Personal Memorandum To the New Ethiopian Prime Minister

By IndepthAfrica
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Oct 19th, 2012
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By Getachew Belayneh

First and for most let me take this chance to congratulate the incoming leadership for getting the rare opportunity to lead the great people of Ethiopia. I wish you all the best to develop the essential qualities needed to become an effective, self-determining, and impartial leader. I am optimistic and confident you will use your own wisdom and strategy instead of abiding to the legacy of your predecessor in its entirety.  At this juncture let me list some of the questions lingering in peoples mind. Would you continue focusing on quantity of educational institutes or emphasise on quality of education? Would you continue leasing natural resource to outsiders for a marginal benefit to the country or establish a new procedure with the collaboration of the stake holders which is the people of Ethiopia that would maximize the benefit of the country? Would you continue to be secretive leaving the people in the dark or be transparent to the people who appointed you for this most prestigious position? These questions are emerged here just as passing remarks. The primary message of this article focuses on only two specific items that I feel need to be high on your priority list: (1) Ethiopia’s fascination with elusive big hydroelectric dam projects, and (2) Lack of government policies to protect the environment, specifically the dying lakes. It is prudent to assume a prime minister with solid water related engineering background would put these items high in his to do list without ado.

P.M Hailemariam Desalegn (Photo Awramba Times)

It is no exaggeration to state here that most Ethiopians live in abject poverty in a land of surplus natural resources, minerals and agricultural resources. This is the case because the sheer scale of the wealth from Ethiopia’s fertile soils and freshwaters to its minerals resources, has been invisible in economic benefit terms. Sensitively, creatively, transparently, and sustainably harvested and fairly shared resources is paramount to meeting the development goals which is primarily alleviating poverty and going far beyond. Do the contemporary development projects, including the mega hydroelectric dam projects, meet these criteria? I take the liberty to challenge the incoming leadership to take time, address this question unequivocally, and make the necessary arrangement for public participation in the conceptualization and planning level of the projects.

Leaders looking to economic priorities for the nation should be putting the environment high on their list. Currently, one of the indicator of the health of the environment which is are lakes are vanishing causing severe damage to nature.  The same challenge is applicable to the leaders to consider mainstreaming environment protection and restoration into the poverty reduction strategy. These two major items will be elaborated in the sections below.

The people of Ethiopia expect the incoming leadership to be discerning and self-reliant on their leadership strategy. The status-quo, which is the top-down approach to natural resource management, as it is proved in many countries, will result in inefficient exploitation of the natural resources and contributes to environment degradation. Not to mention, the inequitable access to natural resources which is often a root cause of social instability. Now the ball is in your court and the people expect its leaders to use their own wisdom and innovatively strategic to push the ball towards the goal. You might already have these concerns high in your priority list. At any rate, I will go ahead and state the concerns.

For reasons of clarity, it is important to put the concerns in proper perspective. The focus is only on two of the major concerns on the economic development activities: (1) the construction of mega size hydroelectric dams based on unknown logic and without stakeholders (the public) participation; and (2) the dying out of existing lakes in the country. It is bizarre to let the existing lakes disappear while spending huge wealth for the construction of gigantic new lakes, isn’t it?  The next sections will take you through a brief account why your immediate attention is needed to each of the two major concerns.

Big Dam Construction Projects

I am not against carefully and logically planned big dam projects, because those types of projects  are effective route to achieve sustainable livelihoods through increased incomes, diversification of opportunities and improved food security and avoid dependency culture.  However, big projects that are based on imperfect logic and are not transparently planned with public participation are not only recipe for future economic and social disaster but also misuse of the national resources.  It has been a while since Ethiopia has been obsessively engaged in constructing multiple mega hydro-power dams. To name the major two dams whose construction just started: Gibe IV in Omo River with 22 billion birr ($1.9 billion) construction cost and installed capacity 2000MW, and  the 80 billion birr ($6.7 billion) Blue Nile dam  (aka, “Renaissance Dam”) with installed capacity of 6000 MW.

For the benefit of the general readers, the two maps below show the approximate construction sites of Gibe IV (on the left) and Blue Nile dams. Notice, Gibe II has no dam, fed with water from by Gibe I dam.

In its rush to construction, the previous leadership neglected to properly assess virtually every aspect of economic and technical feasibilities violating every standard in existence.  For instance, the Blue Nile Dam requiring a whopping 80 billion birr from engineering surveying to commencement of construction took less than 3 yrs.

