10 Things You Should Know About Africa’s Largest Dam

Men at work on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)
Men at work on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)
Photo by Jacey Fortin (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


Tensions have been rising between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan for months, as Ethiopia nears the completion of Africa’s largest dam. Ethiopia hasn’t even finished building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), but everybody’s talking about it. 

Wondering what all the fuss is about? Here are ten facts that will get you up to speed.

  1. Ethiopia is building the GERD upstream from Egypt on the Nile River. The Nile is the source of life for about 300 million residents of Africa in 11 different countries. Since the early 20th century, Egypt has had legal rights to the lion’s share of the Nile’s water, which many (including Ethiopia) have suggested is unfair.
  2. Egypt really, really, really needs water from the Nile to survive. Egypt relies heavily on the Nile’s water, drawing 97% for its domestic, industrial and agricultural use (Futuredirections, 2013). Ethiopia’s decision to build the GERD threatens Egypt’s water resources by increasing the possibility of food and water shortages, as well as public health risks.
  3. Ethiopia really, really, really needs more electricity. Approximately 85% of Ethiopians live in rural areas, and only 2% of those rural dwellers have access to electricity. Ethiopia is desperate to improve electricity access, which is why it’s building the GERD. The bummer is that....
  4. This dam probably won’t supply as much electricity as Ethiopia wants. The GERD is designed to produce 6000 MW of electricity, but that capacity is questionable. With the Nile’s rate of flow, the most logical output, according to mechanical engineer Asfaw Beyene, would be 2800 MW. Beyene questions why the dam is sized for 3200 MW more (Beyene, 2013). There’s even worse news for downstream countries.
  5. The dam will make the river dry up faster. Grand Renaissance is located in a region with extremely high temperatures and low precipitation. Potential evaporation rates are very high. The evaporation losses from the dam’s reservoir could be as high as three billion cubic meters per year (Zehabesha, 2012). The water losses will reduce the overall water flow that reaches the downstream Nile (Water Diplomacy Aquapedia, 2014). Bad news for Egypt and other downstream countries.
  6. Let’s be honest: Hydropower is a bad idea in drought-prone Africa. Ethiopia generates over 90% of its electricity from hydropower. Such hydropower dependency is risky in the face of an increasingly volatile climate, especially given the projections of decreased rainfall and higher frequency of droughts in East Africa (Williams and Funk 2011).
  7. Plus, the dam will actually kick Ethiopians out of their homes. We’re not kidding. An estimated 20,000 people will be evicted from their homes to make way for GERD (Veilleux, 2013). The former director-general of Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) argues that displacement is not an issue, given that the displaced people have been given land and money to resettle, as well as employment opportunities from the dam project (Woldegebriel, 2013). However, this is an involuntary resettlement situation. The indigenous people have strong connection with their land and water resources, and it’s hard for them to transition from agricultural work to non-agricultural work and compete in the job market due to their limited education (Swain, 2014).
  8. Ethiopia hasn’t even given solar power a shot yet. Ethiopia hasn’t got much, but it does get a lot of sunlight. The average solar radiation in Ethiopia is 5.2 kWh/m2 per day; less than 1% of this renewable resource has been exploited (Power et al, 2009; Derbew, 2013).
  9. Ethiopia’s poor. GERD might make it poorer. For a poor country like Ethiopia, the move to self-finance is potentially very risky – it locks available resources into this risky project, reducing the country’s ability to invest in other development projects. Ethiopia could have chosen more sustainable energy investments with a better yield. Preliminary financial estimates done by International Rivers show that the project has a Net Present Value of -$640 million. The estimated project cost is $4.8 billion,  which if spent, may lead to increased national debt (Sanyanga et al, 2016).
  10. Ordinary people still won’t get power. Very few Ethiopians will actually receive energy access from GERD. Increased access to electricity will only benefit those already connected to the electrical grid. The problem is that most Ethiopians live in rural areas, where only 2% of people are connected to the grid, while 86% of the urban dwellers are able to enjoy this privilege (Energypedia, 2016). 

