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Ethiopia’s push for mega-dams

Proud of its status as Africa’s “water tower”, the country has created controversy along with hydropower as it pursues its strategy to boost energy by 15-fold in a decade. Xan Rice reports.

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At the foot of a towering gorge slicing through southern Ethiopia, the Omo River suddenly disappears into a tunnel bored into the rock face. Excavators claw at the soil and stone in the exposed riverbed beyond, where a giant concrete wall will soon appear in the ravine.

At 243 metres the Gibe III dam will be the highest on the African continent, a controversial centrepiece of Ethiopia’s extraordinary multibillion-dollar hydroelectric boom.

The country that prides itself as the “water tower of Africa” plans to end an energy shortage by building a network of mega-dams on the web of rivers that tumble down from its highlands.

By 2020, with the help of Italian and Chinese construction firms, Ethiopia will, it hopes, have increased its power generation capacity 15-fold and become a significant exporter of electricity to the region.

“For a developing country like ours, the dams are a must,” said Abdulhakim Mohammed, head of generation construction at the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo). “Power is everything.”

But the pace and scale of the hydro projects have alarmed environmental groups, who say proper impact assessment studies are not being carried out.

Gibe III, which will have a generating capacity of 1,870 megawatts (MW) – double what was available in all of Ethiopia last year – has sparked the greatest opposition.

In March, a coalition of campaign groups, including International Rivers, based in Berkeley, California, and Survival International, based in London, launched an online petition with the aim of stopping the dam, warning of potentially disastrous social and economic effects for tribes downstream. [The dam’s builders have rejected the assertions.]

“It’s an unnecessary, highly destructive project,” said Terri Hathaway, Africa campaigner for International Rivers.

Nobody disputes the urgent need for additional electrical power in Ethiopia. In rural areas, where the bulk of the 80 million Ethiopians live, only 2% of households get access to electricity and the capital, Addis Ababa, has been hit by electricity blackouts.

Meanwhile, a fast-growing economy and high population growth has caused the demand for electricity to rise by 25% each year, according to EEPCo.

The country’s topography makes hydropower an obvious solution. Lake Tana, in Ethiopia, is the source of, and provides 85% of the water for, the Blue Nile, one of the two main tributaries of the Nile. The country also has another dozen large river basins. By some estimates, due to the volume of water cascading to the lowlands, the country has got the potential to generate 45,000 MW of hydropower, putting it second in Africa only to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

While Ethiopia has approved plans for several new hydro schemes in the coming years, including a giant 2,100 MW project on the Blue Nile, which will also serve Sudan and Egypt, a number of dams have already been built, or are almost complete. The 150-kilometre-long reservoir created by Gibe III will stretch to the tail of the 420 MW Gibe II power project, which was opened in January by the Italian construction company Salini.

Further north, Salini is also constructing a power plant near Lake Tana, while Sinohydro, the Chinese firm that helped build the famous Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River, has just completed another.

The dam-building frenzy is about much more than simply lighting up Ethiopians’ homes. For some, it is about viewing the country’s rivers in the same way as other nations view their oil or mineral wealth: a valuable source of foreign currency.

In the next few years, Ethiopia plans to start transmitting power to its neighbours. The construction of transmission lines to Djibouti and Sudan has begun, and a supply agreement has been reached with Kenya. If all goes well, electricity could become Ethiopia’s most valuable export.

“The potential [for selling electricity] is tremendous,” said Mohammed. “We will eventually connect to Egypt and possibly on to Europe. We might even supply southern Africa.”

But the government strategy faces one big problem: funding. With a price tag of 1.55 billion euros (US$1.88 billion), Gibe III was always going to require external credit. But Ethiopia decided to proceed before financing was secured, and awarded the contract to Salini without tender and without completing an environmental impact study or consulting communities downstream. The process violated the transparency policies of potential lenders such as the World Bank, preventing involvement.

In 2008, two years after the project began, an environmental study was finally published, and the African Development Bank (AfDB), which is considering providing a loan for the still under-funded project, is now conducting its own review.

While few people will be displaced by the dam, up to 500,000 people living further down in the Omo valley and around Kenya’s Lake Turkana, which is fed by the Omo, could be adversely affected, according to International Rivers. The dam will end the river’s natural flood cycle, which herders and farmers have relied on for centuries, and reduce the water level in Lake Turkana, the organisation says.

