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Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam: A Mega-Dam with Potentially Mega-Consequences

Without greater oversight, Ethiopia's secretive new dam could have disastrous environmental, social and political impacts.
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An Egyptian man uses irrigation water to wash his face. Photograph by James Buck.

While Egypt was undergoing dramatic political changes last year, Ethiopia was secretly moving to unveil “Project X” – a huge hydropower dam it intends to build on the Blue Nile, 40 km from the Sudanese border.

Political commentators, environmental experts and hydrologists have all voiced concerns about the dam’s 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 Ethiopia’s largest natural lake. Crucially for Ethiopia’s 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 Ethiopia’s 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 Ethiopia’s 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 dam’s impacts with downstream Nile neighbours Egypt and Sudan.

Do the environmental and social plans hold water?

The consequences for Ethiopia’s downstream neighbours could potentially be catastrophic. The Renaissance Dam’s reservoir will hold back nearly one and a half times the average annual flow of the Blue Nile. Filling the reservoir – which could take 3 to 5 years – will drastically affect the downstream nations’ agriculture, electricity and water supply. Evaporative losses from the dam’s 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 dam’s 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 dam’s 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 ‘reservoir induced seismicity’. A dam with a reservoir as large as this is not just vulnerable to seismic events – 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 China’s 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 dam’s construction are political. Although its timing coincided with Egypt’s political upheaval, the sudden unveiling of the project nevertheless resulted in an outcry. Egypt’s 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 Zenawi’s 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 Nile’s 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 Egypt’s wrath, the Ethiopian government proposed an International Panel of Experts (IPoE) to review and assess the dam’s 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 Ethiopia’s neighbours for now.

Yet whatever the IPoE’s 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 Africa’s biggest hydropower project, on its most contentious river, with no public access to critical information about the dam’s impacts – 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.

Amendment 5/12/2012: The third from last paragraph of the article stated that Egypt's has toned down its opposition to the dam. This has been removed at the request of the author.

Think Africa Press welcomes inquiries regarding the republication of its articles. If you would like to republish this or any other article for re-print, syndication or educational purposes, please contact: editor@thinkafricapress.com

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Comments

When I saw your title and nationality, I was tempted to rest my case. Sir I believe your article is highly biased. It is a grand project of huge budget so risk assessment is already done. Ethiopia might didn't ask a permission from Sudan and Egypt this time, But Ethiopia tried to negotiate with the downstream country for the last 50 years. They never showed any compromise to on their 100% usage of the Nile river(while Ethiopia is the source of 85% of the water).Both Sudan and Egypt use negotiations as a cheap time wasting tool. They never showed any initiative to use the water for common benefit. Let’s not try to stop the unstoppable the way forward is let’s cooperate in this project.  The electricity to be produced by the hydropower plant is to be sold in Ethiopia and to neighboring countries including Sudan and possibly Egypt. It helps the region to be part of energy consumers. And this minimizes and abolishes environmental pollution, which has a great impact for the region

I could not help express my dissapointment over the article by a certain Haydar, who claims to be working on the issue of the Nile for so long and yet come up with a purely partisan analysis of the subject matter. Most of what he stated in the article is simply not true, and never substantiated with prior findings or analysis. Stating, for example, that the Renaissance Dam will have huge negative impacts on the lower riparian countries, is totally contradictory to the findings by Haydar's fellowmen and the Government of Sudan which indeed confirmed its enormous benefits such as regular flow of water, reduction of silt, and reduction of loss due to evaporation. Haydar even goes far to concluding that, revealing his one- sided, assuming stand, Ethiopia will be adamant on its construction of the Dam no matter the finding of the International Panel. For one thing, Haydar seems to be purposefully understating Ethiopia's initiative for this. Second, preliminary assessments by the Panel has come out with only positive impacts of the Dam. His conclusion, therefore, appears out of sight. What benefits everyone involved in the Nile waters is dialogue and mutual understanding for the common good. And there is a lot to gain through rapproachement and cooperation, rather than doomsayers and old-fashioned approaches.

Sorry, i don't have time to read all this but one thing is that..... you just want to look like that you are concerned for Ethiopia............ and that is not a concerned person analysis........... everyone has special intrest and we Ethiopian's too.......... everything has a cost and somethimes natinal pride is more expensive than most things peoples talk about......... so you better be expert and give only profesional opinoin....... we had enough nations concerned for us just to push us back down the road........... Don't worry all will be paid to finish this.

A nice piece on a controversial issue. Even though I might disagree with most of the author's arguments and deductions, this comment is meant to point out that description of location of the undergoing project given by the author with respect to the great east african rift valley is completely flawed. "The Grand Renaissance Dam site is in the Great African Rift Valley near the Afar Depression..." Wrong! The rift valley crosses Ethiopia from north (north-east) to south in its eastern half. Likewise, the Afar Depression is located in the area boardering Eritrea and Djibuti--which means in North-Eastern Ethiopia. The Grand Renaissance Dam site is 40Km from the Ehio-Sudan boarder. Last time I checked Sudan was located west of Ethiopia. I guess it is inappropriate to misguide readers and make a point by providing wrong information.Peace!

