May 04, 2012
Nature has endowed Ethiopia with many rivers with a potential to generate 45,000 MW of electric power. The country also has the potential to generate 10,000 MW from wind energy and 5000 MW from its geothermal resources found in the Great East Africa Rift Valley. However, so far the country, with a population of 80 million, was able to generate a little over 2000 MW.
When the EPRDF-led government came to power in 1991, the country’s total generation capacity was only 400 MW.
The state-owned the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo) is the sole utility company that generates and distributes electric power to the public. EEPCo’s Inter-Connected System (ICS) consists of 12 hydro, 13 diesel standbys and one geothermal power plant with total installed capacity of 1942.60 MW, 112.3 MW and 7.30 MW respectively.
According to EEPCo, the number of electrified towns and rural villages increased in the last five years of the strategic plan period and by July 2011 reached a total number of 5,866 which brought electric energy access to 46 percent.
Ethiopia’s GDP has been growing at a rate of eleven percent in the past few years. The increase in FDI and the flourishing manufacturing sector has boosted the demand for electric power. To meet the increasing demand the Ethiopian government is building a number of hydropower dams and wind turbines. The government’s plan is not only to satisfy the local demand but to export surplus power. Under the government’s five-year growth and transformation plan EEPCo anticipates to boost its generation capacity to 10,000 MW by 2015.
Accordingly, the corporation is constructing several hydropower and two wind farms. In 2009 the Tekeze hydropower dam with an installed capacity of 300 MW was inaugurated. In 2010 Gibe II and Beles with 420 MW and 460 MW were inaugurated. In December 2011 FinchaAmertiNeshe which has an istalled capacity of 100 MW joined the national grid. Gibe III with an installed capacity of 1,870 is under construction. In early 2011 EEPCo commenced work on the biggest hydro power dam in Africa on the Nile River. The hydro power plant dubbed “The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam” will have a generation capacity of 5250 MW. EEPCo is under preparation to launch two more projects on Gibe river called Gibe IV and V. It is also undertaking a feasibility study on two additional dams on the Nile. Two wind power projects are also under construction.
The Italian construction firm, Salini, finalised the construction of Gilgel Gibe with 184 MW generation capacity in 2004. While building Gibe II, Salini conducted a feasibility study on Gibe III with its own financial resource. Agreement for the construction of Gibe III was signed in July 2006 between EEPCo and Salini. Camp and access road construction on the site commenced in 2007.
The Gibe III hydor power dam is being constructed in the Southern Peoples Nation Nationalities and Peoples’ Regional State, 380 km south of Addis Ababa at a cost of 1.5 billion euros. It is 155 km away from Gibe II.
In an exclusive interview with The Reporter, Eng. Azeb Asnake, project manager of Gibe III, said that the contractor finalised the basement work (In December 2011) on the dam and started filling the dam with a special concrete called roller compacted concrete. “It is a dry mix concrete that is compacted by rollers. That is the kind of material we use to build the Gibe III dam,” Azeb said.
The dam, which is being built in the Omo Valley on Omo River with an elevation of 600 meters, will be 246m. high and has a width of 600m. Building the dam requires six million cubic meter of concrete. The basement of the dam is on average 25 meter deep below the river. The dam will have seven spillways and the water will flow to the powerhouse from the dam through two tunnels, each of which are 1.2 km long. The powerhouse is designed to house ten turbines.
Actual work on the project commenced in 2008 and the first unit was originally scheduled to be launched in September 2012. However, due to a change in the type of the dam this has been pushed to September 2013. First the dam was planned to be a rock fill dam which was later changed into a roller compact dam.
The dam will have the capacity to hold 14 billion cu.m of water. The artificial lake will cover 200 sq.km of land. Salini is undertaking the civil work while a Chinese firm, Dong Fang, is doing the electro-mechanical and hydro-mechanical work. “We have a Joint Consultant composed of ELC-Electroconsult of Italy and Coyne et Bellier of France. The diameter of the two tunnels is 12 meters and the amount of water they can discharge varies on the number of units working at a time. However, it can range from 100 cu.m./sec for one unit to 1000 cu.m./sec for all the units,” said Azeb.
According to Azeb, the total cost of the project is estimated at 1.5 billion euros and the Ethiopian government has so far invested 600 million euros in the roject from its own coffers. The government has secured 470 million dollars from the Chinese state bank.
Azeb said that work on the project is going according to schedule, adding that 90 percent of the excavation work on the tunnels was finalised. The power-house is also under construction. According to the manager, the project has created jobs for more than 3,000 Ethiopians. Some 300 expatriates are working on the project. The number of employees reach 5000 during peak season.
“Roads with a total length of 150km. have been built, a high school and health posts have been constructed. The local communities are benefiting from the hydro-power project. The local people have been employed in the project. And the local communities sell fruits and vegetables to the large number of people working on the project.”
The new Gibe III dam is expected to produce 6500 GWH of energy a year, and surplus energy is expected to create 300 million euros in revenue, according to EEPCo.
