Ethiopia’s strategy for dam construction goes far beyond developmental goals. It seeks to build an infrastructure for regional water hegemony, positioning it, at the very least, in such a way that it can exchange water for oil. This is hardly a revelation, as this strategy has long been foremost in the minds of the ruling elites in Addis Ababa and supported by the international powers.
One senior advisor to former Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi alluded to it when he said that “Ethiopia will supply the electricity, Sudan the food, and Egypt the money.” To which we might add, “and South Sudan will supply the oil.”
The politicisation of the Nile’s water and the utilisation of development projects to achieve political ends are not new phenomena. In the imperialist age, Ethiopian emperors threatened to alter the course of the Nile and stop its flow to Egypt. In the modern era, the US used water to blackmail Egypt. In 1964, the US Land Reclamation Bureau conducted a study for the Ethiopian government, identifying 33 hydraulic projects in the Blue Nile Basin. Four of these would potentially be located on the main river and one would eventually evolve into the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Addis Ababa launched the construction of the GERD under Zenawi, and work on it has proceeded at full steam ahead ever since. The official narrative is that Ethiopia can uproot poverty and bring about a definitive end to social and economic underdevelopment by means of the construction of a series of mega-dams combined with the development of the national energy infrastructure.
According to this narrative, the Blue Nile, or Abay in Amharic, is a purely Ethiopian river. Some have mythified it and claim it is the Gihon River of the Biblical Book of Genesis that “encircles the entire land of Cush”, thereby adding a religious dimension to the politicisation. The strategy and its surrounding narrative have attracted large influxes of foreign investment in the Ethiopian agrarian sector, with multi-million dollar leases of agricultural land to foreigners generally linked to irrigation projects planned in tandem with the construction of the dam.
Following the fall of Mengistu Haile-Mariam’s regime in Ethiopia in 1991, Ethiopia experienced a remarkable rise in the construction of dams and hydroelectric power stations. The Tendaho, Tekeze, and the Gibe series are only a few examples from that period. The country’s 2003 development plan introduced many more, and the Ethiopian government launched an ambitious PR campaign to encourage donor nations and international funding agencies to support these projects financially and ideologically as the highway to Ethiopian development and prosperity.
Perhaps the most significant project in the 2003 plan was the Chemoga-Yeda Hydroelectric Project, a series of five small dams on Blue Nile tributaries and two dams on the Genale River with a couple more envisioned for a later phase. However, by far the largest of these projects is the GERD, which was announced in 2010 and work on which was launched in 2011 by means of a nationwide fundraiser in which Ethiopian civil servants were reportedly obliged to “volunteer” a month’s salary to invest in GERD bonds.
These hydraulic mega-projects underscore the ambitious local and regional political aims of the Ethiopian ruling elites. To African commentators in recent decades, massive investments in mega-energy and irrigation projects were emblematic of the African economic emergence, and Ethiopia at that time vaunted itself as one of the fastest-growing economies in the region.
Nevertheless, it is important to take stock of the human costs, social problems, and lasting environmental impacts of this strategy which have already drawn considerable criticism and concern. An optimistic trend among today’s African commentators focuses primarily on economic growth rates and pays little attention to human tolls, questions of transparency and accountability, and the sustainability of growth. However, another trend stresses the need to approach the question from a broader and more holistic perspective.
The Zenawi concept of a “Strong Ethiopia” envisions the country as a powerful hydroelectric energy hub exporting electricity to Djibouti and Somalia in the east, Kenya and Uganda to the south, and Sudan to the west. Addis Ababa expects to sell no less than 4,000 Megawatts (MW) of electricity to its regional partners in the coming decade. It simultaneously expects that this role will change Ethiopia’s international status from a country perceived as poor and dependent on foreign aid to a regional power able to provide vital resources to its surrounding region.
In general, the Ethiopian development philosophy rests on two pillars: mega-dams and mega-agricultural projects. It is clearly a philosophy that looks beyond the electricity and freshwater needs of local communities to a geo-strategic restructuring of the Horn of Africa.
As mentioned above, Ethiopia’s dam-construction strategy is intimately linked with large-scale foreign investment in the agrarian sector and specifically in areas near the artificial reservoirs created by the dams. It is therefore intrinsically connected with the question of land ownership. Under the Ethiopian constitution, the state is the proprietor of the country’s land and natural resources, which gives the government significant control over the allocation and use of land. The Ethiopian government has always availed itself of its power to transfer local populations off land it decides to declare a “public resource”.
With regard to the mega-dams, the Gilgel Gibe III Dam and the GERD speak volumes on the substance of Zenawi’s political ideology. These are two of the largest dams in Africa. The former was initially funded by the World Bank and the European Investment Bank, but these later withdrew for legal and other reasons. The Chinese then took over the funding amidst heightened international concern regarding the social, technical, and environmental repercussions of the Ethiopian dams.
