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Grand Ethiopian Reinassance Dam, Ethiopia

The largest dam in Africa is at the center of an intrastate conflict for the control of the Nile river basin. As today, it seems to be a pawn on a geopolitical chessboard rather than a tool for poverty reduction


In spring 2011, the former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi presided over the cornerstone laying ceremony of what would become the largest hydroelectric power plant of Africa, at (declared) 6,000 MW of capacity. In that occasion, Zenawi stated that the dam would bring benefits to the Ethiopian population and to downstream Sudan and Egypt. During last years many controversies have emerged, and now the dam is at the center of a huge dispute and a water conflict of geopolitical importance among countries sharing the Nile river basin. The general feeling is that the GERD has been more a pawn on a geopolitical chessboard rather than a tool for poverty reduction, so far. The design of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), also called Millennium Dam or Hidase Dam, was developed under a veil of secrecy [1] and without providing public information on the development plan. In a flawed bidding process, the Italian company Salini Impregilo SpA was granted the construction works, the same contractor for the five ‘sisters’ Gibe dams (I to V) on the Ethiopian Omo river. The project was promoted with the aim to increase access to clean energy to the Ethiopian population, boost the Ethiopian economy without compromising downstream countries of Sudan and Egypt. However, the NGO International Rivers started a campaign to bring out the truth [2]. First, they argue that it is a myth to say that GERD will assure energetic resilience to the country.  Ethiopia already relies entirely on hydropower, and in face of an increasingly volatile climate, it would be better to diversify the sources of energy rather than to invest in large dams once again. If we add the fact that the dam is estimated to be 300% oversized [3] its desirability makes even less sense. The main objective seems rather to make water a commodity, as the dam is expected to allow Ethiopia to export 200, 500 and 200 MW of electric power to Sudan, Kenya and Djibouti, respectively. Second, it is highly unlikely that Ethiopian citizens will benefit economically from GERD, as it is financed almost entirely by coercion through governmental bonds deducted annually from their salaries. With its cost of $4.8 billion over fifty-year period, the investment risks to bring Ethiopia in increased national debt. As of 2016, 85% of Ethiopians live in rural areas and of these, only 2% have access to the electric grid. Of the remaining urban dwellers, only 86% are able to enjoy this option. The project appears therefore even less consistent with its objectives. Third, GERD is a source of potential and actual serious negative impacts on society and the ecology of the region. This huge dam will flood approximately 1,680 square kilometers of forest, displacing approximately 20,000 people living out of flood-recession farming, gold-panning, and fishing. Even if supporters of the project claim that such people are going to be provided with land elsewhere and job offers related to the project itself, such practice is likely to affect negatively the lives and livelihoods of the displaced both in the short and long term, as it was done top-down and without previous consent. The government did not consult the affected communities, and journalists have been sentenced to jail for reporting violence in resettlement practices. Environmentally, the dam will likely contribute to irregular episodes of flooding, drought, and mudslides; the reduced water supply in the dry season is going to facilitate seawater intrusion to the river system, threatening agriculture, fisheries, and ecology in the delta; temperature rises might reduce the productivity of major crops; deforestation will contribute to climate change worsening. Moreover, the extremely high temperatures and low precipitation of the region will lead to high evaporation losses rates. Finally, increased sedimentation may easily lead to landslides and slope failures. If GERD seems not to provide substantial economic, social, or environmental benefits to the Ethiopian population, why its government has so strongly supported its realization? According to more than one source [4], the dam has been used strategically by Ethiopia to consolidate its power position in the region, appealing to foreign sources of external finance and the instability brought by the Arab Spring and the resignation of the President Mubarak in Egypt. As the decision of building the dam was taken unilaterally by Ethiopia only, the structure challenged the existing colonial-era 1959 Agreement applying on the region which regulated the shared basin, establishing the impossibility to build dams upstream and maintaining sort of leadership of Egypt over the basin governance. Egyptian economy relies heavily on the waters of the Nile, so the threats of water scarcity and fastened salinization due to the potential impact on the operations of the Egyptian Aswan High Dam and the 10-year filling time of GERD turned the polemic on. Egypt’s original stance was one of strong opposition to the realization of the dam. A curious episode provides a sense of the magnitude of the conflict level in mid-2013. Without knowing that their discussion was being broadcast live on a state-owned television channel, Egyptian politicians were planning to sabotage the dam, by means of military, intelligence, or backing rebels [5]. Later on, Cairo changed strategy, but not position. In February 2014, Egypt began a diplomatic offensive through a campaign aimed at gathering international support about their concerns [6]. In the meanwhile, the third stakeholder involved, Sudan, is supporting the project. This decision is attributable to the share of energy produced by the dam, while the stabilization of the river’s flow would increase the agricultural output [7]. Just when President Sisi took office in June 2014 Cairo changes the political line about GERD. The discussion shifted from whether or not the dam should be built to how the problem consequent to its realization and management was addressed [8]. According to Lossow and Roll (2015), this is thanks to lobbying practices by politically influential corporations like Qalaa Holdings and cable manufacturer Elsewedy Electric, which have made significant investments in Ethiopia. However, the three involved countries set the basis for cooperation, and during 2015 some instruments paved the way for a new legal arrangement [9]. The agreement on principles for the management of the facility was signed and new studies on the dam impact were assigned to international consultants. But as complications emerged in the assignment of the task, while Ethiopia did not stop construction works and plans to fill the dam soon, Egyptian politicians fear that the agreement is just a formality [10]. It's worth adding that as in the case of the other controversial Ethiopian Gibe III dam, the World Bank indirectly supports the project by financing the $684 million worth, 1,000-kilometer-long transmission line from Ethiopia to Kenya [11]

