In a drama that involved threats, name-calling and finger-pointing, a new episode was recently inaugurated when the President of Egypt – whose country has expressed staunch reservations about the Grand Renaissance Dam project (GERD) – met with the Sudanese president and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister to sign a “declaration of principles” on the GERD and its impacts on the flow of the Nile River.
The declaration was intended – mainly it seems – to calm and diplomatically suppress Egypt’s fears and dissidence related to the GERD’s impact on its fragile water supply. The Ethiopian Prime Minister, nevertheless, making assurances to Egypt: “I confirm the construction of the Renaissance Dam will not cause any damage to our three states and especially to the Egyptian people”.
But, does the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s remarks guarantee that the GERD will be environmentally and socially sound? Does this agreed-upon “declaration of principles” indicate that adequate measures will be taken, chiefly by Ethiopia, to ensure that short and long-term risks related to the dam’s operation are mitigated? Even more, does this agreement sanction the GERD project, to continue?
The response to all the above questions is, clearly, no. Hard evidence from Ethiopia’s history of dam construction advises us to be cautious about Ethiopia’s promises. The Gilgel Gibe III is one such dam, and a poster child of how not to develop dams. Not only was its environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) produced two years after construction of the dam had begun, but even today, the government of Ethiopia remains oblivious of the trans-boundary impacts of the dam, despite it being known that the Gibe III Dam will have major impacts on Lake Turkana in neighbouring Kenya. Furthermore, the dam’s ESIA propagated misleading information on the actual impact of the dam on Omo Valley dwellers, giving affected communities virtually no opportunity to participate in decision-making on developments that would fundamentally impact on their future. For these and many other related reasons, the shameful Gibe III Dam outcome, should thus provide major red flags for the nations downstream of the GERD.
Taking the above in to account, it should also be noted that the GERD is not the final solution to Ethiopia’s energy woes. There are far more beneficial alternatives that sanction cancelling the GERD project. Therefore, the US$5 billion that Ethiopia is projected to spend on the dam’s construction could be better spent– especially if the goal is to increase energy access for the eight in 10 Ethiopians who have no electricity- on small-scale, on-and-off-grid solar PV’s, in particular, in rural Ethiopia where the majority of the population dwells. Such a policy shift, would not only bring light to homes and power to schools & hospitals, but would also lead to increases in productivity in the agricultural sector. Agriculture, currently accounts for more than 40% of Ethiopia’s GDP; on this account, investing in these more appropriate and less damaging energy sources would bring electricity to Ethiopians, yet at the same time, help grow the country’s economy. By contrast, much of the electricity generated by the GERD will be exported to neighbouring countries, continuing to leave most Ethiopians in the dark.
The secretive nature of such diplomatic endeavours makes it difficult – and perhaps unwise – to speculate on what concessions were made, on what and by whom, inducing Egypt – the once-fierce critic of the GERD – to suddenly assent to the project. Be that as it may, I hope that mounting public pressure and criticism, particular in Egypt – including that from Egypt’s former Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation – will encourage the region’s governments to account for any negative impacts of the project on downstream countries, and resolve to better manage the Nile River for all its peoples.