I couldnt stop laughing when I read the bit about the dam being near the Afar Depression.  So much for the writer's expetise.  The article was so biased, the writer didnt ever bother to check his facts.  Obviously, filibustering  together with lobbying against support for such long, Ethiopia just goit fed up with it. I dont think Egypt has got soft with it at all.  Just change of tactics.  Working from within, with invetments, charitable work, stocking up the muslim unrest, etc. All can be taken as examples of indirect tactic to undermine Ethiopia's effort from inside.This is where eternal vigilance is required. 

Dear Hayder,your opinion seems not like professional who have been studying about Nile issues for 35 years as u said.may be your lectures teaches u that Ethiopia did not have this Africa’s biggest hydropower before  but u need to accept that we will have this Big Dam in 2015. For u r info the Great African Rift Valley near the Afar Depression that will tear the continent in two will occur after 10 Million years it is more than the age of planet earth and u are right let borrow your phrase “the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that Ethiopia would never halt or slow the construction of the dam due to external pressure” .to make u understand let me use Egyptian proverb “ከ ደም ውሃ ይወፍራል” 

This guy worked on dam and water for 30 years and all he could write is this totally one sided and the most selfish article I have ever read on Ethiopian dam. Even the Egyptians understand the situation better that you do.

I really wish before you write article try to read a simple MAP coz Afar is next to Djibouti...... And the dam is next to Sudan.....oh my the dam is gonna rip the rift Vally and Africa apart..... Look at you writer you thought you could throw mud at Ethiopia and on our dream to be better but it only showed how informed your 30 year experience made you about your neighbor..... Laughable

This guy worked on dam and water for 30 years and all he could write is this totally one sided and the most selfish article I have ever read on Ethiopian dam. Even the Egyptians understand the situation better that you do.

I really wish before you write article try to read a simple MAP coz Afar is next to Djibouti...... And the dam is next to Sudan.....oh my the dam is gonna rip the rift Vally and Africa apart..... Look at you writer you thought you could throw mud at Ethiopia and on our dream to be better but it only showed how informed your 30 year experience made you about your neighbor..... Laughable

I have to admit, I have always considered this dam a while elephant, drawn straight from the sleeve of frick Woyannes who are obsessed with doing large projects without due consideration for prioritising investment projects.  In a country like Ethiopia where investment funds are in short supply, this dam comes last in the list of urgent investment projects. For instance, Ethiopia would immensely benefit more from a grand fertilizer plant than this ridiculous and untimely project.  Having said this, I am puzzled by the utterly biased commenary by Haydar who presents himself as an expert in the field but it looks he is getting his facts totally wrong.  For instance, he states that "Some have predicted even more calamitous consequences of the dam’s 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." This is ridiculuous!  In Ethiopian geography terms, the location of the dam is as far away from the Great Rift Valley and dallol depressions as one can possible go. If Haydar is so plainly wrong on such objective matter of geography, how can one trust the other suttle matters he is trying to articulate.

Looks like you wasted a good 35 yrs on a field that is not for you. Clueless person. So you think your president/ Al basir is stupid? He supports the dam and even contributed financially for its construction. Haydar you are one funny man.

Dear Sir,Your article seems to be extremely one sided. When you talked about the possible loss of 3B cubic meter loss due to evaporation, I thought you would mention the related facts about the Aswan Dam. More water is lost from that dam because of evaporation than anywhere else. Actually, I have read expert opinion that says the Aswan Dam was built on the wrong place.On the other hand, you seem to have skipped the key points of the debate between the 3 countries - the famous "historical rights vs equitable utilization" arguments.As to the timing of the project, we think it was a political card played by Melles when he got worried about the possibility of the "Arab Spring" jumping over to Addis Ababa. The Nile has always been an emotive topic for Ethiopians. 