In September 2011, EEPCo inaugurated a power transmission line to Djibouti and started selling 35 MW to the tiny Red Sea state that has been fully dependent on thermal energy. In December 2011, Ethiopia agreed to export 400 MW to neighboring Kenya. EEPCo is constructing a transmission line to Sudan. In addition to Djibouti, Kenya and Sudan, the corporation hopes to export power to Egypt and Yemen in the long run. The corporation says it will have surplus power when Gibe III is launched in 2013 and plans to start selling power to Kenya by then.
However, the construction of Gibe III has not been smooth. From the beginning the project instigated a furious protest from environmentalists. The activists fear that the project will impact the bio-diversity in the environs and evict the local residents. They also argue that the dam will affect the livelihood of the population downstream of the Omo valley by reducing the water flow. The Omo river flows into Lake Turkana in neighboring Kenya. Friends of Turkana, an activist group based in Kenya, claims that the water level of Lake Turkana is already dwindling at an alarming rate due to the construction of Gibe III dam and the aquatic life have perished there by affecting the livelihoods of a huge population that make their daily bread by fishing.
Azeb dismisses the accusations made by environmentalists against the project. “The local population has not been displaced due to the dam construction. The place where the dam is built has an elevation of 600 meter. It is a very hot place infested by malaria and people prefer to live on the mountains of this unfriendly environment for human beings. So there is no one who has been relocated as the result of the dam construction. The reservoir, too, will not affect anyone,” Azeb said.
“All the necessary environmental impact assessment study was conducted and mitigation measures are encompassed in the study. The dam will play important role in regulating the water flow in the downstream areas. The downstream areas are hit by either drought or flood every year. The Gibe III dam will enable us to regulate the erratic water flow. The project is already bringing benefits to the local communities who are destitute. But it is sad to hear baseless accusations forwarded by some groups against the project.”
According to her, two Italian (Chasy and Agri Consult) and one Ethiopian (Mid Day International) consulting firms conducted the environmental impact assessment studies well before the commencement of the project. “The European Investment Bank, the African Development Bank, and the World Bank have hired independent consultants that evaluated EEPCo’simpact assessment study. All of them have confirmed that it was a sound study that has commendable mitigation recommendations.”
However, activists have continued expressing their concern. A report by International Rivers, an environmental and human rights organisation based in California, says the practice of flood retreat cultivation is central to the lives of people along the Omo River.The report says families plant riverbank plots as the floods begin to retreat; harvesting takes place a few months later. The silt-laden floodwaters mean additional fertilisers are not needed.
International Rivers says the size of cultivated areas can vary year to year depending on the height of the flood, but the reliability of the harvest makes it a fundamental practice for the region's food security.
An Ethiopian environmentalist shares International Rivers view. The environmentalist who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue said environmental degradation caused by deforestation as the result of the dam construction are not addressed properly. “The government is reluctant to engage itself in dialogue on environmental impacts,” he lamented.
Azeb challenges the accusations. According to her, the project has arranged to discharge a 50 cubic metre per second minimum standard ecological flow, 10 days of free discharge in September, added to nine other streams which are already there and can maintain downstream ecology during water harvesting phase.
EEPCo sees another benefit of the project in regulating the flow of the river, which floods annually, and thereby making it navigable all year. The resulting reservoir of approximately 200 sq. km. would be used as a fishery, according to an environmental and social impact assessment by EEPCo.
Azeb said the water level of Lake Turkana is dwindling not because of Gibe III. “The water level has been going down even before we commenced construction. We did not start holding the water. Even after we start holding water we will need maybe one rainy season to fill the dam. After that we will release the water to the turbines. After it runs the turbines, it will flow back to the river’s natural course. So even after we build the dam the water flow will not be reduced. We do not have an irrigation project on Gibe III,” she said. “The water level of Lake Turkana has been going down due to climate change. It has got nothing to do with Gibe III.” She stated that ten percent of the lake was inside Ethiopian territory but the water has transgressed and currently there is no sign of the lake in Ethiopia’s territory.
UNESCO and members of the civil society groups in Kenya have voiced their concerns over the construction of the dam. In fact, UNESCO requested the Ethiopian government to halt constructing the dam.
UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee first raised its apparent concern about the construction of the Gibe III Dam and the possible impacts on Lake Turkana, a World Heritage Site, at a meeting held in June 2011. It warned that the Gibe III Dam was likely to significantly alter Lake Turkana’s fragile hydrological regime, and would threaten its aquatic species and associated biological systems. The Committee urged Ethiopia to immediately halt all construction on the project and called for all financial institutions supporting the Gibe III dam to put their financial support on hold until the Committee reviewed the issue in 2012. In a letter to the Ethiopian and Chinese governments, the Committee referred to Lake Turkana as an outstanding research area for animal and plant communities, and notes that the area’s rich fossil finds have allowed “reconstructing the history of animal species and mankind over the past 2 million years”.
