5 Myths Surround the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)

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The Nile River is the source of life for about 300 million residents of Africa in 11 different countries. Over the years, many dams have been built along the river, varying in size and capability; most have been small enough not to raise eyebrows and political upheaval (Rania, 2015). The politics around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), however, which is about 70% complete (Zegabi,2016) and is projected to hold around 70 billion cubic meters of water, have become more complicated.

The Ethiopian government remains firm in its intention to complete this dam. On the continent, Ethiopia has sold the project as a great success, financed by locals, that will yield a lot of energy for the country. The dam is expected to allow Ethiopia to export 200, 500 and 200 MW of power to Sudan, Kenya and Djibouti respectively (Sanyanga et al, 2016); increase access to energy; and benefit both the downstream countries of Sudan and Egypt. However, the silver lining around the growing Ethiopian hydropower cloud is already tainted by myths and misconceptions.


Myth: GERD is a sensible way to solve Ethiopia’s energy problems

Ethiopia generates 99% of its electricity from hydropower (Davis et al. 2013). Such hydropower dependency is risky in the face of an increasingly volatile climate, especially given the projections of decreased rainfall and higher frequency of droughts in East Africa (Williams and Funk 2011). The predicted increase in hydropower variability increases the vulnerability of the national energy system. It would thus be advisable for Ethiopia to diversify its sources of energy, such as into solar and wind, rather than to continue to grow hydropower (Kammen 2015). The average solar radiation in Ethiopia is 5.2 kWh/m2 per day; less than 1% of this renewable resource has been exploited (Power et al, 2009; Derbew, 2013). A market analysis completed by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) as part of the Project Development Programme (PDP) East Africa has identified 52 MW of solar PV off-grid market potential in Ethiopia alone (Power et al, 2009).

The stated hydropower capacity itself of the GERD is questionable. The dam is designed to produce 6000 MW of electricity. With the Nile’s rate of flow, however, the most logical output, according to mechanical engineer Asfaw Beyene, would be 2800 MW. Beyene questions why the dam is sized for 3200 MW more (Beyene, 2013).


Myth: Citizens will benefit from buying bonds, and Ethiopia will incur no national debt on the project.

Foreign sponsors hesitated to fund the project, which spurred the Ethiopian government to seek unethical means to raise funds for the dam. The dam construction is now financed by coercing citizens to buy government bonds (ecadforum, 2015). A portion of the civil servants’ salaries is deducted annually without their consent, a clear violation of workers’ rights. Twice now the government of Ethiopia has lured citizens into playing the Grand Renaissance Dam Lottery, with winners receiving over $450,000 (10 million Ethiopian Birr) (Zegabi, 2016).

Several African governments struggling to raise funds for infrastructure admire Ethiopia’s determination, yet they fail to look at the bigger picture: Ethiopia could have chosen more sustainable energy investments with a better yield. Preliminary financial estimates done by International Rivers show that the project has a Net Present Value[1] of -$640 million, with an estimated project cost of $4.8 billion over a fifty-year period, which may lead to increased national debt (Sanyanga et al, 2016).

For a poor country like Ethiopia, the move to self-finance is potentially very risky – it locks available resources into this risky project, reducing the country’s ability to invest in other development projects. Hydropower already constitutes almost 92.5% of the total energy mix in Ethiopia, making the country highly hydro-dependent and vulnerable in the face of climate change. Despite the huge potential to exploit renewables, only a very small portion of renewable energy has been developed because of the lack of financial resources, which are largely tied up in hydro, among other factors (REEEP, 2014).


Myth: The dam will increase access to electricity 

Most citizens remain hopeful that they’ll receive an equal share of the cake, including both dividends from the sale of electricity as well as assured access. However, very few will actually receive energy access. Increased access to electricity will only benefit those already connected to the electrical grid. Approximately 85% of Ethiopians live in rural areas, only 2% of whom have access to electricity, while 86% of the urban dwellers are able to enjoy this privilege (Energypedia, 2016). Whether dividends will materialize is also an open question; the odds of the GERD generating above 2800 MW are low and there may be no dividends to share.

In addition to forcing citizens to buy bonds (CNN, 2012), the government will also displace those living around the proposed dam site and resettle them. 20,000 people are estimated to be victims of the evictions (Veilleux, 2013). The former director-general of Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) argues that displacement is not an issue, given that the displaced people have been given land and money to resettle, as well as employment opportunities from the dam project (Woldegebriel, 2013). However, this is an involuntary resettlement situation. The indigenous people have strong connection with their land and water resources, and it’s hard for them to transition from agricultural work to non-agricultural work and compete in the job market due to their limited education (Swain, 2014).

Furthermore, it would mean a change of livelihoods for the affected people, since they are further away from their source of income: the river. Activities such as flood-recession farming, gold-panning, and fishing will be greatly affected (Veilleux, 2013). Ethiopia claims that this project will increase employment opportunities in the country by creating 12,000 jobs (Heyman, 2015). It’s not clear how the government obtained these figures and what skill levels these jobs entail. From our experience, the majority of construction jobs tend to be temporary. Once the dam is completed, only those employees required for maintenance and operation of the system will be retained.

The Ethiopian regime represses its citizens and has violated many human rights in its quest to construct the Grand Renaissance Dam. Citizens have not only been manipulated into buying bonds to support the project, they have also reported incidences of human rights abuses. The government has denied the public, including the affected people, information on the development (Nazret, 2015) and denied freedom of expression regarding GERD. A journalist was detained on May 4, 2013 for reporting on the return of thousands of farmers who had been forced from their lands in the Benishangul-Gumuz region – the same region where Ethiopia is constructing the multibillion dam. Another journalist was tried for terrorism and sentenced to two years jail for reporting on alleged coercion to force government employees to contribute to the construction of the dam (Opride, 2013). Citizens and civil society have no space to advocate for the respect of human rights or oppose government development without facing imprisonment or even death.