The toll on the local communities affected by the dams has been enormous. According to some estimates, the Ethiopian government had to arrange for the resettlement of 1.5 million people in the four regions of Gambela, Somali, Afar, and Benishangul-Gumuz. International rights organisations have reported that many cases of displacement were not voluntary and that entire communities were driven from their villages. Because the strategy of land allocation and dam construction relied on senior executive decisions and foreign funding from China, above all, the government was largely freed of pressures of transparency and accountability. But this did not rule out eruptions of tension, not just between local communities and the central government, but also between Ethiopia and its neighbours.
Ethiopian opinion is divided over the need for such huge investments in hydroelectric energy when the national network is still very underdeveloped and unable to cope. A significant segment of local opinion is also aware of the well-known problems that come with mega-dams wherever they are built, among them population displacements and resettlement, reductions in the quality of life, the spread of waterborne diseases, salinisation and the loss of productive and profitable lands, more intense competition over the remaining available land, and losses of cultural and historic heritage.
While such dams also come with long-term benefits to local populations, the chief beneficiary will always be the state, which reaps profits from the sale of surplus electricity. In order to sustain this benefit in the long run, Ethiopia’s neighbouring countries will have to continue to purchase hydroelectric energy, and rainfall will have to fall at the same rate on the Ethiopian Plateau. These two factors could become serious problems.
The above-mentioned Gilgel Gibe III Dam stood out as the world’s most controversial dam until the GERD. Practically from the outset, the World Bank and international donors withdrew funding due to a lack of transparency, driven home when it was learned that the construction had begun without a permit from the Environmental Protection Agency in Ethiopia. Since then, there has been a constant stream of complaints regarding the social and environmental impacts on downriver areas, including large displacements of local populations.
Concern has focused in particular on Lake Turkana, which derives 90 per cent of its water from the Omo River on which the Gilgel Gibe III Dam was built. The Kenyan Lake is heavily dependent on the fresh water and vital nutrients supplied by the river’s annual floods, making it a paradise for fisheries. The largest permanent desert lake in the world, Turkana has three national parks that are now listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The Friends of Lake Turkana, an NGO representing indigenous groups whose livelihoods are dependent on the Lake, filed a suit to halt the construction of the dam. Although the case has been dropped, the organisation’s work focused international attention on the dam’s potential detrimental impacts on the lake’s habitat.
Amazingly, the normally required social and environmental impact studies were only conducted three years after construction of the dam had began. Even then, the initial studies did not extend beyond the borders with Kenya. Subsequent impact studies were performed by the European Investment Bank and the African Development Bank, and in the light of the results, these banks cancelled their funding for Gibe III. The Chinese donors who have agreed to fund it have performed no independent social or environmental impact reviews.
In its 2013 report, the International Rivers Organisation predicted that the long-term effects of the Gibe III Dam would turn Lake Turkana into another Aral Sea. The drying up of this in Central Asia has been called the world’s worst environmental catastrophe. In 2019, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee warned that the Gibe III Dam had already disrupted the seasonal patterns of Lake Turkana and that this would reduce fish life and harm local communities dependent on the Lake. It was in the hope of protecting Lake Turkana against such threats that it was listed as a World Heritage Site.
Ethiopia’s dam-construction strategy threatens not only Kenya’s water-resource development efforts but also Somalia’s water security, as is evidenced by Ethiopia’s development plans for the Jubba and Shebelle Rivers.
Ethiopia has two major plans for these rivers, which both flow into Somalia, in the form of the Wabe Shebelle and the Genale Dawa power plants. The final touches to these plans were added in 2005 and 2007, and one involves nine hydroelectric dams along the Gebale Dawa to produce some 1,300 MW of electricity for export. Yet, Ethiopia is fully aware of Somalia’s economic dependence on the rivers originating from Ethiopia’s highlands. As early as 1957, Ethiopian officials said that the Somalian economy could not survive on its own given how heavily dependent it was on Ethiopia.
Because Ethiopia has been so cavalier with regard to the technical aspects of its dams, portions of them have also caved in soon after they began operation. A major reason the GERD is so controversial today is that it has not been subjected to thorough safety and impact studies, which could pose a grave threat to downriver nations. But the Ethiopian elites show little interest in addressing such concerns, bent as they are on a nationalist revivalist project that claims an “Ethiopian exceptionalism” that places Addis Ababa above international law as it pursues a water-management strategy that has less to do with its development aims than with its ambitions to weaponise water in a bid for regional hegemony.