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Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam: A dam of Mega-Benefits

By Bayelegne Yirgu
Tigrai Online Dec. 17, 2012

The Grand Renaissance Dam project
The Grand Renaissance Dam project is one of the largest hydroelectric dams in the world. When it is completed it will generate 6000 mega watts of electricity.

Now and then, we see biased articles regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam. It is difficult, if not impossible, and time-wasting to respond to each instances of ignorance and misinformation. However, a recent article published on Think Africa Press deserves a thorough response.

The article is entitled "Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam: A Mega-Dam with Potentially Mega-Consequences" and written by Haydar Yousif, self-described as "a Sudanese hydrologist who has worked for 35 years on water issues on the Nile" [1] (apparently, he is Eng. Haydar Yusuf Bakheit, an Expert at Ministry of Irrigation & Water Resources of Sudan).

Haydar's article is a typical case of an informed individual deliberately misleading the public in downstream countries and beyond. Moreover, it is the kind of article that will serve as "reference" for subsequent biased articles - deliberately or by negligence of writers.

As will be demonstrated one by one below, Haydar's article consists mega-errors ranging from mistake of facts to deliberate misinformations, from mere bias to fallacious arguments.

1. Claims of Secrecy

Haydar repeatedly bemoans the secrecy prior to the launch of the Renaissance dam project, as  it is one of his main arguments against the project. He complained that "Ethiopia secretly moved to unveil  [the] project” – a huge hydropower dam", "the planning and implementation of this project has all been decided behind closed doors", "the nature of the project was kept under wraps until after site preparation had already begun."

Haydar went further to declare that: "it [is] irresponsible for Ethiopia to build Africa’s biggest hydropower project, on its most contentious river, with no public access to critical information about the dam’s impacts – a flawed process which can hardly result in a sustainable project".

Indeed, few were aware of the launch of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project until weeks before its launch on April 2, 2011. The government announced it on the media only about a week before its launch. But that doesn't mean the government didn't have a public endorsement for the project.

There is no significant dissent on generating hydro-power from dams, while harnessing the Blue Nile for national development has been an aspiration of generations of officials, professionals and ordinary citizens. In fact, the public's support was demonstrated in the Tana Beles and Tekeze projects - built. on tributaries of Blue Nile. The target of achieving 10,000 MW generating capacity by 2015 was already endorsed in mid-2010 as part of the 5-years Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP). It was also stated on the annual plan of EEPCO for year 2009/2010, though as labeled "project x" without reference to Nile.

Having this strong public mandate on its hands, the question of whether to keep the preparations and launch date of this project is a matter that can justifiably be determined based on national security considerations. In the 12 months preceding the launch of the project, Ethiopia was conducting an election, then forming government, then seeking donor's pledge for the GTP. Thus, there was a risk in disclosing the preparations for the project , given the track record of old-fashioned  politicians in downstream countries.

At any rate, in the absence of notable public opposition to the secrecy, it is hypocritic to imply there is a democratic-deficit or lack of participatory-ness as some anti-dam groups do. Such as International Rivers, cited in Haydar 's article.

To boost their misleading claim of transparency, Haydar, like the anti-dam groups, complain the project "was awarded without competitive bidding to Salini Costruttori."

To the uninformed, this may appear an indicator of a flawed process. However, Ethiopia's public procurement laws provide for "restricted tendering procedures" or "direct procurement procedures", where it is deemed necessary and efficient.

2. Launching the project unilaterally

But Haydar's worry is not that much about transparency. What concerns Haydar is a "violation of "the colonial-era treaty from 1929 asserting [Egypt's] exclusive rights to the Nile’s water supply". He unashamedly complains "no steps were taken before its launch to openly discuss the dam’s impacts with downstream Nile neighbors Egypt and Sudan".

For one, Ethiopia has no treaty obligation to seek permissions from Egypt and Sudan.

Second, the impacts of dams on downstream countries have been a subject of study and discussion for at-least a decade in the context of successive Nile basin initiatives and annual conferences.

Thirdly, and no less importantly, prior notification is an act of good will gesture based on reciprocity. As Egypt and Sudan never consulted Ethiopia on studies prior and after building dams and related projects on Nile, they can not demand that from Ethiopia. Haydar may be ignorant of norms of international relations, but reciprocity is a fundamental component of even social life.

Haydar's complaint that "Ethiopia’s Western donors [were not informed]"  demonstrates his ignorance of Ethiopia's foreign policy. Ethiopia doesn't seek permissions from Westerner's for its projects. In fact, it doesn't even tolerate when donors meddle in her affairs, as recently observed when IMF Country director was erroneously quoted by a media as opposing the dam. The director didn't waste time to publicly retract and assert his respect for Ethiopia's right to build whatever project it deems necessary.