Myth: The dam has no negative impacts

The dam not only displaces people but puts the environment at risk of great degradation. Dams contribute to changes in regional hydrological cycles that, combined with the more extreme patterns of weather associated with climate change, would result in irregular episodes of flooding, drought and mudslides (Zhang B, 2011). Ethiopia disputes any harm will be caused, but to date, the government has made public no Environmental and Social Assessment study. The Benishangul-Gumuz region, where the GERD is being built, is one of the last few places in Ethiopia with remnant forest vegetation (International Rivers, 2013).

Climate change will be influenced by – and will influence – the workability of the dam. Global climate change may also increase the frequency of extreme events, such as droughts and floods in the Nile basin. The reduced water supply in the dry season is going to facilitate seawater intrusion to the river system, threatening agriculture, fisheries and ecology in the delta (Wahab 2005). Temperature rises might reduce the productivity of major crops, and increase their water requirements. The Nile basin is also going to be severely affected by the impacts of climate change (Swain, 2011). Flooding 168,000 hectares will result in decomposition of vegetation, leading to emissions of carbon dioxide and methane gases. These greenhouse gases contribute to climate change.

Grand Renaissance is located in a region with extremely high temperatures and low precipitation. Potential evaporation rates are very high. The evaporation losses from the dam’s reservoir could be as high as three billion cubic meters per year (Zehabesha, 2012). The water losses will reduce the overall water flow that reaches the downstream Nile (Water Diplomacy Aquapedia, 2014). Ethiopia’s highlands are one of the most erosion-prone places on earth, and sedimentation of the reservoir is a big risk for the dam’s power output and lifespan (International Rivers, 2013). The mountainous terrain of Ethiopia is highly fragile in terms of slope stability, which may easily lead to landslides and slope failures (Swain, 2014).


Myth: Sudan and Egypt stand to benefit from Grand Renaissance 

The Ethiopian government assures its neighbors that the dam will not affect downstream countries (Worldegebriel, 2013). However, downstream Sudan may experience reduced soil fertility as the dam holds back sediments, affecting the agricultural potential of this Nile-dependent country (George W.L, 2013). There is also a projected reduction in reservoir capacity in Sennar Dam on the Blue Nile in Sudan. Flows to Egypt while Ethiopia fills GERD’s reservoir, projected to take 5-7 years, may reduce as well, and other upstream developments may lead to increasing salinization of farmland around the Nile Delta region (TheNewArab, 2015) due to reduced freshwater flows (Egyptian Chronicles, 2013).

Fig.1 Existing large water resources infrastructure facilities in the Nile Basin and the Grand Renaissance Dam (D.Whittington et al.)

Fig.1 Existing large water resources infrastructure facilities in the Nile Basin and the Grand Renaissance Dam (D.Whittington et al.)

GERD may also pose geopolitical implications. In Egypt, this dam represents one of the main challenges for Egyptian diplomacy (Ahramonline, 2015). Egypt relies heavily on the Nile’s water, drawing 97% for its domestic, industrial and agricultural use (Futuredirections, 2013).  Ethiopia’s decision to build the GERD threatens Egypt’s water resources by increasing the possibility of food and water shortages, as well as public health risks.

Ethiopia, like other Nile Basin countries, has abstained from voting on the UN Watercourses Convention of 1997, and has neither signed nor ratified it. Even so, the Convention codifies customary international law regarding important aspects of managing transboundary watercourses such as the Nile. Most importantly the Convention, in line with customary international law, stipulates that states shall “take all appropriate measures to prevent the causing of significant harm to other watercourse states.” Given the projected loss of water to evaporation, the severe downstream impacts of the dam and the fact that Ethiopia has never made the Environmental Impact Assessment for the project publicly available, the government of Ethiopia has clearly not fulfilled its obligation to take all appropriate measures to prevent significant harm from the GERD to downstream countries.


We recommend that Ethiopia sit at the table with its neighbors Egypt and Sudan, and honestly broker sustainable ways of ensuring that flow releases from the GERD are large enough to not compromise downstream flows. An independent ESIA (better late than never) would help inform the creation of a feasible transboundary river basin management plan. Discussions should also include plans to create sufficient access to information on the developments, consult with communities, and ensure compensation for displaced communities.

Meanwhile, renewable alternatives to hydropower energy in Ethiopia certainly exist. A wide range of opportunities have yet to be exploited; Ethiopia could explore other ways to increase access to electricity for her people. Much of the small hydropower, solar and wind potential in Ethiopia has not been harnessed. Increasing wind and solar electricity could balance existing hydro generation in regional grids, which in turn may reduce risk of inter-annual and climate-driven variation of hydropower resource availability (IRENA, 2015).

Ethiopia receives a solar irradiation of 5000 – 7000 Wh/m², according to region and season, and thus has great potential for the use of solar energy (Reegle, 2014). The Ethiopian government should therefore give a high priority to meeting demand through the region’s solar PV off-grid market potential, especially in Ethiopia and South Sudan, and in conflict regions where local, autonomous solar builds local resiliency (Kammen, 2015). In terms of wind energy, Ethiopia has good wind resources with velocities ranging from 7 to 9 m/s. Its wind energy potential is estimated to be 10,000 MW (REEEP, 2014). Estimated geothermal resource potential for power generation is about 5,000 MW (allAfrica, 2015). This country therefore needs to refocus its energy towards sustainable alternatives that will make it a renewable energy hub for all the right reasons, rather than rely on myths to force its way to damnation.



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[1] Net Present Value(NPV) is the difference between the present value of cash inflows and the present value of cash outflows and is used in capital budgeting to analyse profitability of a projected investment or project.