Ethiopian dam creates waves

This year water will start filling the vast reservoir behind the east African country’s major new hydroelectric development on the Blue Nile. It will be a boost for the nation but it is also a source of concern for those downstream.

The Grand Renaissance Dam on the upper reaches of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia has been six years in the making. Getty Images
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By years’ end, one of the world’s largest dams will begin filling up, affecting the fate of millions of people as it does so.

Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam on the upper reaches of the Blue Nile has been six years in the making, and is a project of staggering proportions. It will create a lake 150 square kilometres in size, produce electricity equal to a third of the UAE’s energy output and has cost 10 billion Ethiopian birr (Dh1.59bn) so far.

It will also ensure a steady supply of water. Ethiopia’s fate has been to be remembered as a country of recurring drought, spawning a mini-industry of aid organisations dedicated to feeding its people in time of need.

“The Renaissance dam which we are constructing by joining hands together is among the list of mega projects in Africa and the world, becoming a source of our national pride,” the Ethiopian prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn said at a torch lighting ceremony in Addis Ababa last month, according to the local media agency Ezeda.

The torch will be carried around the country for the next 12 months to celebrate the dam’s progress, and to thank the public for their support. According the Ethiopian government, more than 1bn birr has been raised from the sales of lottery tickets, music concerts and bonds – all by ordinary citizens.

Reviving Ethiopia’s economy has been the prime goal of the government, following the disastrous rule of the Derg, a military junta during the 1980s. It was the Derg’s legacy that resulted in images of starving children coming to represent a once-proud country. This is something the current administration is working to change.


At a glance

What: A dam on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia will affect other nations that rely on its water.

Why: The speed at which its reservoir is filled could see Egypt and Sudan suffer economically.


“We’ve consistently been the fastest-growing economy in Africa, and this dam will help us keep up this level of growth,” Motuma Mekassa Zeru, the country’s mining and petroleum minister, said on a visit to Cape Town recently. “To do this we will need electricity, which is what this project is about.”

By 2020 Ethiopia aims to increase its export revenue to US$16 billion, up from the current $3bn. The country has already started attracting manufacturers from China and elsewhere. Political stability, economic certainty and its proximity to the Arabian Gulf make it a choice destination for exporters.

However, as with all large-scale projects, the Grand Renaissance Dam carries significant risk, especially for downstream users of the Nile. Sudan and Egypt are heavily dependent on the flow of water from Ethiopia’s highlands.

The project is of special concern to Egypt, which gets about 60 per cent of its water from the Nile. Much of its 95 million people live along the lush riverine banks, or around the delta it forms as it approaches the Mediterranean Sea. So worried is Cairo, that the former government of Hosni Mubarak was considering a military response, including an air raid, according to a WikiLeaks post five years ago.

More recently, however, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have signed a mutual “do-no-harm” agreement and pledged to work out a settlement. In January this year the current Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, visited Mr Desalegn in Addis Ababa and the commitment to a peaceful resolution was re-affirmed.

Still, there is no getting away from the fact that the risk to Egypt’s water supply is substantial. This is especially vulnerable to the time frame of filling the reservoir, which may take anywhere from five to 15 years, according to a recent Yale study.

The shorter the time taken the quicker Ethiopia can begin producing electricity, but this will also mean an aggressive throttling of water flow downstream.

“In my opinion, the filling of the dam below five years will critically impact the downstream countries,” says Professor Asfaw Beyene at San Diego State University in the US. Seven years may be acceptable to all sides, he said. At the same time, the countries involved are going to have to plan for potential power losses as dams further downstream see water flow reduced.

Once the dam is filled the flow should stabilise downstream as it will reach a point where Ethiopia cannot contain it any longer.

Another uncertainty is how Ethiopia intends to manage the electricity output. Prof Beyene says the 6,000 megawatts planned may be difficult to achieve outside peak water level. This means reservoir management will need to try keep it at its highest levels year round. That will be very hard to achieve consistently out of rainy season and Ethiopia may have to scale back its electricity generation expectations from the dam.

Some experts are even open to the idea the dam could benefit downstream users – provided everyone works together. Kevin Wheeler at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom says, with coordinated management in place, Ethiopia’s project could benefit everyone.

“If there is an agreement in place that guarantees a minimum annual release, the Renaissance dam can truly be a benefit to Egypt by providing for additional upstream storage, a more reliable flow from the Blue Nile, and protection from extended drought conditions.” Without planning, however, countries further down could risk flooding if too much water is released and dams in Sudan and Egypt are unprepared for a sudden increase in their own levels. In other times it could cause drought if they are not prepared for a reduced water supply during a poor rainy season.

“The key to making the Renaissance dam beneficial to Sudan and Egypt is explicit cooperation and coordination,” Mr Wheeler says.

Mega dams such as this will always be controversial. They disrupt lives and bring environmental disruption on a large scale. Prof Beyene adds that while projects such as this will always create long-standing problems, they may also help to end the cycle of poverty so many Africans experience.

“In the end, especially in the case of sub-Saharan Africa, news of constructing a dam is better than news of perpetual poverty and starvation,” Prof Beyene says.

“So yes, in principle I support hydroelectric dams because the alternatives are worse.”

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