Ethiopia’s Hydroelectric Program – Boon or Folly?

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 government’s obdurate refusal to consider the potential environmental and political impacts of its efforts to become the “energy hub” of East Africa have generated rising concerns not only in Ethiopia but neighboring nations depending on the country’s 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 Nile’s water flows.

gilgel gibe iii dam
Gilgel gibe III dam

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 dams’ 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.

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Italy’s 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 UN’s World Heritage Committee said that the Gilgel Gibe III dam, Ethiopia’s 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 lake’s unique flora and fauna. In 1997 the Omo River basin and Lake Turkana received UNESCO World Heritage Site listings. The UN’s 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.

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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 “don’t 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 Ethiopia’s 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 Ethiopia’s 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 Ethiopia’s Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile, which contributes 86 percent of the water arriving at Egypt’s Aswan High Dam. The White Nile’s main source is Lake Victoria, whose shoreline is shared by Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya and which joins the Blue Nile south of Khartoum. Read More on OilPrice.com

 

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