The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Fact Sheet

Date: 
Friday, January 24, 2014
Rendering of GERD
Rendering of GERD

Ethiopia is building one of the largest dams in the world, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), on the River Nile near the Sudan border. The dam will flood 1,680 square kilometers of forest in northwest Ethiopia (an area about four times the size of Cairo), displace approximately 20,000 people in Ethiopia, and create a reservoir that will hold around 70 billion cubic meters of water – equivalent to the entire annual flow of the Blue Nile at the Sudan border. The project’s projected electricity capacity of 6,000MW seems to have been exaggerated

Poor Planning

Although it is Africa’s biggest dam project and will have lasting impacts on its longest river, the GERD has been developed under a veil of secrecy. The dam will impact Ethiopians and downstream neighbors, yet its planning process has been top-down and unilateral. The public and dam-affected people have not been given a meaningful opportunity to critique the project or process. The Ethiopian government has stated it will not make changes to the project.  

Even donor governments were taken by surprise when the project was suddenly begun. Norway, which had been designing two Nile dams for the Ethiopian government, was blindsided by the GERD project, which nullifies the work already done on the other two dam projects. Development Today magazine reports that Norway wasted about US$2-3 million in work done on the now-obsolete projects.

Damming a shared river in a secretive and unilateral fashion goes against best practices for managing shared rivers. Says Mohamed Allam, former minister of irrigation and water resources in Egypt: “This is not just about Egypt and Sudan. International rivers are governed by laws and conventions, in accordance with which any action that affects water quotas requires advanced notice and guarantees against possible harm.” 

After construction began, Ethiopia agreed to the formation of an international Panel of Experts, with members from Egypt and Sudan, to review the GERD’s social and environmental impacts on downstream nations. The 10-member panel submitted its report to the governments in June 2013; International Rivers received a leaked copy of the report in March 2014, which we published with our summary. The panel found numerous important gaps in the project documentation, and noted:  “The (hydrological study) is very basic, and not yet at a level of detail, sophistication and reliability that would befit a development of this magnitude, importance and with such regional impact as GERD.” 

Egypt is calling for a new “neutral” panel to adjudicate differences over the project’s downstream impacts. In January 2014, after a series of high-level meetings between the three governments, talks broke down. At this writing, Egypt was reportedly considering taking the dispute to the UN Security Council, and construction continues at a fast clip.

 

FAST FACTS: GRAND ETHIOPIA RENAISSANCE DAM

Where: Blue Nile, about 20 miles from Sudan border

Dam size: 145m high, 1,708m long 

Reservoir size: Floods 1,680 sq km; holds about 70 bn cubic meters of water (equivalent to annual flow of Blue Nile at Sudan border)

Resettlement: At least 20,000 people

Dam Cost: US$4.8bn (equal to about 15% of Ethiopia’s GDP in 2012, and about 60% of the annual budget). One Egyptian dam experts believes the cost could expand to $7bn.   

Water Security Concerns

Although Ethiopia says the dam will benefit downstream neighbors and will have no ill effects on their water supply, there is no denying that the dam will give the upstream country greater control over the river’s flow. A major concern is how filling the huge reservoir will affect water security in Egypt, which relies almost totally on the Nile for its water supply. Depending on how long it takes to fill the reservoir (it has been estimated it will take from 5-7 years), the Nile flow into Egypt could be cut by 12-25% during the filling period. One hydrologist estimates that the reservoir could evaporate 3bn cubic meters of water a year – three times Egypt’s annual rainfall, and enough to meet the basic needs of up to half a million people.  A major shortcoming is the lack of gauges on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, which means data on the river’s flow is inadequate. 

According to a Bloomberg reporter who has reviewed the Panel of Experts report, the project document concludes that “Egypt faces a 6% reduction in the High Aswan Dam’s electricity-generating capacity and no water loss if the reservoir is filled during years of average or high rainfall. If the reservoir is filled in a dry year it would ‘significantly impact on water supply to Egypt and cause the loss of power generation at High Aswan Dam for extended periods’.” The Panel is calling for a “comprehensive” additional study of the dam’s impact on water resources, stating: “The analysis presented is very basic, and not yet at a level of detail, sophistication and reliability that would befit a development of this magnitude, importance and with such regional impact.”

Climate change risks are another concern. Dams in Ethiopia are not being evaluated for how they will be impacted by climate change, nor for how reducing water and other natural resources for downstream users will affect their ability to adapt to a changing climate. According to a US Bureau of Reclamation economist who has studied proposed dam projects on the Blue Nile, "Climate change influences could play a major role in determining the success or failure of the proposed hydropower and irrigation projects.... Climate change scenarios indicate potential for small benefit-cost increases, but also reflect the potential for noteworthy decreases, relative to historical climate conditions." 

Engineers’ Concerns

A number of experts believe the dam is not going to produce as much power as is claimed, and that the dam should be smaller in size for efficiency and cost. Asfaw Beyene, a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at San Diego State University (California) says the dam is 300% over-sized. “More than half of the turbines will be rarely used,” he says. “GERD’s available power output, based on the average of river flow throughout the year and the dam height, is about 2,000 megawatts, not 6,000. There is little doubt that the system has been designed for a peak flow rate that only happens during the 2-3 months of the rainy season. Targeting near peak or peak flow rate makes no economic sense.” Beyene notes that that the issue is so highly politicized that “it seems to suppress legitimate engineering inputs and environmental discussions.” He suggests that the concerned authorities should make the project transparent, and resize the hydroelectric power output by reducing the number of turbines.  

Financing

Ethiopia has not succeeded in getting outside financing for the project, in part due to its lack of competitive bidding for the project’s construction contract, an in part because of the project’s potential for increasing water conflict in the region. The government says it will finance the costly project itself, and has developed a plan to sell dam bonds directly to citizens at home and abroad, and to private companies. Various reports say bond sales are not meeting expectations, due to “risk perceptions”” among investors. Meetings to sell the bonds have met with protests in a number of cities around the world (for example San Diego and Canada). 

Pressure to buy the bonds is intense. The Brookings Institute reports: “Government employees have been encouraged to devote as much as one or two months of their salaries to the purchasing of the GERD bonds.  Most public workers in Ethiopia earn relatively low wages and face a significantly high cost of living.  Hence, they are not likely to be able to sacrifice that much of their salaries to invest in this national project.  Nevertheless, many of them have been observed purchasing the GERD bonds, primarily because of pressure from the government and the belief that participation in this national project is a show of one’s patriotism.” 

Unanswered Questions

In addition to concerns about climate change risks, there are many unanswered questions about the project, including:

  • How long will it take to fill the reservoir, and how will this disruption in flows impact downstream communities’ water security? 
  • How will the life of the dam be affected by siltation?  
  • What is known about the ecology and biodiversity in the reservoir area and in downstream reaches? 
  • What is known about the link between the dams proposed on the Blue Nile and the expansion of land leasing and irrigation in the basin?
  • What is known about the region’s seismicity? What about the potential for the dam to be overwhelmed during flooding? What is known about dam safety standards in Ethiopia? 

 

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