Environment, Science

Ethiopia begins constructing its Great Renaissance

Diversion of water from the Blue Nile to supply the Great Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia began last month. Shortly afterward, Egyptian politicians were accidently overheard on live TV proposing military action to prevent its construction.

The dam is located in the Benishangal-Gumez region, 25 miles from the border with Sudan, and is part of a string of dams for hydroelectric power in Ethiopia.

The Great Renaissance Dam has not yet been completed, but when it is will have the potential to supply 6000 megawatts of power. With only just over 10% of a population of around 80 million having access to electricity, the Ethiopian government believes it is crucial to improve supply. Ethiopia has suitable topography for large hydropower generation, in which the Great Renaissance will play its part.

Egyptian politicians were caught recently talking about a military attack on the Dam. Concerns arise because the dam is supplied with water from the Blue Nile, which supplies 85% of the water of the river Nile. 75 million of Egypt’s inhabitants live on the river delta and the river valley, and the Nile is the main source of water for the country’s agriculture. The Aswan Dam in Egypt also relies on Nile waters. It has been stated that the comments were unofficial and made in moments of anger.

Some negative impacts will occur as a result of the dam. About 12,500 people have been uprooted as a consequence of its construction. Also, some impacts may occur downstream. For instance the dam would prevent sediment travelling downstream, increasing the erosion of the Nile’s Banks.

It would also reduce flooding downstream. Agriculture and associated livelihoods, fisheries which feed local populations, and species in the river system – such as the 150 fish species in Ethiopia alone – could be affected. But there may also be some benefits, such as the reduced flood risk to inhabitants and improved lifetimes of dams further downstream due to reduced sedimentation, including Aswan.

However, the energy produced from the dam is not only for the Ethiopian population but may benefit the entire East Africa region. Ethiopia wishes to export energy to other countries, including Djibouti, Kenya and Sudan. This would make Ethiopia the main energy exporter in East Africa, and increase its supply of hard currency. A transmission line has already been inaugurated between Djibouti and Ethiopia. This has channelled $1.5m per month into Ethiopia, and reduced fossil fuel consumption in Djibouti as well as electricity costs. The government of Ethiopia believes that this will help aid economic development, and so help to alleviate the poverty which afflicts high numbers of the Ethiopian population.

With developments in other countries, the pressure on the Nile is ever increasing. Sustainable use of its waters is essential, and some say that construction has been undertaken too early especially as no environmental or social impact assessment has been carried out. Nonetheless, recently it has been reported, although by an Ethiopian expert, that the dam will have little impact downstream.

Whether or not this will prove to be correct, the dam will be constructed. Even if some negative impacts may result, the benefits of the dams from improving electricity supply and the economy could far outweigh disadvantages to Ethiopia.
It is a tough call to decide where the waters of the Nile Basin should be allocated; it is important that the projects that benefit populations the most are undertaken. Only time will tell if this turns out to be the case.


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February 2021
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