globalEDGE Blog: The Implications of Ethiopia's Dam

The Implications of Ethiopia's Dam

File under: Ethiopia, Sudan, Global Economy,

Ethiopia plans to become a top regional exporter in electricity under a new 2015-2020 development plan. It is attempting to tap several rivers for power generation, which is a part of its plans to boost its manufacturing, help to industrialize its agrarian economy, and to export power to countries in Northern and Southern Africa. A $4 billion deal was signed with an U.S.-Icelandic firm in 2013 to build a private-run 1000 megawatt geothermal plant and more power generating projects are being negotiated with other international companies. Egypt is dependent on the Nile, and is concerned that the Renaissance Dam would reduce the river’s flow. In addition, Kenya stated that the Gibe 3 dam and its related irrigation scheme could reduce the volume of water in its Lake Turkana. Low levels of rainfall this year have had an adverse impact on existing dams, and currently four hydropower plants are producing at low levels due to low water levels. There are several more concerns about these projects, namely the current ongoing severe drought and the environmental ramifications.

In terms of global natural disasters between 1963-1992, drought affected more people than any other disaster, and was third in terms of importance for causing substantial economic damage. El Nino is an anomalous weather pattern where surface sea temperatures warm across the central and east-central equatorial Pacific Ocean. This can cause abnormal weather patterns that can vary across regions and cause weather patterns ranging from heavy rainfall and flooding to severe drought. The 2015-2016 El Nino has been the worst on record due to its relationship with global climate change, where there is a higher frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. Ethiopia is currently experiencing its worst drought in the last 50 years, and its agricultural sector contributes 42.3 percent of the country’s GDP and employs around 73 percent of its labor force; and between 2004 and 2012, the economy grew at roughly 11 percent annually. The Ethiopian government has made investments in healthcare, agriculture, education, and infrastructure, yet despite the strides, Ethiopia has a human development index of 0.442 out of 1.0.

A global study of river dams predicted that there will be severe environmental consequences if the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam begins to operate on the Nile River as currently planned. The quality of drinking water reaching Egypt and the water reserves in Lake Nasser for Egypt and Sudan will be negatively affected. It is likely that Sudan will compensate for the lack of silt by only using agricultural chemical fertilizers, which will add to the contamination of the Nile River. Due to an insufficient number of openings at the bottom of the dam, silt will accumulate inside the dam’s reservoir, and will increase the likelihood of the dam collapsing. In addition, it is likely that the evaporation rates and greenhouse gas emissions will increase, while the water’s biological and chemical specifications will deteriorate. According to various studies, dams tend to trap water and silt behind their walls and disturb the natural equilibrium. The only way to avoid the negative impacts is to create dams that generate power but don’t hold back water and sediments. The Mediterranean Sea level is currently rising 1 to 2 centimeters per year, however the Delta areas in Egypt are sliding about 1 to 3 mm per year, and is expected to further decrease as water levels in the Nile River decrease. It is predicted that within 10 years, parts of the Nile River in Egypt and Sudan will experience a drop in water levels of 5 meters, and the erosion could affect the Mediterranean Coast. 

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