The Paradoxes of Ethiopia’s Dam-Building Boom

African Hydropoer PotentialThe Wikipedia article on Dams and Hydropower in Ethiopia claims that “Ethiopia considers itself the powerhouse of Africa due to its high hydropower potential.” But while Ethiopia’s hydropower resources are indeed impressive, they are dwarfed by those of DR Congo, as the Congo River alone is said to account for as much as 13 percent of total global hydroelectric potential. But due to DR Congo’s political instability and lack of effective government, Ethiopia has emerged as the leader in African hydropower development. As Ethiopia is too poor to finance dam construction on a massive scale, most of the funding has come from China. In earlier decades, the World Bank had often supported such projects, but it pulled back from hydropower initiatives in the 1990s due to environmental and social concerns. The Bank is currently reconsidering its stance, with an eye to the staggering electricity-generating potential of the Congo River.

List of Ethiopian DamsEthiopia’s current hydroelectric dam-building program is large indeed, as can be seen in the table posted here. The 6,000 megawatt Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will be particularly powerful, although its output will still be well below that of China’s 23,500 MW Three Gorges Dam. The resulting surge of power will allow Ethiopia to pursue mass electrification, as currently less than ten percent of its population has access to electricity. But domestic demand alone will not be adequate to justify the costs of the dams, substations, and transmission lines. Ethiopia’s electrical rates are currently low, but the population is too poor to allow substantial price increases. Ethiopia’s meager 17 percent urbanization rate, along with its vast expanses of rugged terrain, will further inhibit the development of its domestic electricity market. As a result, it will have to export electricity to neighboring countries if it is to profit adequately from its current investments.

As it turns out, electricity is already being exported from Ethiopia. December 2011 saw the inauguration of the 283 kilometer (176 mile) Ethiopia-Djibouti transmission line, which is now bringing Ethiopia an estimated $1.5 million a month. The line has significantly reduced Djibouti’s consumption of fossil fuels. The linkage to Djibouti is no surprise, as the small country provides Ethiopia’s main access to the sea. Power lines to Sudan are also being built, but this project has been delayed by the international sanctions imposed on SUNIR International, an Iranian firm that is building substations. Kenya is expected to be the largest importer of Ethiopian power. A $1.26 billion transmission line connecting the two countries is slated to be finished by the end of 2016. A more ambitious project is the Eastern Africa Power Pool, which would connect the power grids of Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Djibouti, and which could potentially be extended to southern Africa.

Map of Major ETthiopian DamsEthiopia’s dam-building program has generated intense criticism from environmental and cultural-survival organizations. A particular focus of concern is the Gibe III and related projects on the Omo River in the southwest, Ethiopia’s most ethnically diverse area. These projects will not only prevent the annual flooding of the river, which supports local subsistence farming and herding, but will also turn large areas of the lower valley into export-oriented farmlands. A recent report in The Guardian notes harsh repression against villagers resisting the dam and irrigation development. As International Rivers frames the situation:

Descending from the central Ethiopian plateau, the Omo River meanders across the country’s parched southwest before spilling into Kenya’s Lake Turkana, the world’s largest desert lake. The Omo River is a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of indigenous farmers, herders and fishermen, who depend on its nourishing floods to sustain their most reliable sources of food.

But Ethiopia’s plans to build Gibe III Dam threatens the food security and local economies that support more than half a million people in southwest Ethiopia and along the shores of Kenya’s Lake Turkana. Construction began in 2006 with flagrant violations of Ethiopia’s own laws on environmental protection and procurement practices, and the national constitution. The project’s US$1.7 billion contract was awarded without competition to Italian construction giant Salini, raising serious questions about the project’s integrity. As of early 2012, the dam was reportedly half complete.

Although environmental activists in Kenya are worried about environmental and cultural consequences in their own country from damming the Omo River, the Kenyan government is eager for the electricity, and hence willing to overlook all such problems. The effects on Lake Turkana (formerly called Lake Rudolf), however, could be severe, leading some writers to make comparisons with the Aral Sea. Although Turkana is alkaline and brackish, it supports an important fishery as well as a minor tourism industry. It is also highly vulnerable to reduced water flow. As noted in Mail & Guardian, a 2006 drought in Ethiopia:

turned into a nightmare for local fishermen, forced into deeper waters and hostile zones in search of fish migrating from receding southern shores. Weapons, mainly AK-47 assault rifles, have been added to their usual gear alongside the poles and nets.

The Omo River projects are more controversial than those located farther to the north, as they will displace far more people and cause much more widespread environmental damage. Most of the dams in central and northern Ethiopia are geared to electrical generation, without major agricultural components, and they tend to be located in lightly populated areas. Still, criticisms of these projects have been harsh as well. The Ethiopian government is relatively repressive and authoritarian, and it has not tolerated open debate on the benefits and detriments of massive dam building. Contracts have also been awarded without competitive bids, often to the Italian firm Salini, leading to warnings about corruption. Concerns have also been raised about drought, which may become more intensive due to climate change, undermining electricity generation.

Environmental and other anti-dam groups argued that Ethiopia can forgo the construction of large hydropower projects and instead obtain adequate power from solar arrays, wind-farms, geo-thermal projects, and micro-hydro installations. International Rivers in particular advocates small, decentralized power sources, which it claims are “better suited to meeting the needs of the rural majority (and better suited to adapting to the hydrological risks of a changing climate).” Unfortunately, power from most “green renewable” sources tends to be much more expensive than that from large-scale hydro, requiring as well electricity storage for periods without sun or wind, which are major concerns, especially in a country as poor as Ethiopia. Solar and wind power, moreover, would not allow the possibility of electricity export, a feature highly valued by not only by Ethiopia but also by Kenya, Djibouti, and other neighboring countries.

Africa’s electricity demand is growing steady and will surge ahead if the region experiences sustained economic growth. Hydropower, along with the development of an integrated electrical grid, could allow this demand to be met without producing large quantities of greenhouse gasses. Trade-offs, however, will be unavoidable. In some cases, negative environmental and cultural consequences may well outweigh any environmental benefits. But it does seem inevitable that the early 21st century will be an era of major dam construction across much of sub-Saharan Africa, with Ethiopia leading the way. If DR Congo were to follow suit, the consequences could be enormous. But for that to happen, the development of political stability and effective governance in the vast central African country will first be necessary.