International Rivers argues that stopping the project will not hurt Ethiopia’s people, since the other dams are likely to more than meet the country’s internal demand to electricity.

But the government has dismissed environmental concerns about Gibe III. And in a sign that it intends pursuing its mega-dam strategy – and avoiding having environmental groups damage efforts at getting funding from international lenders, as has happened with Gibe III – it is looking east for help. Sinohydro had already agreed to build the 1,600 MW Gibe IV dam further down the Omo, a project sure to generate further controversy. The Chinese government will provide the finance.

Power struggle

A World Bank report on African infrastructure, published last November, contained a remarkable statistic: the 48 sub-Saharan Africa countries, with 800 million people, generate the same amount of electricity as Spain, which has a population of 45 million.

The authors identified power as the continent’s biggest infrastructure challenge. More than 30 countries, from economic giants such as South Africa to minnows such as Sierra Leone, face regular shortages, while prices are often more than double than elsewhere in the developing world, due to high operating costs and limited competition.

Lack of investment is the main reason. In 1970, shortly after most sub-Saharan African countries had achieved independence, these nations had three times the electricity generation capacity per person of South Asia. By 2000 the picture had reversed, with South Asia having nearly double the per-capita power levels of sub-Saharan Africa.

The trend has continued, according to the World Bank, with the average individual electricity consumption in sub-Saharan Africa barely enough to light a 100-watt bulb for three hours a day. And the capacity is falling.

To meet its power needs, sub-Saharan Africa needs to spend US$41 billion a year on infrastructure, mostly on new projects, the report concludes.

Copyright Guardian News and Media Limited 2010

Homepage image from International Rivers

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous






About ten years ago, power outages were commonplace in the city I used to live (a large coastal city). Although I do miss those dark, hot, but quiet nights when friends and family put down books and newspapers, turned off TVs, lit candles on the balcony and talked, I still think electricity is too important to the development of a nation's economy. I'd guess that normal people don't necessarily feel nostalgic for those times, let alone the government.

If all of these large dam projects could proceed with a bit more caution, and carry out more environmental evaluation and consultation, I genuinely believe that damage to the environment would be lessened.

However, when rich countries butt in and criticise poor countries for "only looking for money", they are not telling the poorer countries how to reduce environmental damage, but instead directly pointing fingers: How can that be acceptable to the latter? This can be summed up in the Chinese saying- "Easier said than done".

We need to introduce more realistic and efficient methods of discussion, letting developing countries slow the pace of modernisation, and at the same time obtain practical benefit.

(Translator: Ruaridhi Bannatyne)

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


埃塞尔比亚将吉比3(Gibe III )推入服役,以图赚得外汇的做法是鲁莽而草率的。邻近国家的用电需求少得可怜。并且,这些国家的经济薄弱到甚至无法对政治敏感的选民提供补贴。





Gibe III is probably not commercially viable

It would be very rash for Ethiopia to commission Gibe III in order to earn Ethiopia foreign exchange. The payment record of the power utilities in neighbouring countries is poor. Further, those countries have such weak economies that they could probably not afford to subsidise electricity consumption even in politically sensitive consistuencies.

Rather than import electricity, it would probably be more cost effective for those neighbours to reduce losses in transmissions and distribution locally.

What will the Ehtiopian government do with the any profit it makes from the project - by more weapons (supplied by guess who!) to fight Eritrea and Somalia?

It is also disgraceful that the livelihoods of peoples downstream of the proposed dam are considered expendable.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Don't expect to make money from Gibe III

Kenya, Sudan and even tiny Djibuti all neighbors of Ethiopia are either building their own electric generating dams or are trying to find alternative source of energy. I fail to see how Ethiopia will benefit greatly from Gibe III especially if it plans to export power to neighboring countries and regions such as South Africa and Europe.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Rasyo 来自埃塞俄比亚

we have a responsible government

Ethiopia is doing its best to utilize what ever resource nature gave it. Every developed country did so. I think the Ethiopian government is concerned with the environment equally to the development it aspires to bring about to its people. Viewing all developing countries as negligent to the environment is a usual rhetoric.
Rasyo from Ethiopia