Dear Hayder,your opinion seems not like professional who have been studying about Nile issues for 35 years as u said.may be your lectures teaches u that Ethiopia did not have this Africa’s biggest hydropower before  but u need to accept that we will have this Big Dam in 2015. For u r info the Great African Rift Valley near the Afar Depression that will tear the continent in two will occur after 10 Million years it is more than the age of planet earth and u are right let borrow your phrase “the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that Ethiopia would never halt or slow the construction of the dam due to external pressure” .to make u understand let me use Egyptian proverb “ከ ደም ውሃ ይወፍራል”

Dear Haydar,Your article appeared on one of Ethiopian website and I took my time to read it. It clearly shows you lack both the history and scientific knowledge about Blue Nile.Ethiopia contributes more than 85% of the water. Yet Sudan and Egypt think they are entitled to 100% of it. They refused the negotiate for decades. As a result Ethiopia has no option but to do what it thinks is reasonable to all the countries involved.There will be much less evaporation (water waste) from the dam compared to the once in Sudam and Egypt. This is because the area is not as desert as the area places and the water will not be spread over large area (smaller surface/volume ratio). For this reason your concert about loss of water through evaporation doesn't make sense.You said the dam is located in the great rift valley region. Simply it is wong (check your grade four geography ... books). The dam is located 40 km away from the Ethiopia Sudan border, which is far from the great rift valley region.You complained the Ethiopia government kept the detail of the project secret. Yet you put alot of false claim without any basis. Here is the known fact so far: Ethiopian government did detailed study on the project and concluded that it can be done in such a way that it will benefit everybody.Good luck! 

Here is the logic why?1-The dam could be at risk from damage by earthquakes2-The rift valley will eventually tear the continent in two.and  the conclusion:Whatever the outcome of political arbitration, it remains irresponsible for Ethiopia to build Africa’s biggest hydro power project.What a shameful trash of writing.Using his own logic, this lunatic author shouldn't even eat because it will affects the environment.but am sure he is driving a 4X4 and he is obese from over eating.We know Ethiopia's historical enemies (Arabs and theier Dogs)will do everything and any thing to hold us from coming out of poverty.And we are ready more than ever for any eventualities.

I appreciate the initiative to write in such an issue, but it needs an in depth reading and unbiased analysis. Reading the article I can say that the writter does not have the claimed experience in the Nile issue. I think one should remain extra cautious before writing about such a contentious issue with both international and regional political sensitivity. In my opinion the nile contributing countries, Ethiopia being tge major, have waited too long and have also accumulated their regional political power including military to push their own interests. So its time for us to observe as it unviels a new momentum in the nile/water politics.

we benishangul people we surprised when ethiopian wayanies and argue about the dam on the nile while the sudanese and the egyptian playing defence on this issue what concern them all here is the water for the sudanese and the egyptians and for the ethiopians regime wayanie is money to sell the electrohydro to the africans and get money for developing tigry as usual steeling from Benishangul people gold land all the resources and throw us in their jail for years my people are dieing in ethiopians jails and the sudanese and egyptians are talking about water no body mentioned the people of benishangul who have being sold by ethiopians as slaves and killed every day in their bush in thier home no body how far the ethiopians regimes for a century treating shangulians since 1902 when the BRITISH donated this land with people to Minilik the ethiopian king who sold them like animals killed them jailed them every single ethiopians regimes repeated the same up to date we have tens of young old men in the ethiopian jails right now who dying every day for no reason than habasha wants the land and the resources not the people no one in this world will open the mouth and say is enough any way this DAM will be a reason for the world to BENISHANGUL PEOPLE AND thier cry for the basic rights a right to exsist as HUMAN BEING ON OUR OWN LAND ONE DAY WITHOUT WAYANIE OR ANY body else pressure and we are starting right now or first step towards freedom and we ask silini company to stay away or blame yourself this the second warning in the raw the third one you all will see actions 

