- May 10, 2012
Without greater oversight, Ethiopia's secretive new dam could have disastrous environmental, social and political impacts.
While Egypt was undergoing dramatic political changes last year, Ethiopia was secretly moving to unveil "Project X" - a huge hydropower dam it intends to build on the Blue Nile, 40 km from the Sudanese border.
Political commentators, environmental experts and hydrologists have all voiced concerns about the dam's ecological impact, the strain it might place on relations between the three eastern Nile nations, and the financial burden of this mega-dam on Ethiopian citizens.
Now renamed the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the project (due for completion by 2015) is set to become the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa. The scale of the project is staggering: the plant will be capable of producing almost double the electricity of Aswan High Dam in Egypt, while its 63 billion cubic metre (bcm) reservoir is double the size of Ethiopia's largest natural lake. Crucially for Ethiopia's Nile neighbours, the filling of this huge reservoir is also likely to greatly reduce the flow of water to Egypt and Sudan for several years, and could even permanently alter the amount of water those countries are able to draw from the river.
Details trickling through
The planning and implementation of this project has all been decided behind closed doors. Its $4.8 billion contract was awarded without competitive bidding, for example, to Salini Costruttori, an Italian firm favoured by the ruling party; Salini is also building the controversial Gibe III Dam on Ethiopia's Omo River.
Furthermore, the nature of the project was kept under wraps until after site preparation had already begun, to the great surprise of regional governments, Nile planning agencies, and Ethiopia's Western donors. It was especially shocking to Norwegian agencies who were working with the Ethiopian government on a similar project for the same stretch of the Nile, now made obsolete by the Renaissance Dam.
This level of official opacity has worryingly prevailed beyond the initial announcement of the project. Expert analysis that would normally accompany such a titanic project has either not been undertaken or kept characteristically secret. No environmental assessment is publicly available for the project. And no steps were taken before its launch to openly discuss the dam's impacts with downstream Nile neighbours Egypt and Sudan.