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Grand Ethiopian Reinassance Dam, Ethiopia
State or province:Benishangul-Gumuz Region
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Water access rights and entitlements
Land acquisition conflicts
Interbasin water transfers/transboundary water conflicts
Aquaculture and fisheries
Dams and water distribution conflicts
Specific commodities:Electricity
Project Details and Actors
Project details

The dam is located approximately 500 km north-west of Addis Ababa, in the region of Benishangul-Gumaz, along the Blue Nile. Being 1,800 m long, 155 m high and with a total volume of 74,000 million m3, is the largest dam in Africa. The reservoir covers a surface of 1,680 km2. It consists in a main Roller Compacted Concrete (RCC) dam, with two power station at the foot of the dam, positioned on the right and left banks of the river. 16 Francis turbines constitute the 6,000 MW of installed capacity, with an estimated power production of 15,000 GWh/year. The project is completed by a 15,000 m3/s capacity concrete spillway and a rockfill saddle dam 5 km long and 50 m high, both located on the left bank. [12]

Project area:168,000
Level of Investment for the conflictive project4,800,000,000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:20,000
Company names or state enterprises:Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo) from Ethiopia
Salini Impregilo from Italy
International and Finance Institutions International Finance Corporation (of World Bank) (IFC)
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:International Rivers
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageLATENT (no visible resistance)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
International ejos
Local scientists/professionals
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Objections to the EIA
Public campaigns
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Global warming, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Potential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Desertification/Drought, Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation
Health ImpactsPotential: Malnutrition, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..), Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution, Deaths
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Other socio-economic impacts
Potential: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Increase in violence and crime, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Militarization and increased police presence, Social problems (alcoholism, prostitution, etc..), Specific impacts on women
Other socio-economic impactsPoverty enhancement
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Criminalization of activists
Institutional changes
New legislation
Strengthening of participation
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
geopolitical water conflict
Proposal and development of alternatives:International rivers proposes [2]: (i) that Ethiopia sits 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 (ii) an independent ESIA would help inform the creation of a feasible transboundary river basin management plan (iii) discussions should also include plans to create sufficient access to information on the developments, consult with communities, and ensure compensation for displaced communities (iv) renewable alternatives to hydropower energy in Ethiopia certainly exist. 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. 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. 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. 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. Estimated geothermal resource potential for power generation is about 5,000 MW.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Human rights has been violated, 20,000 people have been resettled with force, negative impacts on the environment are going to be experimented and 1,680 square kilometers of forest has been submerged by an over-sized reservoir that is not bringing any benefits to the Ethiopian citizens neither in short or long term. The dam is at the center of a huge dispute and a water conflict of geopolitical importance among countries sharing the Nile river basin. The only hope is that it will be taken as an occasion for future cooperation on the Nile basin governance by the involved countries. As today, it seems that Ethiopia is using the dam just as strategic political tool to empower its position in the region
Sources & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[8] Lossow, T., Roll, S. (2015) Egypt’s Nile Water Policy under Sisi. German Institute for International and Security Affairs. ISSN 1861-1761. Accessed: 18th February 2017
[click to view]

[9] Salman, S. (2016) The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: the road to the declaration of principles and the Khartoum document. Water International, Volume 41 - Issue 4. Accessed: 18th February 2017
[click to view]

[1] Hussein, H. (2014). Egypt and Ethiopia spar over the Nile. Al Jazeera America. Accessed: 18th February 2017
[click to view]

[2] International Rivers (2017). 5 Myths Surround the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
[click to view]

[2] International Rivers (2014) The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Fact Sheet. Accessed: 18th February 2017
[click to view]

[3] International Rivers (2013) Ethiopia’s Biggest Dam Oversized, Experts Say. Accessed: 18th February 2017
[click to view]

[4] Ecc Platform. Disputes over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Adelphi. Accessed: 18th February 2017
[click to view]

[5] ABC (2013) Egyptian politicians caught discussing plan to sabotage Ethiopian dam. Accessed: 18th February 2017
[click to view]

[7] The Economist (2016). Sharing the Nile. Accessed: 18th February 2017
[click to view]

[10] Halawa, O. (2015) Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam: Five sticking key issues into 2016. Ahramonline. Accessed: 18th February 2017
[click to view]

[11] Bosshard, P. (2012). World Bank to Fund Gibe III Dam through the Backdoor? International Rivers. Accessed: 18th February 2017
[click to view]

[12] Salini Impregilo (2014) Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project. Accessed: 18th February 2017
[click to view]

[13] Al Jazeera

Ethiopia starts electricity production at Blue Nile mega-dam
[click to view]

[6[ UPI (2014) Egypt plans dam-busting diplomatic offensive against Ethiopia. Accessed: 18th February 2017
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Al Jazeera, 2015. Inside Story - Ethiopia's dam: a source of conflict or cooperation?
[click to view]

You Tube channel of WeBuild

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: Pietro Salini speech for the start up of the first turbine
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:AB - ICTA/UAB
Last update21/06/2017
Conflict ID:2643
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Legal notice / Aviso legal
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