Ethiopia's Hydroelectric Program - Boon or Folly?
Written by John Daly
Monday, 24 October 2011 12:48
Developing countries worldwide view the construction of power
facilities as integral to their economic development to lift their
populations out of poverty. Ethiopia has now embarked on massive
hydroelectric schemes currently involving the construction of two
large dams, but the Ethiopian governmentï¿½s obdurate refusal to
consider the potential environmental and political impacts of its
efforts to become the ï¿½energy hubï¿½ of East Africa have generated
rising concerns not only in Ethiopia but neighboring nations depending
on the countryï¿½s water flows.
Two projects have elicited local, regional and international concerns.
The first is the 1,870 megawatt $2.2 billion Gilgel Gibe III dam on
the Omo River, which threatens the unique ecology of Lake Turkana on
the Kenyan-Ethiopian border, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The second is the projected 5,000 megawatt $5 billion Grand Ethiopian
Renaissance Dam, formerly known as the Millennium Dam, on the Blue
Nile, which the Ethiopian government is pressing forward despite
rising concern in downstream states Sudan and Egypt about the
potential impact of the facilities on the lower Nileï¿½s water flows.
In its rush to construction, in 2009 Addis Ababa issued an
environmental impact assessment (EIA) statement for Gilgel Gibe III on
the long-term consequences of the damsï¿½ construction, but only two
years after construction began. The resultant report was regarded as
so flawed that the World Bank, European Investment Bank, and the
African Development Bank abandoned the project.
Ethiopia more recently has not even bothered to issue an EIA
evaluation report for the proposed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam,
despite the fact that such evaluations are critical for assessing the
potential impact of the hydroelectric cascades and remain an essential
element in securing international funding.
Italyï¿½s Salini Costruttori was awarded no-bid contracts to build both
the Gilgel Gibe III and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and a
Chinese state-owned bank has approved funding for Gilgel Gibe III
despite the project being dogged by controversy from the outset. A
2009 independent feasibility study submitted to the African
Development Bank questioned the structural stability of the dam,
saying that the risk of a catastrophic failure was "not insignificant."
Last July the UNï¿½s World Heritage Committee said that the Gilgel Gibe
III dam, Ethiopiaï¿½s largest investment project, would endanger the
existence of Lake Turkana, which receives up to 90 percent of its
water from the Omo River, by lowering its water level by up to sixty
feet, affecting more than 300,000 people downstream from the facility
as well as increasing salinity and wreaking havoc on the lakeï¿½s unique
flora and fauna. In 1997 the Omo River basin and Lake Turkana received
UNESCO World Heritage Site listings. The UNï¿½s Committee on the
Elimination of Racial Discrimination has also urged Ethiopia to
suspend the project, fearing its impact on local communities. Experts
fear that the the Gilgel Gibe III dam could suffer 50-75 percent
leakage of waters from its reservoir due to multiple fractures in the
basalt rock at the planned reservoir site and note that the area is
also seismically active. Nevertheless, the project is moving forward.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi is brazening out public
criticism, promising to complete Gilgel Gibe III the facility "at any
cost," complaining that his critics "donï¿½t want to see developed
Africa; they want us to remain undeveloped and backward to serve their
tourists as a museum." Upping the ante, three months ago Ethiopia
announced that it would build four additional dams on the Blue Nile
that will work in conjunction with the Gilgel Gibe III and Grand
Ethiopian Renaissance Dam to generate more than 15,000 megawatts of
electricity and last month Ethiopiaï¿½s Ministry of Water and Energy
announced that Gilgel Gibe III facility is now 46 percent complete.
If Gilgel Gibe III threatens the Omo River and Lake Turkana and
Ethiopian and Kenyan water flows, it is the $5 billion Grand Ethiopian
Renaissance Dam, whose cornerstone was laid last March, that could
unsettle Ethiopiaï¿½s relations with its downstream neighbors down to
the Mediterranean, Egypt most of all.
Egypt relies on the Nile for most of its water supply and Ethiopiaï¿½s
Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile, which contributes 86 percent
of the water arriving at Egyptï¿½s Aswan High Dam. The White Nileï¿½s main
source is Lake Victoria, whose shoreline is shared by Uganda, Tanzania
and Kenya and which joins the Blue Nile south of Khartoum.
Nile water access issues are rooted in history, as 82 years ago
Britain as East Africaï¿½s dominant colonial power effectively handed
Egypt the lionï¿½s share of Nilotic waters in a 1929 accord. Under terms
of the agreement Egypt had and currently maintains its historic right
to three-quarters of the Nileï¿½s water, 55.5 billion cubic meters that
it annually diverts of the Nileï¿½s total flow of roughly 84 billion
cubic meters. Under the 1929 agreement Sudan, before South Sudan
became independent in July, was apportioned a further 11 percent of
the Nileï¿½s waters, leaving the other littoral states to share the
remainder. Under terms of the accord Egypt has persistently vetoed
neighboring countries' rights to build dams or irrigation projects
upstream which might affect the river's flow.