  • October 2008 – surveying conducted
  • September 2010 – preliminary studies for a Hydroelectricity plant completed
  • Nov. 2010 – Final study submitted to government
  • April  2011 officiated as the “Grand Ethiopian Millennium Dam”
  • April 2011 construction started

The construction of both Gibe IV and Blue Nile dams being underway, the ESIA evaluation report has not been released yet, despite the fact that such evaluations are critical for assessing the potential impact of the hydroelectric cascades and remain an essential element in securing international funding. No indication that any such studies are planned. Actually, this is not surprising, an ESIA was released for Gibe III dam two years after the construction has started and was widely criticized as flawed and inadequate and led the World Bank, European Investment Bank, and the African Development Bank to decline financing the projects.

Other related issues associated to these mega size dam projects include avoiding the standard bidding process for the constructions and forcing the public to buy bonds to fund the Blue Nile dam construction.  To the dismay of many, the construction of both Gibe IV and Blue Nile dams are awarded to contractors directly without competitive bidding giving rise to the suspicion of corruption. The government’s financial system lacks the necessary funds to finance the 80 billion birr needed to see the Blue Nile dam construction project completion. In fact, the previous leadership barely gets it off the ground. As a means to ease the financial stress, the government imposed donations of a month’s salary by civil servants and buying of bonds by traders, and the national bank announced that private banks lenders would be compelled to purchase government bonds. This imposition comes in the midst of soaring inflation and when people are struggling to survive from pay-day to pay-day.

All these and other issues put the successful completion of the dams wavering.  Even if these dams are successfully completed, it is still unclear who will buy the electricity.  The economic benefit of hydroelectric facility is determined in part by the power sale arrangement.  Given the magnitude of the capital investments and the existing tariff, the power generated by these dams could be unaffordable for the majority of Ethiopians for whom the dam is supposedly constructed. The neighboring countries are not dependable target for export as they have their own complaint on the construction of the dams. For instance, news reports from the government indicate that South Sudan could be a potential buyer. Although, South Sudan is not one of the riparian countries of Blue Nile, the situation is complicated by the 1929 agreement that gives Egypt and Sudan rights over nearly all of the Nile’s water. Apparently, South Sudan itself envisioned several 700 to 800 megawatt dam projects at the White Nile. These factors indicate neither Sudan nor South Sudan hold great promise as buyers of electricity generated at the Blue Nile hydropower dam. The other potential buyer Kenya has its own protest against the construction of Gibe III and IV dams due to the potential negative impact on Lake Turkana.

Here, the intention is not to ask the new leadership to immediately put down the projects.  It is simply to ask the new leadership to: (a) revisit the technical and economic feasibility of the mega hydroelectric dams with your fresh eyes to make sure the projects are based on coherent technical and economic strategies; (b) scrutinize how would smaller-scale run-of-the-river hydro compare to large dams; (c) look into the transparency to involve the stake holder which is the people of Ethiopia in the review and decision making processes; and (d) listen to average citizens to learn what their true energy needs are.

For example, renewable, decentralized energy such as wind, micro–hydroelectric, geothermal, and solar power is the alternative to give Ethiopia greater independence to energy access and will help diversify the energy portfolio. Evidently, the centralization (the current approach) of energy production is more efficient than decentralization.  It enables space optimization (better wind/sunlight), less overhead per kWh, etc. It also leverages the existing industry design.  However, this efficiency gain comes at a potentially fatal cost, which includes the construction and maintenance of vast amount of electrical transmission infrastructure. Thus, is centralized energy with its enormous transmission infrastructure the best choice for Ethiopia whose financial system is on life support for years?

During the swearing in ceremony, although, the new prime minister in his acceptance speech spent the majority time dwelling about the legacy of the late prime minister, he indicated some new visions. I am hopeful all the above questions will be somewhere in his to do list.

Final note in this section is that building large hydropower projects can intensify Ethiopia’s vulnerability to climate change. Reportedly, no dams in Ethiopia are analyzed for the potential impacts of climate change. When combining the lack of climate change induced risk analyses with the fact that Eastern Africa is supposed to be most affected by climate change, that’s just a recipe for disaster. This takes me to the next major concern which is the disappearance of lakes.

The vanishing lakes

Among all the environmental changes that are happening around the country, are the lakes that are shrinking or vanishing forever from the face of the earth. Lakes that were once were the source of water supply and food for animals and people alike, are no longer there. A dry depression in the land is left as a reminder that not so long ago something was there. Lake HYPERLINK “http://www.seattlepi.com/national/356178_water24.html”Haramaya (aka Lake Alemaya) was one of those lakes. Lake Haremaya was a freshwater lake that was around 9 meter deep and whose shoreline stretched for about 17 kilometer. This lake was once an important source of water supply and food. The keyword is “was”. Lake Haramaya already vanished and many more are following it, including Koka Lake, Lake Zeway, LakeHYPERLINK “http://www.worldheritagesite.org/sites/t0112.html” HYPERLINK “http://www.worldheritagesite.org/sites/t0112.html”Abiyata.

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