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Fears over Ethiopian dam’s costly impact on environment, people

14 September 2017
BY SEAN AVERY
The Conversation

Ethiopia’s GIBE III hydropower dam is now operational. However, rights groups have raised concernsover the impact that it is having on downstream communities and the environment. The Conversation Africa’s Samantha Spooner asked expert Sean Avery about the dam and the huge controversy that has surrounded this project.

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A man hangs fish to dry on the western shore of Lake Turkana.
Image: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

Why was the dam constructed?

Ethiopia’s highlands enjoy high rainfall that generates huge rivers, with much of this water flowing out into other countries. This includes almost 70% into the Nile Basin and 14% to Kenya’s Lake Turkana.

Because of this huge resource, the country’s hydropower potential, at 45,000 MW, is the second highest in Africa, second only to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Hydropower is a renewable energy resource. Dams are constructed to raise the river’s water to a high level for release to drive turbines within the dam’s power station that generate electricity.

Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa and is developing its hydropower potential to meet its domestic electricity demand and also to export power to neighbouring countries. It is developing various sources, including the Omo-Gibe basin’s potential through the Gibe cascade of hydropower dams along the length of the Omo river.

Gibe III is the most recently commissioned project in the Gibe cascade and at 243m height is the tallest dam in Africa. Its power station’s installed generating capacity of 1,870 MW is not far short of the electricity generating capacity of the whole of Kenya in 2015 – 2,295 MW.

How long did it take and how much did it cost?

The dam construction started in 2006 and was officially inaugurated in December 2016.

The project cost is stated to be 1.47 billion Euros (USD$1.75 billion) with funding coming from the Government of Ethiopia and Exim bank of China.

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What is it expected to produce in terms of energy output and which countries are set to benefit?

Gibe III’s powerlines will feed into the Ethiopian national grid and onwards to the southern African electricity grid through Kenya. Gibe III will contribute roughly half its power output of 1,870 MW to Ethiopia itself. The rest will be exported to neighbouring countries – namely, 500 MW to Kenya, 200 MW to Djibouti and 200 MW to Sudan.

The project has been labelled as the “world’s most controversial dam”, why is this?

At the start, the procurement of the dam contractor was determined to be non-transparent by the World Bank, and international donors shunned the dam. Construction also started without a license from Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Agency.

There have since been ongoing complaints about environmental and social impacts downstream, including villagisation and displacement of indigenous people.

There is also controversy regarding Kenya’s Lake Turkana. This is because the Omo river, on which Gibe III dam is built, is its umbilical cord. 90% of the inflow to Lake Turkana depends on the river, which conveys fresh water and vital nutrients (such as nitrogen) that sustain the lake, and whose floods provide stimulus for fisheries breeding.

At least half a million people depend of the lake. Lake Turkana is also the world’s largestdesert lake and has three national parks that together form a World Heritage site. Due to these concerns, the Friends of Lake Turkana Trust challenged the project in Kenyan Courts, but the case stalled.

The project also lacked adequate social and environmental assessments. A downstream environmental and social impact assessment was produced three years after construction started, but it didn’t study its impact over the border in Kenya, and wrongly stated that the dam would create a positive water balance for the lake with consequential irrigation abstraction impacts on the lake were not not taken into account.

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There were independent efforts by international donors, namely the European Investment Bank and the African Development Bank, to assess the impacts of the project. But these were gazumped when Chinese donors agreed to fund the power station. The Chinese donors did no independent environmental or social reviews.

The Gibe III hydroelectric dam. Reuters//Tiksa NegeriA final controversy is that the Omo’s cascade of power stations has replaced the river’s natural flow cycle with regulated, man-made cycles. These depend on the electricity demands from the Ethiopian national electricity grid and its international connections. A consequence of this is that the river’s annual floods are smoothed out and the low flows will be increased.

It has been claimed that this flood management is beneficial as floods can lead to loss of life. However, local people in Lower Omo depend on the annual flood, as they traditionallycultivate the riverbanks following inundation by the flood.

What will its impact on the environment be?

There are serious environmental concerns.

Firstly, Gibe III’s flow regulation and water abstractions will permanently alter the Omo’s natural hydrology. This will potentially destroy Lake Turkana’s ecology and fisheries.

Secondly, Gibe III’s river regulation has enabled irrigated plantation development. A potential of 450,000 hectares of agricultural development in the Omo-Gibe Basin has been mentioned. So far, 100,000 hectares from within the Omo and Mago National Parks and Tama Wildlife Reserve are being developed into sugar plantations. And downstream, 50,000 hectares has been allocated to a foreign cotton plantation developer. There will be other schemes requiring water too.

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Through abstracting irrigation water, these plantations will deplete the Omo river influx to Lake Turkana. The lake is already semi-saline, said to be on the salinity brink for some species, and depletion of inflows will increase the salinity levels. Also, chemical releases from plantation developments may adversely affect the lake.

Thirdly, the dams will cause a massive drop in Lake Turkana’s water level. When the Gibe III reservoir was filled in 2016, it caused the lake to fall two metres. The Gibe IV dam, also called Koysha, will be next in the Gibe cascade to be built, and this in turn will deplete the lake by 0.9 metres during its filling, forecast for 2020.

