04.03.2016 | Water conflicts overshadow Ethiopia’s energy ambitions

Ethiopia’s bid to become one of Africa’s leading renewable energy producers has been plagued by simmering controversies over two of its principal hydro-electric projects.

Lack of access to electricity has long hindered economic development across Africa.  Although it is one of the most impoverished countries on the continent, Ethiopia has in recent years experienced annual rates of growth of around 10 per cent.  That’s led to increasing demand for energy, which the government hopes to meet by developing hydroelectric dams.  Such is their potential that the World Bank predicts Ethiopia could earn $1 billion a year from exporting electricity by 2023 if all of the projects go to plan.

By far the biggest one, the 5$ billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), funded by government bonds and private donations, has also been the most problematic.  Some 170 metres high and 1.8 kilometres wide, when fully operational the dam will more than double the country’s electricity output.  But the GERD has been a huge source of regional tension, as its reservoir will draw on a tributary of the Nile, ringing alarm bells downstream.  Sudan and Egypt have both expressed fears that the dam will restrict the flow of the Nile, their main source of water.

From the outset, Egypt has been hostile towards the GERD.  In 2013 then President Mohammad Morsi and senior officials discussed ways in which they might sabotage the project, unaware that their conversation was being televised live.  Morsi later said that while he was not “calling for war”, he would not allow Egypt’s water supply to be endangered.  The government subsequently vainly sought to enlist regional and international support for their opposition to the project.

Egypt and Sudan say the GERD breaches a colonial-era accord, drawn up in 1959, that entitles them to almost 90 per cent of Nile waters.  Ethiopia has dismissed Egyptian concerns that GERD will also be used for irrigation, but the process of filling the dam could temporarily restrict downstream flow while evaporation from its reservoir may have a permanent impact on Egypt’s water supply and its own hydroelectric power capacity.  While Sudan has in the past shared its northern neighbour’s concerns over the dam, it has become more supportive of the project, seemingly calculating that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

While Cairo remains deeply concerned about the GERD, it appears to have accepted that it can do little to halt the project, scheduled to be launched in 2017. Last year, the leaders of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia signed a declaration that tacitly approves the project on condition that technical studies would be undertaken to determine its effects downstream.  However, progress on the latter has been slow, prompting concerns that Ethiopia is forging ahead with the construction of the dam before the completion of the risk assessment.  Egyptian officials are said to be worried that any recommendations made by the latter will be difficult to implement once the dam becomes operational. 

As the GERD saga rolls on, the Ethiopian authorities have also been facing a controversy surrounding another major hydroelectric project, the $1.8 billion Gibe III dam along the Omo River, which began generating power late last year.  It is expected to contribute significantly to the country’s domestic electricity supply and export ambitions, however environmentalists and human rights groups have been highly critical of the project, claiming it will have dire consequences for the indigenous communities that rely on the Omo.

The government has been irrigating land downstream of the dam in the Lower Omo Valley to make way for sugar cane plantations, but diplomats visiting the region in 2015 said they would deny tribespeople access to grazing and farmlands that are critical for their survival. The campaign group Survival International last year revealed the smallest and most vulnerable tribe in the region, the Kwegu, who number just 1,000, is facing starvation because the depletion of river water has been destroying fish stocks on which they depend.

The concerns echoed the findings of a 2012 Human Rights Watch investigation which concluded that there was a real risk that the livelihoods of 500,000 people may be endangered and that the region will witness increased inter-ethnic conflict as communities compete for scarce resources.

Ethiopia will need to address international concerns over Gibe III – likely to grow as more evidence of its negative impact is revealed – and do more to allay lingering Egyptian anxieties about GERD.  Failure to do so may dampen investor interest in future hydro-electric projects and transmission infrastructure, both of which are critical to Ethiopia achieving its power generation goals.