No Room for Debate on Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam?

Lori Pottinger
GERD is being built in Ethiopia near the Sudan border

International Rivers has been caught in the crossfire between 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). Our summary 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 report and 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 in Egypt 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 on decentralized 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.

Thursday, April 17, 2014