think anybody can guess whatï¿½s going to happen at this
There is also a danger that some of Ethiopia's dams will become
obsolete in a few decades as climate changes driven by global warming
alter hydrological cycles across eastern Africa.
One set of climate analyses, by UCSB's Funk and his colleagues,
predicts that southern Ethiopia could experience as much as a 20
percent decline in rainfall in the coming decades as a result of
changing climate patterns. If this happens, it could threaten the
electricity production of Gibe III and other dams on the Omo River.
"Whether you believe my analysis of why the rainfall is declining,
certainly the observation suggests the decline is happening. You can
be an unbeliever in climate change and still be concerned that the
rainfall is going down," Funk said.
According to International River's Pottinger, no dams in Ethiopia are
being analyzed for the potential impacts of climate change.
"This region of East Africa is already extremely dependent on
hydropower," she said.
"When you combine that with the fact that Africa is the continent that
is supposed to be most affected by climate change, that's just a
recipe for disaster."
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