So what should Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan do?

We recommend that Ethiopia sit at the table with its neighbors Egypt and Sudan, and honestly broker sustainable ways of ensuring that flow releases from the GERD are large enough to not compromise downstream flows. 

An independent Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (better late than never) would help inform the creation of a feasible transboundary river basin management plan. Discussions should also include plans to create sufficient access to information on the developments, consult with communities, and ensure compensation for displaced communities.

Meanwhile, renewable alternatives to hydropower energy in Ethiopia certainly exist. Ethiopia could explore other ways to increase access to electricity for her people: Much of the small hydropower, solar and wind potential in Ethiopia has not been harnessed. Increasing wind and solar electricity could balance existing hydro generation in regional grids, which in turn may reduce risk of inter-annual and climate-driven variation of hydropower resource availability (IRENA, 2015).

Ethiopia receives a solar irradiation of 5000 – 7000 Wh/m², according to region and season, and thus has great potential for the use of solar energy (Reegle, 2014). The Ethiopian government should therefore give a high priority to meeting demand through the region’s solar PV off-grid market potential, especially in Ethiopia and South Sudan, and in conflict regions where local, autonomous solar builds local resiliency (Kammen, 2015). 

In terms of wind energy, Ethiopia has good wind resources with velocities ranging from 7 to 9 m/s. Its wind energy potential is estimated to be 10,000 MW (REEEP, 2014). Estimated geothermal resource potential for power generation is about 5,000 MW (allAfrica, 2015). 

This country therefore needs to refocus its energy towards sustainable alternatives that will make it a renewable energy hub for all the right reasons, rather than rely on myths to force its way to damnation.

Adapted from 5 Myths Surround the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)


Asfaw Beyene, 2013.Retrieved from: http://gadaa.com/oduu/20303/2013/06/19/why-is-the-hydroelectric-dam-on-t...

Derbew, Dereje (2013). Ethiopia’s Renewable Energy Power Potential and Development Opportunities. Ministry of Water and Energy

Energypedia.info: https://energypedia.info/wiki/Ethiopia_Energy_Situation

FutureDirections International,2013: Conflict on the Nile: The future transboundary water disputes over world’s longest river. Retrieved from: http://www.futuredirections.org.au/publication/conflict-on-the-nile-the-...

Human Security Dimensions of Dam Development, Jennifer C. Veilleux. Retrieved from: http://www.transboundarywaters.orst.edu/publications/publications/Veille...

Power, M., Shanko, M., Hankins, M., Saini, A., Kirai, P. (2009). Target Market Analysis: Ethiopia’s Solar Energy Market. Project Development Programme (East Africa). GTZ

PIDA Report 2016, Right Priorities for Africa’s Power Sector by Rudo A. Sanyanga, International Rivers. Retrieved from: https://www.internationalrivers.org/files/attached-files/pida_report_for...

Ashok Swain (2011) Challenges for water sharing in the Nile basin: changing geo-politics and changing climate, Hydrological Sciences Journal, 56:4, 687-702, DOI: 10.1080/02626667.2011.577037

E.G. Woldegebriel, 2013: http://news.trust.org//item/20130812133857-74iy1/

Water Diplomacy Aquapedia Database: https://aquapedia.waterdiplomacy.org/wiki/index.php?title=Impacts_of_the...

Williams, A. Park, and Chris Funk, 2015. "A westward extension of the warm pool leads to a westward extension of the Walker circulation, drying eastern Africa." Retrieved from: http://www.geog.ucsb.edu/~williams/publications/20100603_WilliamsAndFunk...

Zehabesha, 2012. Retrieved from: http://www.zehabesha.com/ethiopias-renaissance-dam-a-mega-dam-with-poten...

Thursday, January 18, 2018