Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam: A Mega-Dam with Potentially Mega-
Without greater oversight, Ethiopia's secretive new dam could have
disastrous environmental, social and political impacts.
3 December 2012
By Haydar Yousif
While Egypt was undergoing dramatic political changes last year,
Ethiopia was secretly moving to unveil ï¿½Project Xï¿½ ï¿½ a huge hydropower
dam it intends to build on the Blue Nile, 40 km from the Sudanese
Political commentators, environmental experts and hydrologists have
all voiced concerns about the damï¿½s ecological impact, the strain it
might place on relations between the three eastern Nile nations, and
the financial burden of this mega-dam on Ethiopian citizens.
Now renamed the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the project (due for
completion by 2015) is set to become the largest hydroelectric power
plant in Africa. The scale of the project is staggering: the plant
will be capable of producing almost double the electricity of Aswan
High Dam in Egypt, while its 63 billion cubic metre (bcm) reservoir is
double the size of Ethiopiaï¿½s largest natural lake. Crucially for
Ethiopiaï¿½s Nile neighbours, the filling of this huge reservoir is also
likely to greatly reduce the flow of water to Egypt and Sudan for
several years, and could even permanently alter the amount of water
those countries are able to draw from the river.
Details trickling through
The planning and implementation of this project has all been decided
behind closed doors. Its $4.8 billion contract was awarded without
competitive bidding, for example, to Salini Costruttori, an Italian
firm favoured by the ruling party; Salini is also building the
controversial Gibe III Dam on Ethiopiaï¿½s Omo River.
Furthermore, the nature of the project was kept under wraps until
after site preparation had already begun, to the great surprise of
regional governments, Nile planning agencies, and Ethiopiaï¿½s Western
donors. It was especially shocking to Norwegian agencies who were
working with the Ethiopian government on a similar project for the
same stretch of the Nile, now made obsolete by the Renaissance Dam.
This level of official opacity has worryingly prevailed beyond the
initial announcement of the project. Expert analysis that would
normally accompany such a titanic project has either not been
undertaken or kept characteristically secret. No environmental
assessment is publicly available for the project. And no steps were
taken before its launch to openly discuss the damï¿½s impacts with
downstream Nile neighbours Egypt and Sudan.
Do the environmental and social plans hold water?
The consequences for Ethiopiaï¿½s downstream neighbours could
potentially be catastrophic. The Renaissance Damï¿½s reservoir will hold
back nearly one and a half times the average annual flow of the Blue
Nile. Filling the reservoir ï¿½ which could take 3 to 5 years ï¿½ will
drastically affect the downstream nationsï¿½ agriculture, electricity
and water supply. Evaporative losses from the damï¿½s reservoir could be
as much as 3 billion cubic metres per year.
The dam will also retain silt. The Ethiopian government argues that
this will be a net positive as it will increase the lifetime of other
dams downstream, particularly in Sudan where, for example, the
Roseires Dam has been nearly incapacitated by sedimentation. But what
about the life expectancy of the Renaissance Dam itself? This is a
serious issue for the damï¿½s viability, and there are no known plans
for watershed management or soil conservation to address it. In
addition, the retention of silt by the dam reservoir will dramatically
reduce the fertility of soils downstream. Sediment-free water released
from dams also increases erosion downstream, which can lead to
riverbed deepening and a reduction in groundwater recharge.
Some have predicted even more calamitous consequences of the damï¿½s
construction. The Grand Renaissance Dam site is in the Great African
Rift Valley near the Afar Depression, an area in which tectonic
turmoil is so great it could, according to some accounts, eventually
tear the continent in two. The dam could be at risk from damage by
earthquakes, yet no one knows if it has even been analysed for this
risk, or the largest earthquake it is being designed to withstand. The
failure of such a huge structure puts the more than 100 million people
living downstream at risk.
On top of that risk is that of ï¿½reservoir induced seismicityï¿½. A dam
with a reservoir as large as this is not just vulnerable to seismic
events ï¿½ it can cause them. Scientists believe that there have been
more than 100 instances on six continents of large reservoirs inducing
earthquakes. The most serious to date was Chinaï¿½s devastating
magnitude 7.9 earthquake in 2008, which some experts believe was
induced by Zipingpu Dam.
Holding back the tide of criticism
However, some of the most pressing concerns regarding the damï¿½s
construction are political. Although its timing coincided with Egyptï¿½s
political upheaval, the sudden unveiling of the project nevertheless
resulted in an outcry. Egyptï¿½s primary fears are a reduction of its
main water supply from the Nile, and diminished nutrients and sediment
essential for agriculture.
Towards the end of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawiï¿½s rule,
Ethiopia adopted a more aggressive stance over the Nile, moving
swiftly to build a number of large hydropower dams. However, tension
in the region regarding control of the Nile waters has not all be
centred on Ethiopia. In May 2010, five upstream Nile states (Ethiopia,
Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania) signed a Cooperative Framework
Agreement (CFA) to access more water from the Nile. The move was
strongly opposed by Egypt, which brandished a colonial-era treaty from
1929 asserting its exclusive rights to the Nileï¿½s water supply.
With the Renaissance Dam, these tensions seemed to be coming to a
head. Following its announcement in March 2011, Egyptian authorities
were quick to lobby international support and strongly hinted that a
military response was not deemed disproportionate to protect such a
vital resource. Indeed, Wikileaks recently released documents
detailing a planned Egyptian attack on the dam from Sudan.
However, attitudes appear to have since softened, and dialogue was
opened last month between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. In a bid to allay
Egyptï¿½s wrath, the Ethiopian government proposed an International
Panel of Experts (IPoE) to review and assess the damï¿½s impacts on
downstream neighbours. The panel of ten consists of two members from
each of the three countries eastern Nile countries, plus four
international experts. Their names have not been released and their
meetings are behind closed doors, but they are expected to announce
their findings four months from now. This seems to have placated
Ethiopiaï¿½s neighbours for now. Egypt has toned down its opposition to
the dam, while President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan has even pledged
Sudanese support for the project.
Yet whatever the IPoEï¿½s findings, the Ethiopian government seems
adamant the dam will continue. In September 2012, the Ethiopian
Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that Ethiopia would never halt or
slow the construction of the dam due to external pressure, calling
into question the significance of the panel. Needless to say, many in
Sudan and Egypt still have serious concerns about the project.
Whatever the outcome of political arbitration, it remains
irresponsible for Ethiopia to build Africaï¿½s biggest hydropower
project, on its most contentious river, with no public access to
critical information about the damï¿½s impacts ï¿½ a flawed process which
can hardly result in a sustainable project. If the Ethiopian
government is serious about maintaining good relations with its Nile
neighbours, and if it truly wishes to develop projects that will carry
its people and the broader region into prosperity, it must begin by
allowing some light to penetrate this secretive development scheme.
About the Author
Haydar Yousif is a Sudanese hydrologist who has worked for 35 years on
water issues on the Nile.
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