The Ethiopian government turned down the request made by UNESCO outright. “The positive impact on the ground, which is revealed by the socialand environmental impact studies, should be judged against differentexternalities that can result from the construction of the dam,”says Miheret Debebe, CEO of EEPCo.
In explaining how the issue might not be related to Kenya, Miheret responded that Ethiopia has extensive institutional, professional and governmental forums with Kenya to discuss different issues concerning the dam project.
Mihret pointed to what he called other entities outside Kenya who are behind the campaign against the dam, which refuse to give up their fervour against the construction of the dam, he claimed.
He asserted that Ethiopia will continue to build the dam despite different accusations.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi responded to similar accusations by various environmental lobbyists such as Survival International and many others contending "They don't want to see a developed Africa; they want us to remain undeveloped and backward to serve their tourists as a museum," the prime minister argued.
Alemayehu Tegenu, Ethiopian Minister of Water and Energy, said the government is well aware of environmental concerns. “We do give due attention to the environment as it will eventually affect us. We conducted thorough environmental and social impact assessment studies in each project we undertake,” he said. However, he said, there were some groups who wanted the native people to remain far away from civilisation. “It seems that there are interested groups who do not want Ethiopia to be self-sufficient in power production. And these groups want to keep going to the local community and take photos of their naked bodies. If this project comes to fruition the local communities will have access to civilisation and visiting those places might not be exciting for them.”
The minister said work on the project is on schedule for completion in 2013.
Despite the controversy the Kenyan government has decided to buy electric power from Ethiopia. The Kenyan government officials who visited the dam construction seem comfortable with the project.
Kenyan Ambassador to Ethiopia Dr. Monica Juma, said: “The issue of Turkana is much greater than the Omo River. It has to do with the ecology, climate change, land use and volumes of water as well as rain and so forth. Besides, Omo is not the only water resource that feeds Lake Turkana.”
The Ambassador, who visited the project last October, said that Lake Turkana is not only Kenyan affair but is also an Ethiopian issue. “Given the ecology, it is important for us to understand what really is making the Lake Turkana shrink and the question is what we should do in order to reconstitute the lake,” Dr. Juma said.
She said: “This is one of the regions both in the southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya that is least developed and very fragile. The debate has to be on what we must do with this region that has been impacted so negatively by a range of factors,” she said.
“We need to respond to the need of our people. We have to find the way of catapulting this area into modern face of development. The people in the Omo basin and Lake Turkana deserve good value of life, development and we have the obligation to cooperate in the way that provides improved living standards of these areas, the Ambassador said.
According to the ambassador, the region is where foreign tourists are coming in frequently and some people want to retain some of these places to make documentation to show the way of life people lead as others lived many centuries ago. “I think, we have to deal with this.”
“The ambassador said it is impossible to undertake irrigation on that river because of the area’s topography. She said that hydroelectric projects also by their nature do not affect the flow of water.
The ambassador said: “Kenya eyes the development and the degree of transferability of this project because we are also quite interested in the development of clean energy and hydroelectric power. Gibe III project has greater significance to Kenya as it is one of the world’s source of energy.”
Ambassador Juma expressed conviction the two countries will design mutually acceptable frameworks to address bigger challenges than the issue of Gibe III.
Nonetheless, the campaigns waged by activists seem to have impacted funding to the project. International lenders such as the African Development Bank (AfDB), the European Investment Bank (EIB) and JP Morgan, who have shown interest in financing the project, did not make any commitment.
Azeb says the financial institutions didn’t enter into agreement because of their own working procedures. “JP Morgan suspended the loan evaluation due to the global financial crisis unfolding since 2008. It got nothing to do with the negatives campaign,” Azeb said.“AfDB and EIB take prolonged time to approve the loan. They have been sending mission after mission and they have asked for numerous data and we have submitted all of the documents. To be frank we were fed up with dealing with their missions and presenting the long list of documents they demand now and then.”
She went on to say that these institutions usually need an extended time period to evaluate loan requests. “None of them rejected the loan proposal. It is our government which was worn down by the long process and turned its face to other potential financiers (China),” Azeb said.
Azeb said the negative campaign waged against the project did not affect the physical work on the project as the Ethiopian government has been availing funds for the project. “The government has shown a strong commitment in financing the project. We do not have any problem in settling payments.”
Indeed the Ethiopian government seems determined to finance the dam construction. Ethiopia’s tremendous economic growth is marred by spiral inflation rate as high as 40 percent and the Prime Minister Mele’s administration has been advised by donors to reduce the state’s huge investments in the economy to curb the biting inflation rate that began in the wake of the 2005 national elections. Executives of the IMF have repeatedly warned the government to slow down its massive investments on infrastructure development projects, which the government declined to heed. Meles has no problem in switching to other financiers whenever the western financial institutions are reluctant to finance certain projects, usually to the Chinese government which is known for not tagging challenging preconditions to loans.
Alemayhu said that his government is looking for additional funding for Gibe III, adding that it (the government) will finance the project on its own up to the final stage if it fails to secure additional loan.