In 1996, the Omo-Gibe River Basin Integrated Development Plan had forecast that the Basin’s water demand in 2024 would require 32% of river’s discharge, 94% being for irrigation purposes. This is becoming a reality, with recent studies demonstrating that as a consequence, the lake level could fall 10-20 metres. As the lake is on average about 30 metres deep, the potential environmental consequences are significant.

And what of the future for Lake Turkana?

Warnings of environmental impact have been sounded for decades. The Omo-Gibe River Basin Integrated Development Plan had in 1996 warned that a bilateral agreement was needed between Kenya and Ethiopia before tampering with the Omo river discharges.

Time will tell, but at least there is now a trans-boundary forum brokered by UNEP, albeit belated, and somewhat lethargic in its progress. It is hoped that this initiative will be sustained and will critically review the development options and impacts.

Sean Avery: Chartered Consultant in Hydrology and Water Resources, Associate of the Department of Geography, University of Leicester

4 Comments

  1. THE ARTICLE IS TOTALLY HYPOCRITICAL RACIST AND WRONG.

    The Ethiopian government 100% in the path in expanding the critical economic sector including building the hydro dams. Our environment is in danger Because of lack of manufacturing sector economy and lack of vital energy source such as hydro etc……,
    When a white dominated countries build vital infrastructures it is blisslt blessing, but when non white countries build infrastructures and hydro dams it is environmental violation (Indeed hypocritical). Usually those criticizing organization controlled by hidden hand KKK or other racist institutions in hidden corner of the world hood winking in the name of environment,environmentalist other misrepresenting bogus names.

  2. Tyrannical TPLF/EPRDF never ever studies the long term consequences of its actions. 110% of things it does is for short term gain. GET RICH FAST BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY mentality. No environment studies were done before building the DAM. Doing so could have meant the shelving of the plan due to its disastrous impact to the local people in particular and to rest of Ethiopia and Kenya in general. The dam has already led to the starvation, death and untold misery of the Omo river valley people. They were made homeless, beggar in the land they lived for thousands of year. Pretty soon the great turkana lake will dry and will result in the starvation and death of millions of Kenyans.
    This dam like the so called renaissance dam up north in blue nile is 110% illegal and must be demolished effective immediately. Renaissance Dam will led to the death of millions of Sudanese, Ethiopians and Egyptians. Moreover, most of these dams are built to enrich the tyrannical TPLF/EPRDF elite. While over 50% of Ethiopians have no electricity and 99% of Ethiopians get electricity about 4 days out of a week, the vast majority of the electricity generated from these dams is sold to foreign countries and the money distribute among the TPLF/EPRDF elite who will invest the money in other illegal businesses or deposit the money in foreign banks.

  3. @ truth/Lie,

    The only person who complain about economic advancement and hydro dam project is the clueless and the narrow minded one only.

  4. Fasil,

    You are for sure one of those idiot impotent prostitute shit eating tyrannical TPLF/EPRDF slave.
    1. Since when is killing, starving, displacing and destroying the culture and economic means of thousands of OMO valley people an economic advancement. Since when is a GENOCIDE of group of people an economic advancement.
    2. Since when is not doing an extensive environmental, social and cultural impact research of a big project such as the Gibe hydro dam an economic advancement. Tyrannical TPLF/EPRDF never/ever does a research and detail analysis of things they do. THEY MISS THE FOREST FOR THE TREE ALL THE TIME. THEY FAIL TO SEE THE BIG PICTURE ALL THE TIME. THEY CAN’T SEE BEYOND THEIR NOSE AND THEIR BRAIN IS INCAPABLE OF BEING A VISIONARY AND THEY ARE DEVOID OF EMPATHY. THE VAST MAJORITY IF NOT 100% OF TPLF/EPRDF ELITE AND THEIR SUPPORTERS DON’T KNOW WHAT EMPATHY MEANS. To be so averse and allergic to research and detail analysis of projects and plans is a SIGN ILLITERACY, BACKWARDNESS, STUPIDNESS and not ECONOMIC ADVANCEMENT
    3. Remember the DAM is not built by ethiopians. Due to the very poor educational, political and economic system under tyrannical TPLF/EPRDF, ethiopians are not capable of building Dams, Railways, Trains and other big projects. They have to beg foreign companies for technical skills and pay them billions of dollars in the process and beg foreign nations for loan to build the Dam
    4. UNder the stupid and economically and technologically backward tyrannical tplf/eprdf the DEBT OF THE COUNTRY IS OVER 2X THE GROSS NATIONAL PRODUCT OF THE COUNTRY (ONE OF THE HIGHEST IN THE WORLD AND AT THE CURRENT RATE IT WILL BE THE HIGHEST IN WORLD VERY SOON and the currency of the country is at an all time low, 24 birr to 1 us dollar. It was 2 birr to 1 us dollar for over 50 years under haile selassie and was about the same under 17 years of derg. THE COST OF LIVING FOR OVER 95% OF ETHIOPIANS IS OVER 100% OF THEIR INCOME UNDER THE BRILLIANT AND ECONOMICAL ENLIGHTENED ( I MEANT STUPID AND RETARDED) TYRANNICAL TPLF/EPRDF.

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