Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Ethiopia’s dams: The risks

Egypt has voiced objections to only some — not all — of the dam projects in Ethiopia. But the objections it has voiced are valid, writes Maghawry Shehata Diab

Al-Ahram Weekly

The focus on Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam project, which has stirred widespread controversy among the Egyptian public in view of its direct detrimental impact on Egypt, may have distracted us from the question of dams and energy generation in Ethiopia in general. However, Egypt objected to some of the dam projects in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia’s energy plans are almost entirely based on capitalising on its many rivers, that flow with varying speeds in various directions, by generating electricity from the dam system that currently exists or that is envisioned for the future. According to studies on Ethiopia’s groundwater resources, there are nine “wet” and three “dry” (subject to draught) water basins. The surveys highlight the potential of the “wet” basins, in particular. The most important of these are: Wabi Shebele, Abbay (the Blue Nile), Genale Dawa, Awash, Tekeze (Atbara River), Omo Gibe, Baro Akobo, Mereb.
In addition, the country has numerous subterranean water basins as well as a relatively large annual rainfall: 590 billion cubic metres on the Ethiopian plateau.
The surface area of the water basins varies considerably. The largest are Wabi Shebele (202,220 kilometres squared) and Abbay (199,912 kilometres squared) and the smallest is Mereb (5,900 kilometres squared). At 53 billion cubic metres per year, the Abbay (Blue Nile) River has the highest annual runoff. Its waters flow across the border into Sudan where they meet up with the White Nile and then continue into Egypt. The Abbay (Blue Nile) contributes about 75 per cent of the waters emanating from the Ethiopian plateau (72 billion cubic metres per year), which is why this river is so important to Egypt and Sudan. It is their chief source of water, which underscores the magnitude of the risks inherent in any hydraulic project that could obstruct the flow of these waters into Sudan and Egypt. This explains why these two countries need to be fully reassured that any projects on the Blue Nile are thoroughly studied in terms of their impact on downriver nations, why they should require a consensus, and why Addis Ababa must notify Cairo and Khartoum in advance of any hydraulic works entailing the construction of dams and the diversion of the river course for this purpose, in keeping with the risk aversion principle established in the convention on international watercourses adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1997.
As the Blue Nile is Ethiopia’s most important river, in addition to being vital to both Egypt and Sudan, it has become a strategic target for every power interested in throwing a spanner into the mechanisms of cooperation between these three countries. It is therefore no coincidence that the UN Reclamation Bureau took 1956 as its starting point for an eight-year study of the Blue Nile basin that, in 1964, concluded with recommendations for 33 hydraulic projects on this river. The most important are the following dams: Fincha Amerti Nesse (FAN), Beles, the Renaissance Dam, Mendaia, Beko Abo and Kara Dodi.
Of these, FAN and Beles have been completed, construction of the highly controversial Renaissance Dam has begun and, of course, planning for the Beko Abo and Kara Dodi dams are in progress. Other dams have been constructed or are envisioned for the Tekeze, Omo Gibe and other river basins. In short, a vast Ethiopian dam network threatens to obstruct the current river flow and regulate it through an array of gateways and turbines in a manner that suits Ethiopia’s purposes at the expense of its neighbours and partners in the Nile River Basin.
As mentioned in a previous article (“Of dams and droughts,” Al-Ahram Weekly, Issue 1181), the Renaissance Dam is the most ambitious project. With a projected reservoir capacity that climbed from 11 billion cubic metres when the plan was originally conceived to 74 billion cubic metres, it is slated to become the largest dam in Africa and the tenth largest in the world. When it goes into operation, it will furnish Ethiopians with seven gigawatts per hour of electricity, enabling Ethiopia to become an energy exporter to its neighbours. They expect their status in this capacity to increase. According to the publicised plans, when the various dams are completed within the next two decades, Ethiopia will be able to produce 15,000 gigawatts per hour, or three times the country’s electricity needs.
Yet, a number of geo-engineering, legal and funding problems may hamper the completion of this complex of dams, and the Renaissance Dam in particular. The geo-engineering challenges posed by the Ethiopian plateau are formidable, in view of the precipitous slopes and the solid rock (predominantly basalt) consistency of the upper and middle ranges of the plateau. The site of the Renaissance Dam is located at a relatively low altitude (around 500 metres) and the terrain there and in the vicinity consists of fractured granite rock. Because of the fractures, fissures and faults in this area (Beni Meshgul-Jomez), numerous geo-technical and engineering studies must be undertaken so as to ensure that the proper precautions are taken to ensure the prolonged safety of the dam with its huge mass and with the enormous pressure of 75 billion tons of water behind it. Such studies have not been performed, as has been made explicit in the report of the tripartite technical committee that, in addition to representatives from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, consists of four impartial international experts. This report states that the feasibility studies on which the current plan for the dam is based are insufficient and that the current design is not appropriate for a dam of this size. The report also warns that the dam will suffer from silting problems due to the accumulation of sediment in the reservoir, which will gradually reduce its efficiency and overall life expectancy.
The construction of a dam of this size will create an ecological nightmare for Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. Seismological studies on the area in which the dam is being constructed speak of repeated tremors and quakes, sometimes reaching six points on the Richter scale. When we add this to the pressures of the mass of the dam structure, the weight of 75 billion tons of water, and the mechanical and chemical effects of the water stored in the reservoir, and the possibility of seepage from the auxiliary dam, we can begin to appreciate the extent of the dangers inherent in constructing a dam of the current specifications.
Failure to address all the negative observations that appear in the tripartite committee’s technical report could lead to the partial or even total collapse of the dam, adding unfathomable calamity to the damage that the dam, itself, will cause to the water security of both Sudan and Egypt.
There is no denying that the dam has some advantages for Sudan as well as Ethiopia. In addition to a share in some of the power generating projects, Sudan will be able to put large tracts of land under permanent irrigated cultivation. In addition, areas along the Sudanese portion of the Blue Nile will be safeguarded from the hazards of Nile flooding and the silt accumulation in the reservoirs behind Sudanese dams on that river will be significantly reduced.
However, the risks remain great. Nor have we begun to discuss the material and legal problems entailed in the construction of the Renaissance Dam, which will be the subject of future articles.

The writer is former president of Menoufiya University and an expert on Egyptian water issues.

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