19 mins read

By Getachew Belaineh

Firstly, and most importantly, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the  new prime minister for being in such a privileged position to lead the great people of Ethiopia. I wish you all the best and am certain that you will soon develop the essential qualities that characterize an effective, self-determining, and impartial leader. I am optimistic and confident that you will use your own wisdom and strategy, rather than abiding by the legacy of your predecessor in its entirety. At this juncture, let me list some of the key questions that I am sure many currently have on their minds.

Would you continue to prioritize increasing the quantity of educational institutes or strive towards improving the quality of education?


Would you continue unregulated leasing of the nation’s fertile land and other natural resources to outsiders for a marginal benefit to the country, or establish a new protocol with the collaboration of the stakeholders, namely the people of Ethiopia, that would maximize the economic benefit of the country and protect environmental degradations?


With the price of gold surging on the world market, would you review and renegotiate stability agreements with MIDROC, the mining company, to ensure that the country derives the maximum benefit from its resources, or continue the status quo which marginalizes the national benefit?


Would you continue to be secretive, thus leaving the people in the dark, or be transparent, allowing the people who appointed you for this most prestigious position to understand the reasons and motivation for your decisions and actions?


These questions are crucial to the utilization of natural resources of the country to the best interest of its citizens but emerged in this article only as passing remark. The focus in here will be two specific items that I feel need to be high on your priority list: (1) Ethiopia’s fascination with elusive big hydroelectric dam projects, and (2) Lack of government policies pertaining to environmental protection, specifically the dying lakes. It is prudent to assume that a prime minister with solid water related engineering background would put these items high in his to “do list”.


It is no exaggeration to state here that, in a land of surplus natural resources, minerals and agricultural resources, most Ethiopians live in abject poverty. This is the case because, despite the sheer scale of the wealth—from Ethiopia’s fertile soils and freshwaters to its mineral resources—the country has at its disposal, we are yet to see any evidence of the corresponding economic benefits. Sensitively, creatively, transparently, and sustainably harvested and fairly shared resources are paramount to meeting the development goals—primarily alleviating poverty and prospering into the future. Do the contemporary development projects, including the mega hydroelectric dam projects, meet these criteria? I take the liberty to challenge the incoming leadership to take time, address this question unequivocally, and make the necessary arrangement for public participation.


Leaders looking to set the economic priorities for the nation should be putting the environment high on their list. Currently, one of the indicators of the health of the environment, the rapidly vanishing lakes, are causing severe damage to nature. The same challenge is applicable to the leaders to consider mainstreaming environmental protection and restoration into the poverty reduction strategy. These two major items will be elaborated in the sections below.


The people of Ethiopia expect the incoming leadership to be discerning and self-reliant on their leadership strategy. The status quo, which is the top-down approach to natural resource management and development, as it is proved in many countries, will result in inefficient exploitation of the natural resources and will contribute to environment degradation. Moreover, the inequitable access to natural resources is often a root cause of social instability. Now, the ball is in your court and the people expect their leaders to use their own wisdom and innovative strategies to strive towards achieving this goal. Although you might already have these concerns high in your priority list, I will reiterate them here.


For reasons of clarity, it is important to put the concerns in proper perspective.  As sketchily mentioned above, the focus are two key concerns related to the economic development activities: (1) the construction of mega-sized hydroelectric dams based on unfounded principles and without stakeholders’ (the public) participation; and (2) the rapid dying out of existing lakes in the country. It is bizarre to let the existing lakes disappear while spending huge wealth for the construction of gigantic new lakes, isn’t it? The next sections will take you through a brief account why your immediate attention needs to focus on the aforementioned concerns.


Big Dam Construction Projects


I am not against carefully and logically planned big dam projects, as, if executed properly, such initiatives are an effective route towards achieving sustainable livelihoods through increased incomes, diversification of opportunities, improved food security and avoidance of the dependency culture. However, big projects that are based on unfounded and unproven principles and are not transparently planned with public participation are not only a recipe for a potential future economic and social disaster but are also result in a significant misuse of the national resources. It has been a while since Ethiopia has been extensively engaged in constructing multiple mega hydropower dams. I will draw your attention to the two major dams the construction of which has just started: Gibe IV in Omo River with 22 billion birr ($1.9 billion) construction cost and installed capacity 2000MW, and the 80 billion birr ($6.7 billion) Blue Nile dam (aka, “Renaissance Dam”) with installed capacity of 6000 MW.


For the benefit of the general readers, the two maps below show the approximate construction sites of Gibe IV (on the left) and Blue Nile dams. Notice, Gibe II has no dam, with water from by Gibe I dam.

In its rush to commence the construction process, the previous leadership neglected to properly assess virtually every aspect of economic and technical feasibilities, thus violating every currently known universal standard. For instance, the period between the engineering surveys to the commencement of construction of Blue Nile Dam, requiring 80 billion birr, took less than 3 yrs, as indicated below:

  • October 2008 – survey conducted
  • September 2010 – preliminary studies for a Hydroelectricity plant completed
  • November      2010 – final study submitted to the government
  • April 2011      –      officiated as the “Grand EthiopianMillennium Dam”
  • April      2011 – construction started

Notice, it took only 7 months from preliminary study to the commencement of construction. Project planning and project optimization studies for determination of optimum project parameters, assessment of power & energy benefits, and economic Evaluation, environmental and social impact assessments,  preparation of detailed project report, and standard bidding process to select competent contractor are nowhere in the above list. To the dismay of many, the construction of both Gibe IV and Blue Nile dams are awarded to contractors directly without competitive bidding, giving rise to the suspicion of corruption

Although the construction of both Gibe IV and Blue Nile dams is currently underway, the ESIA evaluation report has not been released yet, despite the fact that such evaluations are critical for assessing the potential impact of the hydroelectric cascades and remain an essential element in securing international funding. Moreover, there are no indications that such studies are even planned. Actually, this is not surprising, an ESIA was released for Gibe III dam two years after the construction had started, and was widely criticized as flawed and inadequate. Consequently, the World Bank, European Investment Bank, and the African Development Bank made the decision not to finance the projects.

