Memorandum on the Merowe Dam Project

Monday, January 29, 2007

Submitted to His Excellency Zhang Dong, Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Sudan, at the Occasion of the Visit of President Hu Jintao to Sudan

The Leadership Office of the Hamadab Affected People (LOHAP), International Rivers and The Corner House welcome the positive potential for economic and social development which China’s growing role as a trading partner and investor has for Africa. Yet development requires more than economic growth. The interests of local communities and the environment must be safeguarded in the growing trade and financial relations between China and Africa.

The Merowe Dam Project in Sudan is the largest hydropower project which is currently under con-struction in Africa. The project will double the power generating capacity of Sudan. The affected communities are not opposed to the construction of the Merowe Dam. Yet the principle of a harmo-nious society requires that they should also be beneficiaries of the project, and not pay for its construc-tion through their impoverishment and the destruction of their environment. LOHAP, International Rivers and The Corner House support this view.

The Merowe Dam Project has massive, unresolved social and environmental problems. As it currently stands, the project violates Sudanese law, and a series of internationally recognized social and environ-mental standards. This memorandum summarizes the social and environmental problems of the project, and presents recommendations for the solution of these problems.

Chinese construction companies and financial institutions are major partners in the construction of the Merowe Dam. The visit of the President of the People’s Republic of China, Hu Jintao, to Sudan in February 2007 offers an opportunity for the Chinese and Sudanese governments to discuss the pro-blems of the project, to hear directly the concerns of those affected by it, and to address the unresolved issues.

This memorandum is being submitted to His Excellency Zhang Dong,Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China to Sudan. Copies will be shared with Sudan’s Dams Implementation Unit and China Export Import Bank.

Involuntary displacement

The Merowe Dam will create a reservoir with a length of 200 kilometers. It will require the displace-ment of approximately 50,000 people, who have farmed fertile plots in the Nile Valley for many gene-rations. The affected people are from three ethnic groups - the Hamadab, Amri and Manasir people. According to the official plans, they will be resettled in new locations in the Nubian Desert. The resettlement colonies are supposed to receive irrigation water and services such as free electricity supply during a transition period.

There is strong controversy about how many people are affected by the project. The authorities are refusing to pay compensation to many families who have lost their plots and houses, in violation of a Sudanese law which requires the compensation of all land that has been farmed for more than ten years.

So far, about 10,000 people from the Hamadab communities have been resettled from the Nile Valley to El Multaga in the Nubian Desert. A visit by The Corner House and International Rivers in February 2005 showed that the resettlement program has so far been a complete failure. Many of the new plots at El Multaga are covered by sand. Even with irrigation water, the quality of the desert soil is so poor that the farmers cannot produce food for themselves or the market. And while they do not have income, they have to pay for many of the services which they were promised for free during the transi-tion period. The poverty rate is increasing rapidly in El Multaga, and many people are leaving the site.

In August 2006, approximately 10,000 people from the Amri communities who still lived in the reser-voir area were affected by heavy flooding. The affected people lost their houses, animals, and crops. The authorities had not warned them about the imminent floods, and did not offer any relief. The government prevented UN representatives, relief agencies and journalists from visiting the affected area, and detained journalists who tried to do so. Many Amri people have now been moved to a place called New Amri (Wadi Al Mugadam), where the conditions have been described as disastrous.

The affected people suspect that the the water diversion channels at the construction site of the dam are insufficient to deal with the annual rains, and that the project authorities are trying to flood them out of their villages without any compensation. Thousands of additional people, particularly from the Manasir communities, will be displaced when the water level continues to rise during the 2007 flood season.

In June 2006, the Governor of Nile State, responding to concerns over the plight of the affected com-munities, reached an agreement with the Manasir, under which the Manasir would not be moved to desert resettlement sites but would be allowed to continue living on their land around the proposed reservoir. The agreement was backed by a series of Presidential Decrees. For several months, the dam authorities blocked implementation of the agreement, refusing to release key data for a study of the agricultural potential of the reservoir shore. The dam authorities are continuing to push for the Manasir to be resettled at Al Fiddah, a location in the Nubian Desert.


  • All people who are losing land and houses to the dam and reservoir should be recognized as dam-affected, and should be entitled to receive full compensation for their losses.
  • The affected people should be resettled at locations of their own choice along the reservoir, and not in locations in the desert which do not offer any basis for their future livelihood.
  • The social and economic problems of the people who have already been displaced need to be addressed immediately.
  • The Agreement reached between the Manasir and Nile State should be honored in full.

Lack of participation

The affected communities are not opposed to the construction of the Merowe Dam. They want their interests to be safeguarded, and have selected committees to represent their interests. The project authorities have not recognized these committees, and have systematically sidelined them throughout the decision-making process.

The project authorities have responded with violent repression instead of constructive dialogue to the concerns of the affected communities. In December 2004, the authorities detained three representatives of the affected communities for more than a year. The detainees were never brought before a court, but held as hostages to pressure their communities to accept the resettlement conditions offered by the authorities. In November 2005, the authorities responded to a petition from an affected community on Sherri Island by trying to arrest community representatives, and sent three army battalions to the affec-ted area.

The tense situation in the affected area escalated in April 2006. Militia of the project authority armed with machine guns attacked a large group of affected people who held a peaceful meeting at a school in Amri village. The militia killed three people and wounded 47. The unprovoked attack on Amri village was documented by Al-Jazeera television, and confirmed by a letter of the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing Rights to the Sudanese government in October 2006.


