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.
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.
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.
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.
Nile water access issues are rooted in history, as 82 years ago Britain as East Africa’s dominant colonial power effectively handed Egypt the lion’s 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 Nile’s water, 55.5 billion cubic meters that it annually diverts of the Nile’s 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 Nile’s 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 crops.
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 significant progress.
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, NBI’s 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 Egypt’s 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 Dam’s 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 reservoir’s volume would be about equivalent to the annual flow of the Nile at the Sudanese-Egyptian border, roughly 65.5 billion cubic meters.
The “Arab Spring” that overthrew the regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February has resulted in Egypt’s 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 Ethiopia’s 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 basin’s population make for grim reading. Washington DC’s 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 Ethiopia’s 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 Africa’s 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 world’s longest river, combined with Ethiopia’s 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 Ethiopia’s efforts to become East Africa’s energy “hub,” 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