As Haydar failed to mention China in his complaint, what he was really complaining about could be Ethiopia's failure to inform international financiers who routinely decline to finance Ethiopia's projects on Nile heeding Cairo's plea.

3. Sufficiency of the Planning

Incredulously, Haydar attempts to have us believe the project was not thought-through, by linking it with the Egyptian revolution, by repeatedly doubting if basic hydrolysis analyses had been conducted and even asking if "expert analysis that would normally accompany such a titanic project" has been undertaken.

To the contrary, records show that most of the issues pertaining to the dam project had been the subject of intense study for decades. The list of studies include: [2]

  1. Studies in the Blue Nile area date as far back as 1935 and include companies from USA, Sweden and others.
  2. A US and Ethiopian joint project, titled: USA-Ethiopia Cooperative Program for the Study of the [Blue Nile] Basin, (1959 – 1964), produced a comprehensive report on the hydrology, water quality, hypsography, geology, sedimentation, mineral resources, land resources, ground water and the local socio-economic situation. The study proposed four dams downstream with a total holding capacity of 51 bcm as the annual rate, according to the book ‘Ethiopia and the Nile Dilemmas of National and Regional Hydro-politics’, by Yacob Arsano, published in 2007 (page 153-4).
  3. The master plans for the Blue Nile[Abbay], Tekeze[Atbara] and Baro-Akobo basins were completed in the 1990s, according page 166 of the same book.
  4. Recent planning activities include, according to Renaissance dam project Civil works manager Semegnew Bekele:
  • October 2008 – ‘extensive surveying’ conducted
  • September 2010 – studies for a Hydroelectricity plant completed
  • Nov. 2010 – Final study submitted to government
  • Several reviews had been conducted on the study and ascertained the project is financially feasible and less costly compared to international Hydroelectricity project costs.[2]

4. Filling the reservoir

In line with his attempt to portray the project as 'irresponsible' and 'catastrophic', Haydar makes a misleading claim that: "The Renaissance Dam’s reservoir will hold back nearly one and a half times the average annual flow of the Blue Nile. Filling the reservoir – which could take 3 to 5 years – will drastically affect the downstream nations’ agriculture, electricity and water supply."

In actuality, the designs of the Renaissance dam indicate the reservoir will have the capacity to hold up to 66 billion cubic meters of water, while the average annual discharge of the Nile river, measured at Aswan dam, Cairo, is 84 billion cubic meters.

Moreover,  the time-span in which the dam will be filled is different from what Haydar claimed. Initial designs anticipate the reservoir to be filled up in a period of at-least 72 months. While a longer time span is noted as contingency, where it is found necessary due to climatic factors, downstream impact and the same.

5. Evaporative loss

Haydar's disinformation about the reservoir doesn't stop there. Contrary to commonsense and widely known facts, he claims the project is ill-advised due to the evaporative loss of water it entails.

Haydar claimed that: "Evaporative losses from the dam’s reservoir could be as much as 3 billion cubic meters per year" and he added, "Egypt’s primary fears are a reduction of its main water supply from the Nile".

Of course, there will be evaporative loss, as it is the case with any dam. The problem is Haydar is not opposed to the general idea of building dams rather just to the Renaissance dam. Therefore, his statement on the evaporative loss is guilty of disinformation from two angles. 

Firstly, the estimated rate of evaporation loss from the Renaissance dam's reservoir is around1.7 billion cubic meters(bmc) per year , not 3 bmc as Haydar claimed.

Secondly, the figure is misleading without context. As evaporative loss is unavoidable, the impact of the Renaissance dam should be judged by comparison to other dams downstream. For example: The evaporative loss from the Egyptian High Aswan dam, located on Sahara desert, is around 10-15 bmc per year ! 

This is because the topography of the Renaissance dam's location and the fact that the reservoir is to be built in a deep gorge minimizing the water's direct exposure to sunlight (smaller surface/volume ratio).

Thus, if the more than 200 million people living in Nile Basin are to benefit from hydro-power, it is a dam in Ethiopian highlands that incurs the least possible evaporative loss.

6. Impacts on downstream soil fertility

In yet another intellectually dishonest attempt to deceive uninformed readers, Haydar claims, "Egypt’s primary fears are....diminished nutrients and sediment essential for agriculture", adding that "the retention of silt by the dam reservoir will dramatically reduce the fertility of soils downstream. Sediment-free water released from dams also increases erosion downstream, which can lead to riverbed deepening and a reduction in groundwater recharge".

