Hydroelectric power is clean, green and once built, the source of the energy is free.
However, human made structures such as dams have the potential to wreak havoc on the natural environment of people who’ve been plying their trade in their natural surroundings for many years.
The recently completed Gibe III Hydroelectric project is no different.
The livelihoods of more than half a million people can be severely affected, according to some experts.
Although there were allegations that the dam would cause environmental damage, through job creation and irrigation schemes, it has greatly benefited local communities,” Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn
Dams could disrupt natural resources and wildlife. The migration pattern and natural rhythm of fish could be disrupted, and plants can cause low dissolved oxygen levels in water.
But in the case of Gibe III, it’s now water, to coin a term, over a dam.
On December 17, at a ceremony held near the concrete edifice of the dam, the Gibe III Hydroelectric Power project was officially inaugurated by the Prime Minister, the culmination of years of planning and construction.
Construction on the dam began in 2007 and it became partially functional in August 2016, with eight out of 10 turbines starting to generate electricity.
However, according to many complaints filed with various bodies, the dam’s effects on the Omo River and Lake Turkana basin may jeopardize the livelihoods of people living on both sides of the Kenya-Ethiopia border.
The Gibe III construction was slated to end in 2011, but suffered delays that set it back by five years, in addition to allegations of environmental damage to the Omo River and the Lake Turkana basin. The construction took nearly a decade to complete. Those accusations were not far from the minds of the attendees, although they were not dwelt on in the celebrations.
“Although there were allegations that the dam would cause environmental damage, through job creation and irrigation schemes, it has greatly benefited local communities,” Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn remarked at the inauguration.
“There were issues of getting loans,” said one engineer close to the project. “Because of all the objections from different quarters, there weren’t as many loans available as needed. But we got the loans from the Chinese bank and were able to continue. There were also issues with the designs. When the digging began, the ground was found to be much rockier than was anticipated and a new design needed to be done.”
Gibe III is located around 450 km from Addis Abeba, at the boundary of Wolayita and Dawro Zones in the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples Regional State. It is now the second biggest hydropower project currently in Ethiopia. The installed capacity of the project is 1870 MW and its annual energy production is 6500 MW.
The dam was overshadowed by problems and controversies from the very beginning. The environmental objections to the dam poured in during its early stages from groups such as Friends of Lake Turkana (FoLT). FoLT is a Kenyan organization representing the indigenous groups in northwestern Kenya whose livelihoods are linked with Lake Turkana.
At the time, the African Development Bank (AfDB) was considered the most likely financier of the project, so the FoLT submitted a complaint to the bank’s Compliance Review and Mediation Unit, asking for the bank’s involvement with the dam to be investigated.
FoLT was backed in its complaint by International Rivers (formerly the International Rivers Network), an organization with decades of expertise in dams, and energy and water policy.
This was far from the only complaint. UNESCO also lodged complaints with the Ethiopian Government about the environmental impact of the dam. In December 2008, a Kenyan MP representing the Turkana central population suggested that Kenya should take a leaf out of Egypt’s book and use threats of war if the building of the dam was not halted.
Nevertheless, then-Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was not worried.
“If anything, the dams that we build on the Nile and on the Omo would increase the total amount of water in the basins,” he commented in a January 2009 press conference.
The Gibe III project cost an estimated 35.2 billion Br, two times more than the original budget. The civil engineering portion of the dam’s construction was financed by the Ethiopian Government and was contracted by Salini-Impregilo S.P.A. The electromechanical and steel works were financed by a loan from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and was contracted by Dongfong Electric International Corporation of China.
Nevertheless, then-Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was not worried.
The dam’s troubles didn’t end with environmental objections. In spite of the government’s efforts to obtain funding from various donors and international financial institutions, they were initially unsucsessful, partly because of the objections that had been raised on environmental grounds. Other potential donors felt that the bid process for the project that saw Salini-Impregilo and Dongfang being awarded the contract was not sufficiently transparent.
Salini was established half a century ago and has been present in Ethiopia since 1957. Its first project was Qoqa Hydroelectric power, which was completed in 1960. The company merged with Impregilo in 2014. Currently, it is active in more than 50 countries and has 35,000 employees.
Gibe is not the only major Ethiopian energy project in the works. The Ethiopian energy sector has been the subject of much scrutiny and planning in recent years. In the government’s plans to create a sustainable and green economy, as well as become a middle income country by 2025, the energy sector is an important component.
Another significant part of the government’s energy plans for Ethiopia is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), being built on the Nile River. When the construction of the GERD is complete, it will have an installed capacity of 6000MW, a generation capacity that will be three times higher than Gibe III’s. The project reached 52pc completion as of June 2016. The original completion date was 2017.
Unlike every other dam, the GERD is being financed solely by the Ethiopian people and the Ethiopian Government. Through the sales of bonds, and donations from institutions and offices, as well as a lottery-like game, the GERD will be a 100pc Ethiopian-owned and financed project.
There are some who say that this is to avoid any future issues with countries who have objected to the dam in the past.
“The dam will be all Ethiopian and won’t have any connection to other countries. As the biggest project of its kind in the country, it’s fitting,” says an engineering expert.
GERD also hasn’t come without baggage.
Objection were repeatedly raised about the dam from other Nile basin countries – chiefly Egypt. Concerns were raised about the effect that a dam on the Nile would have on the Egyptian agricultural sector and economy.
The total amount of electric power generated in 2015/16 was about 10.4 billion MWH, showing a 10 pc annual increase from the 2014/15 year. Of that production, 92pc of the electricity was generated from hydropower, 7.5pc from wind and 0.1pc from thermal energy sources.
At the end of the first edition of the Growth and Transformation Plan, energy production capacity was projected to grow to 32.6 million MWH from 7.6 MWH in 2009/10. However, in 2014/15, the country’s actual energy generation was 9.5 million MWH, only 29pc of the targeted amount.
The government has planned to build a total of 14 hydropower projects by 2025. They will have a generation capacity of 11,100MW and will cost a total of 20.1 billion dollars.
Although energy projects seem to be at an all-time high, access to electricity hasn’t corresponded. Although electricity access was planned to scale up to 75pc in 2014/15, it only reached 55pc. The aim by 2020 is to reach 99pc coverage.
Now that Gibe has been completed and is fully functional, there have been nothing but positive effects on the environment, according to the government. Local communities are benefiting from the dam’s proximity, and the facilities that were built with it, like schools, religious centers and access roads. However, whether such an extensive system of dams is compatible with the government’s plans for a sustainable, inclusive, and ‘green’ economy remains to be seen.
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