The Original Title
No Room for Debate on Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam? by Lori Pottinger
GERD is being built in Ethiopia near the Sudan border
International Rivers has been caught in the crossfirebetween Ethiopia and Egypt as they struggle over a large dam being built on the Nile River by Ethiopia. Ethiopia’s government turned its sights on International Rivers after we published a leaked report by the international panel of experts charged with reviewing project documents for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Oursummary of their report describes a number of outstanding concerns raised by the non-binding panel, including the inadequacy of the hydrological-impacts study (a key document for understanding how the dam will affect people and ecosystems downstream).
In response, Ethiopia’s “national panel of experts” (which includes two of the 10 members of the Panel) issued a histrionic statement that claims our organization is backed by “Egyptian financiers,” seeks to prevent Ethiopia from developing, and other provocative and groundless charges. Unhelpfully, their statement does not actually address the concerns raised by the International Panel of Experts (IPoE), nor our summary of them. You can read the IPoE reportand come to your own conclusions.
Ethiopia’s wild allegations have been quite popular with a certain category of internet attack dogs, and these folks aren’t likely to be swayed by what we say here. However, we can state unequivocally: International Rivers does not take funding from any government institution, including Egypt. We are not “taking sides” – we are impartial when it comes to critiquing destructive river projects and poor river management around the globe, including inEgypt and Sudan. The Nile is just one of many basins where conflicts are arising from engineering rivers for a narrow purpose with a limited group of beneficiaries, while a much larger group of people is left to suffer the consequences. These conflicts are exacerbated when transboundary rivers are “developed” for hydroelectricity in isolation and in secrecy. Readers can learn more about our cautions regarding the myriad of dams and diversions planned by many riparian nations along the Nile in our 2003 paper Can the Nile States Dam Their Way to Cooperation?, which presciently noted that poorly planned large dams could worsen tensions over the Nile.
We recognize Ethiopia’s interest in updating the Nile Basin Treaty, support economic development that winnows Ethiopia’s poverty rates, and acknowledge that the Ethiopian Government must chart its own course of development. Our experience as an organization with expertise in hydropower and rivers, and as part of a global civil society movement of dam-affected peoples, leads us to conclude that maintaining healthy rivers and the ecosystems and communities they support is key to long-term prosperity. Our experience studying mega-dams in Africa reveals these projects have consistently failed to reduce poverty, and have been a costly and ineffective solution for increasing access for the millions of people on the continent without reliable access to electricity. We believe a greater focus ondecentralized energy solutions will more quickly, cheaply and effectively begin to close the yawning gap of Africa’s energy poverty.
The GERD Panel concluded a year ago that more studies – some of them quite substantial, but also standard practice for a project of this magnitude – must be undertaken to fully assess GERD’s impacts. Drawing upon this evaluation by an international team of technical experts, International Rivers has called for a halt to the hurried construction so that critical information on the project’s impacts can be assessed and steps to reduce impacts agreed upon by all nations involved in the dispute.
To the government of Ethiopia, we respectfully submit that the greatest threat to the GERD project is not International Rivers’ publicizing the Panel’s report, but rather the escalation of tensions resulting from the dam’s poor planning process. Such a monumental project should be accompanied by an equally monumental effort to gain acceptance from people who will be affected by it, and a commitment to adopt best practices for managing this important shared river. The next step is to begin the robust studies as called for by the Panel of Experts.
At this writing, Egypt and Ethiopia remain at an impasse while construction of the dam proceeds at a rapid pace. This serious conflict – borne of decades of mistrust between the two nations and controversial treaties over the use of Nile waters – is being enflamed by Ethiopia’s rushed and secretive process. This is what threatens the viability and success of this project. We urge the Nile states to find constructive ways to forge national and regional development strategies that ensure the long-term health of this critically important river, and build resilience to climatic uncertainty.
GERD Panel of Experts Report: Big Questions Remain
Construction on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam(GERD) – Africa’s biggest hydropower dam – began based on piecemeal preliminary studies and design documents, with only a very basic analysis of how the project would affect downstream neighbors, according to the 2013 final report by an international panel of experts established to evaluate the scheme. The megadam is being built on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, near the Sudan border, and has created conflict with Egypt over its downstream impacts; the experts’ study confirms Egypt’s concerns that the project’s impacts could be significant and are not well understood.
The Ethiopian government reported last year that the panel’s report “showed that the Dam offers high benefit for all the three countries and would not cause significant harm on both the lower riparian countries”, while Egypt has repeatedly said the report calls for more analysis of downstream impacts. Because the report was not made public, neither side could be vetted. Egypt has called for mediation if further studies are not allowed; at this writing, Ethiopia had refused, and was continuing with dam construction.
In March 2014, International Rivers received a leaked copy of the report. The report documents numerous problems with existing analysis and a lack of analysis on a number of critical issues. The panel recommends further investigation into the dam’s hydrological impacts, including on downstream countries’ water supplies and power generation; risks from climate change, and geotechnical issues. The panel recommends “a full transboundary environmental and social impact assessment … conducted jointly by the three countries.”
The 10-member panel included two members from each of the three riparians (Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan), plus four international experts agreed upon by the governments. A geotechnical expert group was added later. The main panel met for about a year, and had four field visits to the dam site. While the panel’s members were granted access to many key project documents (all of which remain confidential at this time), some key reports were not shared with them, including the critical geotechnical assessments for the main and saddle dams, and project cost-benefit analyses.