Haydar's claim can be rebutted at-least on three grounds:

Ethiopian Grand Millennium Dam
Energy chief Alemayehu Tegenu said the plan's centerpiece - the $4.1 billion-Grand Renaissance Dam along the Nile River in the western Benishangul-Gumuz region - was on course to be completed on time in 2015.

Firstly, Haydar is assuming the current level of soil nutrients transported downstream by Nile is a natural one. But that is not the case. Without a need to bring historic data, we can easily understand that deforestation and poor conservation works in Ethiopian highlands take the lion share for the matter. Therefore, improvement in such areas in Ethiopia highlands, even without any dam, will certainly decrease the amount of nutrients and sediment transported.

Second, it is obvious that any man-made construction will have on an environmental status-quo. Thus, the necessary mitigating measures will have to be taken. If the Renaissance dam will entail on downstream countries 'increased erosion downstream', 'reduction in groundwater recharge', etc., then Sudan and Egypt will have to start to seriously engage in watershed management and conservation works to compensate the impact. There is no free lunch.

Thirdly, Egypt and Sudan never managed to make a good use of the silt transported thus far. To the contrary, Sudan's Roseires dam is already incapacitated by the level of Silt accumulated, while the Aswan dam's capacity has been impacted by silt.

7. ‘Reservoir induced seismicity’

As if all these misinformations were not sufficient, Haydar brought an unfounded threat of ‘reservoir induced seismicity’.

Haydar claimed: "The Grand Renaissance Dam site is in the Great African Rift Valley near the Afar Depression.... The dam could be at risk from damage by earthquakes.... On top of that risk is that of ‘reservoir induced seismicity’. A dam with a reservoir as large as this is not just vulnerable to seismic events – it can cause them."

It is a common knowledge that the Renaissance dam is located at almost a thousand kilometers distance from the Afar depression and it is hundreds kilometers away from the western boundary of the Rift Valley. Moreover, there is no report of significant seismic activity in the vicinity of the Renaissance dam project.

Haydar could easily get these from google. Probably, he did, but chose to misrepresent the facts so that he can make the far-fetched threat of ‘reservoir induced seismicity’.

The ‘reservoir induced seismicity’ hypothesis is extended by some experts to explain an earthquake nearby the Chinese Zipingpu Dam in 2008, which Haydar cited. While the hypothesis is contested by many experts, it is almost irrelevant to the Renaissance dam.

The Chinese dam is built in seismically active area, close to the fault lines. Not only the Zipingpu Dam is larger than the Renaissance dam, it inhabits the vulnerable zone alongside another 400 hydropower dams. Thus, even if the ‘reservoir induced seismicity’ hypothesis was true, it is hardly applicable to the Ethiopian dam.

8. More errors

Haydar makes several factual errors, which casts doubt on his intent and competence. While it would be a waste of time to list them all, I shall cite the following as examples:

* Haydar claims the dam roject is due for completion by 2015, while the official schedule is for 2017. Though, Ethiopia surely efforts to complete the project as fast as possible.

* He claimed "there are no known plans for watershed management or soil conservation" that helps minimize the level of sedimentation in the Renaissance dam. However, in the past decade, the nation has been repeatedly commended for her natural resource conservation works. Not to forget, the four smaller dams are planned to be built upstream, which will reduce the amount of  soil nutrients the waters will take to the Renaissance dam.

* Haydar claimed a Norwegian funded study for "a similar project for the same stretch of the Nile [is] now made obsolete by the Renaissance Dam". In actuality, the project he mentioned, the Karadobi project, is a smaller one and is among the four projects to be launched after 2015.

As a conclusion, I shall quote from the speech by former PM Meles Zenawi, during the launch of the project, regarding the mega-benefits of the Renaissance dam for downstream countries:

"The Dam will greatly reduce the problems of silt and sediment that consistently affect dams in Egypt and Sudan. This has been a particularly acute problem at Sudan’s Fosseiries dam which has been experienced reduction in output. When the Millennium Dam becomes operational, communities all along the riverbanks and surrounding areas, particularly in Sudan, will be permanently relieved from centuries of flooding. These countries will have the opportunity to obtain increased power supplies at competitive prices. The Millennium Dam will increase the amount of water resources available, reducing the wastage from evaporation which has been a serious problem in these countries. It will in fact ensure a steady year-round flow of the Nile. ….On this calculation, Sudan might offer to cover 30 per cent and Egypt 20 per cent of the costs of the entire project".[3]


[1]http://thinkafricapress.com/ethiopia/nile-concerns-over-new-mega-dam-egypt-sudan (Dec. 3, 2012)


[3]http://gcao.gov.et - Documentations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam

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