  • The project authorities should engage in a dialogue with the committees of the affected commu-nities to address the problems of the project.
  • The project authorities and the government should desist from using any violence against peaceful representatives of affected communities.
  • The project authorities should collaborate fully with the relevant authorities to ensure that the June 2006 agreement between the Manasir and Nile State is fully implemented.

Environmental impacts

A brief Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) of the Merowe Dam was prepared in April 2002 by Lahmeyer International, a German engineering company. According to Sudan’s Environmental Protec-tion Act of 2000, all environmental feasibility studies need to be reviewed and certified by the Higher Council for Environment and Natural Resources, the technical arm of Sudan’s Ministry of Environ-ment. In violation of this law, the Merowe EIA was not shared with and reviewed by the Higher Coun-cil prior to the start of construction.

In March 2006, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology (EAWAG) published a review of the Merowe EIA. The main findings of this review were:

  • Poor quality EIA: According to the review, "key environmental issues such as reservoir sedi-mentation, irrigation, water quality and downstream ecological impacts (...) were not addressed adequately".
  • Fluctuating water levels: Dam operations will cause the downstream water level to fluctuate by 4-5 meters every day. The reservoir surface will fluctuate between 350-800 square kilometers every year. The strong fluctuations will erode the river banks, making it difficult for farmers to collect water and fish in the river and reservoir.
  • Sedimentation: Up to 130 million tons of sediment will be deposited in the reservoir every year. As a consequence, the storage capacity will be reduced by 34% within 50 years. This will seri-ously diminish the capacity of the project to generate electricity.
  • Aquatic ecology: The dam will block fish migration. The fluctuating water levels and erosion of the river banks will destroy fish spawning areas and the habitats of other organisms.
  • Public health: Pollution and the decomposition of organic matter may create public health hazards for people drinking water or eating fish from the reservoir. Furthermore, "stagnant water and exposure of a large area of the river bed can create perfect breeding conditions for mosquitoes, vectors of malaria and yellow fever and the water flea, host of the guinea-worm".


  • The EIA by Lahmeyer International should be reviewed and certified by the Higher Council for Environment and Natural Resources according to Sudan’s Environmental Protection Act.
  • The Higher Council should propose measures to address the problems identified by EAWAG which need to be integrated in the design and operational regime of the Merowe Dam.

China’s involvement

The Merowe Dam is being constructed by CCMD, a consortium consisting of the China International Water and Electric Company (CWE), a company established by the Chinese government to execute large international construction projects, and the China National Water Resources and Hydropower Engineering Corporation (CWHEC), a company that builds many power projects in China and interna-tionally. The CCMD contract amounts to $650 million. The total cost of the Merowe Project is budge-ted to reach $1.2 billion. China Export Import Bank is the main foreign funder of the project, with a contribution of $387 million.

Non-governmental organizations informed China Exim Bank and other institutions about the problems of the Merowe Dam Project at several instances. Until recently, only one response had been received. When the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre inquired about the massacre at Amri village, the Project Director of the CCMD consortium stated on May 12, 2006, that "so far within our site no such event of what you mentioned in your e-mail occurred".

On December 8, 2006, Peter Bosshard, the Policy Director of International Rivers, had the chance to meet with Li Ruogu, the President of China Exim Bank, to discuss the environmental respon-sibility of financial institutions. Li Ruogu confirmed that China Exim Bank was committed to protec-ting the environment in the projects it financed. He indicated that China Exim Bank was sending a team to Sudan to review the situation of the Merowe Dam Project.

Conclusion and recommendation

The Merowe Dam Project has the potential to provide much needed power for the social and economic development of Sudan. As it stands now, the project impoverishes the affected communities, creates strong tensions in the affected region, and has massive negative impacts on the environment. This is inconsistent with the development of a harmonious society.

The Merowe Dam Project violates Sudan’s laws on the expropriation of land and the protection of the environment. It is also inconsistent with internationally recognized social and environmental standards. A review of the project by The Corner House and International Rivers Network identified 63 violations of the safeguard policies of the World Bank. Constructing a large hydropower project without the ap-proval by the relevant environmental authorities would also violate China’s environmental legislation.

In line with its commitment to protecting the environment, China Exim Bank should investigate the social and environmental problems of the Merowe Dam Project, and request that the responsible autho-rities in Sudan undertake immediate remedial measures to address these problems in cooperation with the affected communities and their committees. If such remedial measures are not immediately taken, China Exim Bank should suspend the financing of the project, and CCMD should suspend project con-struction.

President Hu Jintao will visit Sudan on February 2-3, 2007. His visit will provide a welcome opportu-nity for the Chinese government to convey its concern for the development of a harmonious society to the Sudanese government, and to discuss the measures that are required to address the problems of the Merowe Dam Project with the Sudanese government.

Further reading

Balbina - The Disaster Grows in Size
By International Rivers, The Corner House, May 2005.
A Quiet Revolution in (Non-Dam) Hydropower
By International Rivers, December 2006.
Independent Review of the Environmental Impact Assessment for the Merowe Dam Project
By Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, March 15, 2006.

The Leadership Office of the Hamadab Affected People (LOHAP) was founded in 1992 and supports the concerns of the people affected by the Hamadab/Merowe Dam Project. LOHAP, 24 Bowstead Court, 31 Parkham Street, London SW11 3JP, UK,

Founded in 1997, The Corner House aims to support environmental and social justice through analysis, research and advocacy work. The Corner House, Station Road, Sturminster Newton, Dorset DT10 1YJ, UK, ph +44 1258 473795, fax +44 1258 473748,,

Founded in 1986, International Rivers (International Rivers) works to protect rivers and the communities that depend on them.