In 1959, when Egypt and Sudan were independent but all Nile upstream
states except Ethiopia were still colonies, Egypt and Sudan signed a
bilateral convention that essentially reaffirmed the 1929 accord and
left only 10 percent of the Nile's water to the seven upstream
countries, arguing that upstream nations had significant rainfall,
unlike Egypt or Sudan. Instability, poor governance, lack of finances
and the availability of other water sources left the issue largely
dormant until the 1990s, when Nilotic governments seriously started to
consider using their Nile Basin waters to generate energy and irrigate
In the 1999 Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) emerged as a basin-wide
program between Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania,
Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo to modify the
terms of the 1929 agreement, but it has thus far failed to achieve any
Given the lack of NBI progress, on 14 May 2010 Ethiopia, Tanzania,
Uganda, and Rwanda signed a new water-sharing proposal, the "River
Nile Basin Cooperative Framework," also known as the Entebbe
Agreement, which both Egypt and Sudan rejected. Until recently Cairo
continued to demand a veto power over any projects implemented
upstream in southern Nile nations and pushed international donors such
as the World Bank, NBIï¿½s main fiscal backer, to cut funding to the
renegade Entebbe Agreement signatories.
As an indication of how seriously the Egyptian government took the
Entebbe Agreement, the same month that it was signed responsibility
for the Nile basin dispute was removed from Egyptï¿½s Water and Foreign
Affairs Ministries and given to Egypt's intelligence and security
chief Omar Suleiman, who in February handed over power to the military
after Mubarak resigned. Scrambling to utilize its Nilotic waters more
efficiently, Egypt has succeeded over the last several decades in
increasing its arable land by 25 percent only through extensive and
expensive canal systems and increasing use of expensive imported
fertilizers, which any diminution of flow would threaten.
As for Egyptian concerns about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
diverting downstream flows, they are well aware of such issues, as it
took 12 years beginning in 1964 to fill the Aswan High Damï¿½s Lake
Nasser reservoir with 11 cubic kilometers of waters, which now drive
12 turbines generating 2,100 megawatts, less than half the power
output of the proposed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Far from addressing Egyptian environmental concerns, the Ethiopian
government has not even bothered to issue an EIA for the Grand
Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which some hydrological specialists predict
that in filling its reservoir will cause a 25 percent annual reduction
in river flow to Egypt, as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
reservoirï¿½s volume would be about equivalent to the annual flow of the
Nile at the Sudanese-Egyptian border, roughly 65.5 billion cubic meters.
The ï¿½Arab Springï¿½ that overthrew the regime of Egyptian President
Hosni Mubarak in February has resulted in Egyptï¿½s interim government
showing new signs of flexibility on Nile water issues. Last month
Egyptian Interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf met with Zenawi in Cairo
and agreed to set up a technical team to study the impact of the Grand
Ethiopian Renaissance Dam while Zernawi, on an obvious charm offensive
to secure international financial backing, agreed to host Egyptian and
Sudanese officials to prove that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
will not be used to irrigate any of the large corporate farms the
Ethiopian government has leased to foreign investors in recent years,
but instead be used solely to generate electricity, adding that his
government will delay ratifying the 2010 Entebbe Agreement. Several
months ago Ethiopia said it would be forced to finance the Grand
Ethiopian Renaissance Dam itself and from the sale of government bonds
because Egypt was pressuring donor countries and international lenders
not to fund its dam projects.
And both structures are largely about electricity exports. If
completed, Gilgel Gibe III alone will double Ethiopiaï¿½s hydroelectric
total installed capacity from its 2007 level of 814 megawatts. In
April Zenawi announced that Ethiopia plans to produce as much as 8,000
megawatts of additional electricity from hydropower sources by 2016 as
various projects come online.
While Ethiopia reportedly has "initial agreements" to export
electricity to Sudan, Dijibouti, and Kenya, critics of the
hydroelectric projects emphasize that 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 can currently utilize.
The projected future environmental water stresses of the Nile basinï¿½s
population make for grim reading. Washington DCï¿½s Population
Reference Bureau has developed some unsettling statistics for
countries along the Nile, estimating that Egypt's population of 80
million is expected to reach 122 million by 2050. During the same
period Ethiopiaï¿½s 83 million population will soar to 150 million and
in Uganda, with one of the highest birthrates in the world, the
population is expected to more than triple from its current level of
32 million to 97 million.
While East Africaï¿½s efforts to improve their standards of living with
increased electricity resources, it is questionable whether a massive
commitment to hydroelectric power is the only option. The surging
demographics of the region combined with the potential environmental
impacts of massive hydroelectric projects along the worldï¿½s longest
river, combined with Ethiopiaï¿½s refusal to provide EIAs should give
all international investors pause before underwriting such massive
undertakings. The waters of the Nile are finite and will soon support
a population greater than the United States, and water diversions for
such projects can only increase national and regional tensions.
It is good that Egypt is now willing to talk, but even more important
that Ethiopia be willing to listen. If the international community
wishes to support Ethiopiaï¿½s efforts to become East Africaï¿½s energy
ï¿½hub,ï¿½ then it should request transparency about the environmental
consequences of such extravagant hydrological projects and their
impact not only in Ethiopia but their neighbors along the shared river
basins which geography has bequeathed them.
By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com
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