Apparently, the government’s budget lacks the necessary funds to finance the 80 billion birr needed for the Blue Nile dam construction project completion. In fact, the government barely got it off the ground. As a means to ease the financial stress, the government imposed donations of a month’s salary by civil servants and buying of bonds by traders. In addition, the national bank announced that private bank lenders would be compelled to purchase government bonds. This imposition comes in the midst of soaring inflation and when people are struggling to survive from one payday to another.

All these and other issues made the successful completion of the dams highly uncertain. Even if these dams are successfully completed, it is still unclear who will buy the electricity. The economic benefit of hydroelectric facility is determined in part by the power sale arrangement. Given the magnitude of the capital investments and the existing tariff, the power generated by these dams is likely to be unaffordable for the majority of Ethiopians for whom the dam is supposedly constructed. Moreover, the neighboring countries are not a dependable target for export of power for various reasons. For instance, government news reports indicate that the Sudan and South Sudan could be a potential buyer. The situation with the Sudan is complicated by the 1929 agreement that gives Egypt and Sudan rights over nearly all of the Nile’s water. South Sudan is not one of the riparian countries of Blue Nile, the government  envisioned several 700 to 800 megawatt dam projects at the White Nile. These factors clearly indicate that neither Sudan nor South Sudan hold great promise as buyers of electricity generated at the Blue Nile hydropower dam. The other potential buyer is Kenya, despite the fact that it opposes the construction of Gibe III and IV dams due to the potential negative impact on Lake Turkana. Not to mention the huge transmission infrastructure required to transmit the power.

Here, the intention is not to ask the new leadership to immediately cease the execution of these projects, but rather to ask to (a) revisit the technical and economic feasibility of the mega hydroelectric dams objectively and impartially in order to make sure that the projects are based on solid technical and economic strategies; (b) scrutinize how would smaller-scale run-of-the-river hydro compare to large storage scheme dams; (c) look into the transparency and involve the stakeholder—the people of Ethiopia—in the review and decision-making processes; and (d) listen to the citizens to learn what their true energy needs are.


For example, renewable, decentralized energy, such as wind, micro–hydroelectric, geothermal, and solar power are the alternative energy sources that can provide Ethiopia with far greater independence to energy access and will help diversify the energy portfolio. Evidently, the mega hydropower dams which is centralized (the current approach) energy production is more efficient than is decentralization, as it allows for more effective spatial optimization (better wind/sunlight), less overhead per kWh, etc. It also leverages on the existing industry design. However, this efficiency gain comes at a potentially fatal cost, which includes the construction and maintenance of extensive electrical transmission infrastructure. Thus, the question we need to answer is—is centralized energy, with its enormous transmission infrastructure, the best choice for Ethiopia whose financial system has been on life support for years?

Final note in this section is that building large hydropower projects can intensify Ethiopia’s vulnerability to climate change. Reportedly, no dams in Ethiopia are analyzed for the potential impact of climate change. The lack of climate change induced risk analyses, combined with the fact that Eastern Africa is supposed to be most affected by the already noticeable climate changes, is just another recipe for disaster. This takes me to the next major concern, which is the disappearance of lakes.

The Vanishing Lakes

Among all the environmental changes that are taking place around the country, the lakes that are shrinking or vanishing forever from the face of the earth are of primary concern. Lakes that were once the source of water supply and food for animals and people alike are no longer there. A dry depression in the land is left as a reminder that, not so long ago, abundance of fresh water was there. Lake Haramaya (aka Lake Alemaya) was one of those lakes. Lake Haramaya was a freshwater lake that was around 9 meters deep, with the shoreline stretching for about 17 kilometers. This lake was once an important source of water supply and food. Here, unfortunately, the keyword is “was”. Lake Haramaya already vanished and many more are following similar pattern, including Koka Lake, Lake Zeway, Lake Abiyata. Interestingly, Haremaya University campus is situated on the eastern bank of the lake. It is unclear whether the academia did something to protect the lake from dying or simply watch it disappearing.

The pictures below depicts the dying of Lake Haremaya (photo courtesy Brook Lemma).


What is the root cause of the rapid decline in the water content of the lakes in the country? The answer to this question is obvious to most of us: (1) overuse of the lake by industries and farmers, (2) climate change, deposition of sediment eroded from the watershed, and (3) most importantly, lack of government policies aimed at environmental protection. It is not only the lakes that are drying up; their water quality of the surviving lakes is also deteriorating, making it difficult for the local wildlife to survive in what is left of these lakes. Many birds are migrating to neighboring countries, such as Kenya, to find a better habitat.

Will the newly incoming leadership do something to reverse this environmental catastrophe or will they simply choose to watch more lakes shrink and vanish, as one of the legacies of the previous leadership?

Closing Note

Mr. Prime minister, with your solid water related engineering background and administrative skill, I am optimistic you will put these concerns high in your “to do” list. Mr. Prime Minister, your predecessor is no longer in charge. You are in charge now. The Ethiopian people’s fate is considerably in your hands. You are the one only who can make it or break it. As you know, great leaders are never ignored public opinions, and never satisfied with static thinking. In fact, the best leaders are uncomfortable with anything that embraces the status quo.


Let The Almighty give you the strength and wisdom to make Ethiopia a better place to live. So be it; truly.


The author can be reached at


Read Aloud:   ESFNA 30th Opening Ceremony DC/Maryland 2013


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