Field Visit Report on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Date: 
Thursday, January 31, 2013
Blue Nile, site of Grand Renaissance Dam
Blue Nile, site of Grand Renaissance Dam

The Grand Renaissance Dam is the largest engineering project ever attempted in Ethiopia. The project was launched in April 2011, and construction has begun at the remote, rugged site about 40 km from the border with Sudan.

The project has been shrouded in high secrecy. Nearly two years after its launch, the government has yet to produce an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment for the project, and thus very little is known about its impacts.

One major concern is the project’s potential to alter the flow of the Nile and affect neighboring countries who depend on its waters – already a source of tension. The dam's reservoir will have a volume almost 1.3 times the annual flow of the Blue Nile. Construction began with virtually no consultation of downstream nations. At this writing, a “panel of experts” including Sudanese and Egyptian experts is attempting to fill that gap, but on a very short time frame.

Critics are calling for greater transparency and for Ethiopia to slow down the process until a full examination of the project’s impacts is completed.

Because so little information is available, International Rivers commissioned a local researcher to make a field visit to the dam site and the surrounding area. The resulting field report is not intended to substitute for an assessment of impacts, only to help shed light on some of the issues that deserve greater attention. The field report includes the following findings:

  • At least 5,110 people will be resettled from the reservoir and downstream area. Villages near the reservoir (home to more than 7,380 people) will also be resettled. This estimate of resettlement is much higher than that made at official presentations, which have indicated that just 800 people will be resettled. Project planning did not involve the participation of affected people. 
  • Ethiopia’s highlands are one of the most erosion-prone places on earth, and sedimentation of the reservoir is a big risk for the dam’s power output and lifespan. There is no known analysis of the sedimentation risk to the dam. Climate change could increase sedimentation rates. There appears to be no soil conservation plan to try to reduce sedimentatation in the watershed.
  • Ethiopia has been heavily deforested, but the Benishangul-Gumuz region where the dam is being built is one of the few places in the country where remnant forest vegetation still exists. The local community depends heavily on forest resources for their livelihoods (e.g., hunting, gathering of fruits, honey, firewood, medicinal plants, etc). The dam reservoir is expected to flood 1,680 square kilometers, 90% of which is forest. Road construction to the site will also impact forests.
  • Scientific studies have documented at least 150 indigenous freshwater fish species, with dozens of endemic species, in Ethiopia’s portion of the Nile. Fish consumption by local people is high. The dam is expected to lead to habitat loss and other changes that could lead to a significant change in the fishery.

We will continue to press for a full accounting of the project’s impacts, a more transparent process for planning such projects in Ethiopia, and the right of local communities to determine their own fates.

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