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous






米燕·哈桑女士 来自南埃塞俄比亚的金卡

Mrs. Miryam Hassan

The present life style in rural Ethiopia particularly in the southern regions is vastly in a primitive stage, the same standard as the wild animals live close to them. No electricity, no public health care facilities, to running tapped water. I.e. in the same manner almost as their foremothers and forefathers lived to the times of “Lucy” millions years ago.
Electric Power is required to transform their lives. The only viable resource Ethiopia has for power generation is her God’s and nature given Hydro. The Gilgel Bibe III project satisfies only few percentage of the total demand. More power more dams are needed. Ethiopia's God given resouce is Hydro. The Ethiopian Government’s and its people ambition is commendable.
Neo-colonialist minded with clandestine organization, such as the so called International Rivers, etc venomous campaign to derail people’s need is totally unacceptable. It is just rubbish. Their hidden agenda against the interest of Africans is well known.
Africa with the blood, sweat of her sons and daughters coupled with the support of friendly countries shall prevail!
Miryam Hassan, Jinka , South Ethiopia

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous




M. G . Bongo 法国巴黎

We do NOT need them

Africa had encountered the mingling of external powers in its domestic and sovereign affairs.
• A couple of century ago colonizers disguised as “Jesuit missionaries” were the lead units for colonizing Africa . Africa has liberated herself paying dear lives of her sons and daughters
• Presently, new style of disguise is being is used as “Campaign groups” who are paid by some external forces that have negative interest towards development of Africa . Beware of these organizations , such as Survival International , International Rivers.
We have made them to campaign for us and to be spoke-person for Africa . We do NOT need them. We know for our selves.
Africa need to be vigilant against such threats.

Ethiopia's power generation projects is a step for development of its citizens as shared by all positive minded human.

M. G . Bongo, Paris – France

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





Talk about double standards! On the one hand the west is accusing countries such as Ethiopia for relying too much on aid to feed their own people, and on the other hand they don't really want them to free themselves out of the vicious cycle of poverty and dependency. Everybody agrees that Ethiopia with its 80 million, and growing, population need energy desperately (a lot of it, as a matter of fact). Then, how is the country going to get that energy considering:
1. Fossil energy is too expensive and unfriendly to the environment (global warming).
2. Nuclear energy is even more expensive and hazardous, plus can further be developed to be used for nuclear weapons (remember Iran & North Korea).
3. Solar and wind energy is still expensive, not properly developed yet, and not reliable.
Hence, even if we consider all energy resources are 'necessary evil' then hydro-electric power is much less evil than the rest, and abundantly available in Ethiopia. The so called environmentalists talk of preserving the life-style of downstream societies is downright idiocy or sheer racism. What is there to be reserved? a life style marred with chronic illnesses, famine, backwardness and more?...

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



We will not give up

Con...That life style might have some value to western anthropologists, brat tourists, and wicked racists who feel better about themselves by comparing their 'civilized' life style to ours, but for us it is a life style we have been struggling to get out from. There are also those who want to keep Ethiopia weak and backward since they see the development of Ethiopia as a threat to their national interest, and they have been working tirelessly to undermine the peace and progress of our country. We see all this as road bumps which might be able to slow our progress, nevertheless this will not stop us and we will defeat our enemies no matter in what shape or color they come; in this case our very existence is at stake, and we will do whatever necessary to make sure that these dams are built and the whole Ethiopia is electrified, Period.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous





Life is tough

I have known about Ethiopia since I was a child because I was very thin, and my neighbour used to make fun of me and call me "Ethiopian refugee". That's why I know Ethiopia is a very poor country and its citizens don't have enough to eat.

If I were from that country,I would not care if the ecology would be completely disrupted in a hundred years, or if the people living in the downstream had a tough life. I would just hope for my country to change and become rich, big and powerful, for people to stop suffering from hunger, stop worrying about diseases and the great powers' browbeats.

Talking about human right, fish rights, river rights and forest rights before even solving their basic living problems is a false morality.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



the truth

God bless you again and again .keep inform the people who do not know the truth.you are the light, for those people who deceived by neo colonization agents.