Misleading article by a Sudanese on Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam By Gezu KarmaDecember 6, 2012   Dear Ethiomedia Editor, I am an international expert with close working ties to the Nile Basin. My position does not permit me to speak on national issues. However, since this is very critical and I know the issues surrounding the GERD, Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, very intimately, and as an Ethiopian, I felt compelled to write you. Any Ethiopian could legitimately voice opinions and argue and quarrel over the technical, social, economic and environmental merits and demerits of the dam. That is fine. Even more, these arguments if buttressed with solid facts and evidences, will add value. They will help improve the conversation about the dam. They will help improve possible current flaws in the GERD, and even better in avoiding similar ones in the future. However, when a reputable Ethiopian media outlet like yours, publishes articles on an investment of a scale like the GERD, I would expect you to validate and verify the facts in the article, for example by consulting with Ethiopian and other experts before posting it on your website. I also would have expected you to research about the writer, and if possible his/her affiliations and motivations for writing the piece. I am afraid you failed to meet these minimum standards of journalism, especially as an Ethiopian website with large number of visitors. For starters, in the very second paragraph of the piece, Haydar innocuously inserts and alludes to Ethiopia’s conspiratorial intent by linking the timing of the announcement of the dam to the still ongoing unrest in Egypt. This is not relevant, is at best speculative, and has nothing to do with the discussion about the merits or demerits of the dam as such. The writer bemoans that the GERD could “permanently alter the amount of water these countries [i.e. Sudan and Egypt] are able to draw from the river”. So what? Who said that Ethiopia, while its people are suffering from recurrent drought and famine, should not even think of utilizing the Nile waters, because the amount of water these countries receive will be altered (read reduced)? By so stating his views, the writer betrays that he belongs to those who would like to perpetuate the British colonial legacy which “allocates” all the Nile waters to Sudan and Egypt. For us Ethiopians, who had to bear repeated aggressions and invasions by foreigners (including Egyptian, Italian, British) bent on controlling the Ethiopian headwaters which contributes over 86% of the flow the entire Nile, the articulation of such a stance is insulting. Haydar talks of the filling period of the dam as being 3-5 years. This is patently false. The GERD design envisages filling in more than six years, if need be even more, to minimize downstream impact. Simulations have been carried out to fill the dam in such a way that it factors in probabilities associated with extreme drought events. Haydar also argues that planning and implementation has been decided behind closed doors. Again, I say: so what? Did the Egyptians invite Ethiopians to take part behind their closed doors when they planned and implemented the High Aswan Dam? They even did not have the courtesy to inform Ethiopia after the fact! Were the Ethiopians members of his Sudanese government team that planned and implemented the Meroe Dam in 2010? Not at all! Why then does he bemoan that the decision was made behind closed doors? All governments do so!! Is it any wonder that given the historical and current hostile stances of Egypt on Ethiopia’s access to the Nile that GERD was planned in secret? The point is not that the decision was made behind closed doors. The point is that Ethiopia, of its own will, invited Egypt and Sudan to take part as members of an International Panel of Experts to examine the design and other parameters of the GERD. What more does he need?! He forgets that the two downstream countries never extended such an opportunity for Ethiopia!! Another factually wrong – and I may add deliberate misinformation – is what Haydar said about (and left unsaid!) about evaporation loss. True: any dam incurs evaporation loss. The GERD is no exception. Equally true: Evaporation loss is much less in dams located in the Ethiopian highlands than those located in the midst of the Sahara desert, where the High Aswan Dam (HAD) is. Haydar misstates and bemoans that the GERD will result in annual evaporation loss of 3 BMC (the truth is 1.5-2BMC!!). Even more insidious is his deliberate silence about the five-fold loss (10-15BMC) HAD causes. I could go on and on refuting each and every statement of his. Suffice this for illustration. You could easily have counterchecked and gotten these facts from any serious hydrologist – before you posted factually wrong, softly and well written but ill-intentioned hyperbole. That is damaging for the country you love. Without realizing it you are serving the interests of those who are opposed to and are tirelessly working to undermine Ethiopia’s right and cripple its efforts to access the Nile waters. You may have qualms about the government alright. But GERD is also about the future, way beyond the current generation and the current government. Please let us stop being Trojan horses – good intentions notwithstanding – of Ethiopia’s enemies!! http://www.ethiomedia.com/assert/4862.html    

Thank you brother.

Dear Haydar YousifI read what you wrote. Let me put some facts about this dam.You said the plan of this dam was not notified to upper countries /Sudan and Egypt/.Yes we didn't tell you because my country begged so many times to your country and Egypt. Both country political leaders were not willing to listen to my country.Even they were sure that my country will never build a dam on Nile beliving that my country is poor with out the help of IMF and world bank or other financial institiution . If we ask any financial institution they were ready to make it spoil as they always doing.If we don't get any thing from both countries why should we consut them? We are doing what we should from our resource.The second thing you said is the  water will be evaporated highly in my country. By the way allow me to be frank are you hydrologist? Do you think the evaportion is higher in my country than in Aswan dam? We have moderate weather than the Aswan dam or any other dam that could be built in your country.One fact that we/Ethiopians/ do understand is that Egypt with out nile is nothing and we do respect that Egyptians have every right to use nile for their liveliyhood. And any person can assure you this. We do understand that in order to maintain our development, there should be peace in our region.The water is enough to all of us we should think we all are childrens of Nile and get cooperate  

Look! Mr Hydrologist,The first thing you could do is give yourself a fourth grader geography lesson. you would give a piece of advice to Sudan and Egypt then; that is they shouldn't miss this critical opportunity, the opportunity to work together with the upper riparian before it is too late. You would also tell Egypt that it can not afford to be a complete moron and hide itself behind an absolete colonial treaty because next time there will not  be the need to invite Egypt and Sudan to a round table.  If Egypt misses this opportunity to put forward its concerns cooperatively; the upper riparian countries will go their own way and use the Nile in what ever way they like.You wouldn't think and say " Well, Egypt might open the gate of heavens for a ' Bomby' rain"?. Ha!Ha! Ha!  would you? No, you wouldn't; because the fifth grader geography text (for late bloomers such as you) will show you where those bombs will end up.Oh!, forgot to ask, which University did you go to?!  A university which takes admissions morons with no elementary geography background and awards them with " a degree in hydrology"?  Ha! Ha! Ha!  PFFFF!  Hydrologist! Moron!