One international dam expert who has seen the report states that it shows that construction on the project is proceeding on “an aggressively accelerated schedule” with little room for adjusting key elements of dam design to reduce harm or prevent problems. A number of key studies for the project are described by the panel as being outdated or in process. While references are made to some specific international standards being adhered to, overall, the process described seems chaotic and incomplete. It is also clear that there is precious little oversight on Africa’s largest dam project to date. While the international panel has brought a type of oversight, it may be too little, too late – and with too little teeth; it seems the panel does not have a continuing role in ensuring best practices as construction proceeds.
The panel’s report is almost a year old at this writing, yet its members have been mostly silent since their report was completed (as far as we know, none of the panelists have made public statements about the project). The Egyptian and Ethiopian governments continue the war of words, while at the same time construction on the megadam proceeds, and questions raised by the panel remain unanswered.
Going forward, International Rivers recommends construction on the project be halteduntil all necessary studies recommended by the panel are completed, and a process is in place for ensuring public accountability on the project. Given the panel’s findings, Egypt’s call for mediation in the process is reasonable, and donor governments and international bodies should support such a process.
The following summarizes some of the panel’s key findings and recommendations:
- Quality of project documents: The present design criteria are “quite general, and do not include project- and site-specific conditions … The most essential geotechnical, seismological, hydro-geological, hydrological, hydraulic and structural design data should be compiled into a consolidated report and not scattered in numerous design reports.” The project’s main design report is outdated and does not reflect numerous and significant design changes to the project.
- Safety: “The stability of the main dam and other main structures should be verified under consideration of additional geological and geotechnical findings.” The panel believes more analysis may be necessary, but without having access to all information on this aspect of the project, cannot be sure. Nonetheless, they do question some assumptions on the project’s “shear strength” and raise concerns about sliding, seepage and other safety issues. “In view of the on-going construction works . . . highest priority shall be given to clarify [dam safety issues] as soon as possible. Structural measures might be needed to stabilize the foundation to achieve the required safety against sliding.” The panel also suggests design modifications for the saddle dam and further studies on the spillway dimensions. The panel recommends that the discharge of the “Probable Maximum Flood” used in the dam design be increased.
- Downstream changes to water flow: First and foremost, “The (hydrological study) is very basic, and not yet at a level of detail, sophistication and reliability that would befit a development of this magnitude, importance and with such regional impact as GERD.” Project studies looked only at the GERD site. “No upstream developments are taken into account, and no downstream flow records … are given as would be needed to assess downstream impacts.” The panel notes that, “given the proposed upstream cascade development of similar magnitude than the GERD, the upstream flow records could be of significant importance.” The panel notes that the hydrological report uses questionable estimates of evaporation from the reservoir (a key issue in how much water the dam will “use”), and recommends further assessments of evaporation. It also notes that the project did not quantify water losses through deep percolation during reservoir filling. Regarding GERD’s impact on Egypt’s water supply, the panel found that “mass balances represented in the report of water between the GERD and the High Aswan Dam could not be reconciled given the information presented.” The GERD also allows for greater expansion of irrigated cropping in Sudan, which could further reduce flows to Egypt; the panel recommends a detailed study on this issue.
- Environmental impacts: Surprisingly little information is included on impacts on local people, ecosystems, fisheries or biodiversity. The official Environmental and Social Impact Assessment Report was “strictly limited to the impact zones located upstream of the dam site in Ethiopia.” Downstream environmental impacts were not considered as being significant, and therefore several related socio-economic impacts are not addressed. Dam height was chosen without consideration of downstream environmental and socio-economic impacts. The panel recommends a full transboundary impact assessment be done.
- Climate risks: The panel notes that the project did not assess the project’s sensitivity to climate change. A project of this scale and with such heavy reliance on rainfall patterns requires a better understanding of future hydrologic conditions to ensure the highest degree of flexibility and resiliency in its design and operation. The panel recommends a study that looks at the potential influence of climate change on the flow regime at GERD and further downstream.
- Sediment and water quality issues: The project did not include an analysis of sediment deposition in the reservoir (a troublesome issue for dams on the muddy Nile). The panel notes that sediment flows downstream of the dam will be substantially reduced, with implications for floodplain farming productivity, navigation, Sudan’s brick industry, riverbank erosion, and biodiversity. The panel also recommends additional studies on water quality changes from the project, particularly on methane gas production and the depletion of dissolved oxygen levels in water releases that could harm fisheries and biodiversity downstream.
- Dam operations: Very little information on how the dam will be operated was given. At a basic level, both present and future needs for “peaking power versus base power needs to be assessed in more detail,” and “needs to be taken into account in (project) planning and sizing.” The report requests verification of the 6,000MW installed capacity. Furthermore, the Panel does not indicate if the dam was designed in a way to accommodate “environmental flows” (which can be used to mitigate impacts of a dam on a river). In all likelihood this was not considered as the panel writes that “it is not clear whether the present design considers (capacity, functionality) the minimum mean flows of the dry months release to the downstream countries” without use of power generation facilities or the spillway. It is also clear that consideration of operation of the GERD in coordination with water systems in Egypt and Sudan was at a very preliminary stage during the writing of this report. The report strongly recommends additional studies of the GERD “in the context of the Eastern Nile System” in order to “quantify the downstream impacts in detail with confidence.”