Clean Energy for Ethiopians, Not Damnation of River Dwellers

With all the controversy over Ethiopia’s Gibe 3 Dam – which has stirred up negative coverage from the BBC to the East African Standard – it’s easy to forget that a greener energy future for Ethiopia is possible, and that some positive steps are being taken to get there.

Ethiopia is rich in clean renewable resources – some of the best on the continent. Developing its abundance of geothermal, wind and solar reserves could make it a green-energy leader among African nations, rather than the dam-nation it is fast becoming. Ethiopia needs more electricity, of that there is no doubt. But more to the point, Ethiopians need electricity; too many of them (about 85%) have none at all, and many are regularly impacted by drought-caused blackouts (the nation is almost entirely dependent on dams for its electricity supply). Hydropower is apt to be an increasingly leaky boat for Ethiopia, with climate change making its rivers ever-more unpredictable. Even the World Bank is urging it to diversify its energy sector in light of climate risk.

The Gibe 3 Dam is expected to produce lots of power – in fact, more than Ethiopia can use; up to half is likely to be exported. Yet the project will not alleviate most Ethiopians’ energy poverty. While its widespread environmental and social impacts make it a poor option overall, the dam’s great cost (US$1.7 billion), remote site, and vulnerability to hydrological risks from climate change make it an especially bad option for expanding electrification within the impoverished nation – in fact, the project could reduce funds available for bringing modern energy services to the poor majority, most of whom rely on fuelwood for their primary energy needs.

Using solar stoves in Ethiopia.
Using solar stoves in Ethiopia.

Because large hydro has such a poor record for “trickling down” benefits to the rural poor, meeting the energy needs of Ethiopia’s rural residents would be better addressed with small-scale solar, biogas, wind turbines, and micro-hydro.

The government has begun to explore development of a few of its renewable resources, though the jury is still out on whether a poor government that relies on foreign aid for almost 90% of its budget can undertake a rollout of renewables at the same time it is in the midst of a costly large dam boom.

Glimmers of hope come from two excellent Powerpoints from the government utility, which reveal an internal understanding of the folly of continued reliance on unreliable river flow for more than 90% of the nation’s electricity. A 2006 presentation on wind power talks bluntly of the nation’s hydropower dependency problem, and lays out a plan to develop wind farms (“the best solution to overcome power deficit ahead in the next years”). More tangibly, a French company last year was given the go-ahead to build a $300 million wind farm (Africa’s largest to date).

Geothermal projects are also being revisited. Experts believe geothermal power could meet 10% of the nation’s energy needs. A government official recently said that 100 MW of geothermal energy was as good as 200 MW of hydroelectric power, because it’s not subject to drought and is inherently more efficient.

A 2005 Powerpoint presentation by a geothermal expert at the Ethiopian utility says 16 sites have been judged to be commercially viable. Sensibly, this presentation notes, “The diversification of energy sources is essential in order to ensure a sustainable energy supply.” So far, however, only one small pilot project has been developed. One official stated that if geothermal companies lined up funders as well as hydropower companies do, the government would be more willing to exploit the country’s geothermal potential.

Let us hope these good intentions make their way out of Powerpoints and into the real world sooner rather than later. It can’t come too soon for the nearly half a million people who live along the Omo River downstream of the Gibe 3. This dam is truly a bad actor that, if completed, could dry up ecosystems all the way to Lake Turkana in Kenya (possibly dealing a fatal blow to the iconic lake) and make life harder if not impossible for hundreds of thousands of fishing families and pastoralists. An anthropologist working in the downstream communities interview by the BBC describes how the dam could lead to water wars and cultural upheaval for affected people. “Simply, they will die,” he says.

Ethiopia should listen to its own internal experts, and move toward a more diversified energy supply. A reprioritization toward green energy sources would help it adapt to climate change, and avoid banishing half a million people in the Omo basin to a hydrological hell.

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Next up:

Kenya should just say no to Gibe 3, and develop its own rich renewable reserves.