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Another Damn Dam: The Grand Renaissance Dam

A while back I wrote about the Gibb III Dam in Ethiopia and the efforts by the Friends of Lake Turkana to stop it (FoLT and the Gibb III).  Today I’m going to write about another dam being built in Ethiopia (coincidentally by the same Italian company), the Grand Renaissance Dam.  This dam which was started about a year ago is on the Blue Nile and will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa.  When completed it is said that it will satisfy the electrical needs of much of the region, putting out 6,000MW.

There are a few things that are controversial about this dam (other than the normal controversy that surrounds the construction of a dam).  One is that up until May of this year no impact studies have been done and it was only a couple of weeks ago that a 10 person team of experts from Sudan (2), Egypt (2), Ethiopia (2) and the international community (4) got together to start looking into the dam.  Did I mention that construction on the dam has been underway for a year?  A little late to start doing studies, but that’s exactly how the Ethiopian government wants it.  They don’t believe that they have to follow the standards of the West, which they say is hypocritical considering how much pollution the West causes.  Hopefully with this team of experts in place we’ll get an unbiased report on the environmental affects of the dam, otherwise we may never know what affects it will have.

We also don’t know how this will socially impact the area.  The reservoir that will be created by this dam will flood 650 square miles in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region.  With that big of a reservoir it has the potential to displace a lot of people.  Fortunately, this region is sparsely populated, with only an average of 16 people per square km.  I guess that’s good in the sense that there won’t be too many people displaced, but they’re still kicking some people out of where they live, and have probably lived for a long time.  Who knows how far they will have to go to find a new home.

As I said above, the team of experts looking at the dam will include people from Sudan and Egypt.  This is because the Blue Nile flows north through both of these countries and is very important for their survival.  Throughout history the Blue Nile and its waters have been a point of conflict between these three countries.  Egypt holds that majority right to the water in the Blue Nile even though 85% of the water comes from the highlands of Ethiopia.  This doesn’t make Ethiopia happy.

Eqypt and Sudan are concerned about what will happen to the flow of water once the dam is built.  Ethiopia says that it won’t be a problem and the flow will stay the same. But when you have to fill a reservoir that is 650 sq miles (which will hold 67 billion cubic meters of water), and filling it will likely take about 7 years there’s going to be an affect on the flow.  Development Today magazine reports that the Nile flow into Egypt could be cut by 25% during the filling period.  Also, because of the huge reservoir significant evaporation will occur which will forever reduce the flow of the river.  If these things happen there is a possibility that conflict could follow.

The Nile Treaty does exist between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia but because the deal was signed by colonial powers long ago Ethiopia says that it has never signed the treaty, and therefore doesn’t have to abide by it.

It’s interesting to note that the location of this dam was picked back in 1964 but the project has been on hold, and the construction was only publically announced a month before it started.  Some say that after being on the table for years the only reason that the project was started, and so quickly, was because of the political instability in Egypt.  Also interesting is that the contract for this dam was given to Italy’s Salini without a bidding process, which is shady on its own.

Critics living outside of Ethiopia say that the price tag of US $5 billion is too much for a country that is so poor (the current cost estimate equals the country’s entire annual budget). They also say that they don’t think that a country which is frequently hit hard by drought should be putting so much money into hydroelectricity.  While there has been a lot of talk from critics outside of the country critics in Ethiopia are few and far between.  Maybe that’s because they’re scared.  According to International Rivers Ethiopian journalist Reeyot Alemu was jailed for speaking out against the dam (although officials say he was arrested over terror charges).

Right now the best thing going towards stopping this dam is that the team of experts find that the impact is too great or that the design of the dam is insufficient.  Either that or Eqypt and Sudan putting enough pressure on Ethiopia to get the project stopped.  We can only hope that something will stop the construction and keep this destructive dam from being built.  Thanks for reading, and as always please leave me a comment and let me know what you thought.

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