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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



吉比3大坝计划,竣工会预计会产生埃塞俄比亚电力总和的两倍,现在网络上有了一个空间能够让支持这个项目的人发出声音。支持者可以去www.gibe3.beteseb.org 来请愿,以鼓励国际银行和埃塞俄比亚的朋友们帮助完成大坝建设,也可在网站得到更多资讯。



我们强烈要求所有的埃塞俄比亚人和埃塞俄比亚人的朋友们去www.gibe3.beteseb.org 来更多地了解这项工程对改进埃塞俄比亚及其邻国的生活质量的作用,并且签署请愿书。

组织者 Aleme Tadesse
[email protected]

Petition Drive for Support of Gili Gibe III

For Immediate Release

The Gilel Gibe III dam project, expected to more than double Ethiopia's electrical production upon completion, now has a place on the Internet for those that would like to voice their support of this endeavor. Those in support can now go to www.gibe3.beteseb.org to sign a petition to encourage international banks and friends of Ethiopia to help complete the dam as well as get more information.

This ambitious project started in 2006 and has reached 35 per cent of completion. Around $1.4 billion is needed to complete the dam.

Gibe III is expected to extend electricity access to large populations of Ethiopia, raise per capita income levels, and save lives by reducing the impact of droughts and floods.

We urge all Ethiopians and friends of Ethiopia to go to www.gibe3.beteseb.org to learn about this project that will improve the lives in Ethiopia and its neighbors, and sign the petition.
Organizer Aleme Tadesse
[email protected]

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



happy to read almost

I am very happy to read allmost all of the comment except the one who think Ethiopia will buy more wepons to fight Eretria and Somalia is not yet aweak! ethiopia has more than enough arm to destroy those 2 countries if it was the case, but not they are our beloved brothers and sisters of Africa we pray for all of us to joine hand to builed dams roads and more and more infrustructures to better our life style. one thing I learn in my life is that no success without sucrifies, what I mean is to get this projects done we have to fight and chaleng all obstacles relentlessly .May God help africa to better it self soon.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


在我看来,卫报和维基百科似乎都着重于此项目的负面影响,所以是不公平的。然而,建造超过当地人口使用电量的水电站会导致其对外部利益集团如铝冶炼厂的低价出售,而不是用于发展当地经济。这就是加纳的阿科松博水坝(Akosombo Dam )建造时发生的事:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akosombo_Dam

Two Sides

It seems to me that both the Guardian and Wikipedia articles emphasize the negative impacts of the project, so are unfair. However, building of hydroelectric capacity beyond the capacity of the local population to use it can result in its sale at very low prices to outside interests such as aluminum smelters rather than it being used to develop the local economy. That is what happened in Ghana when the Akosombo Dam was built http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akosombo_Dam

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous






It would be mutually beneficial to pursue the use of micro-hydro rather than large scale dams. Micro-hydro has the advantages of:
-reducing the amount of energy lost in transission
-relatively negligable environmental impact
-much less impact on downstream users
-can be installed based on demand of local micro-economies to reduce waste of energy during off-peak hours
-give locals an opportunity to govern and manage their own energy resources
-incentivizes reforestation of watersheds

As a resident of the US Pacific Northwest, I would warn that cheap energy breeds a culture of taking energy for granted. But your potential hydro energy, being a gift from God, should not be wasted or entered into without a complete and ernest evalutaion of the consequences and potential waste.

Furthermore; If empowered through micro-hydro and education to address the problems of disease and food scarcity rather than tube-fed electricity from a far off dam, the lifestyle of indigenous populations becomes both a model for sustainable development and a a demonstration of the net-zero lifestyle.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous


我曾经去年在埃塞阿比亚自助游2个月.一个我印象最深刻的地方就是电力的缺乏.在首都亚迪斯亚贝巴,多个区域需要轮流供电,也就是说很可能哪天想去埃塞国家博物馆那里却停电,因为所在的arat kilo区某天是断电的.亚迪斯亚贝巴是非盟的总部,那里尚且如此,就别说埃塞其他地区了.




My Opinion

I did once go travelling in Ethiopia for 2 months when I graduated. One of the most lasting impressions I have is of the lack of electrical power. In the capital, Addis Ababa, many districts could only get a supply of electricity by turns, which meant that on the day one wanted to go to the Ethiopian National Museum the Museum might have no supply of electricity, due to the entire Arat Kilo district having no power for on a certain day. Moreover, Addis Ababa is the AU capital- if that's how it is there, imagine what other areas must be like.

The demands of residents for a stable electricity supply are no recent things. Compared with neighbouring countries such as Egypt and Kenya, Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa, lags far behind in the area of electrical infrastructure. So, the present situation can be changed to be: How can the target of balanced, continual resource provision and long-term sustainable development be achieved, and not simply allow the demand for resources to give way to environmental development.

Other than that, this article by Rice has only considered the Ehtiopian dam project from the perspective of the West. This has ignored the current situation of a shortage of resources in many areas in Ethiopia, as well as the fact that problems in the area of technology are shrinking.

sinbac, China