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Ethiopia’s hydropower futures: Walking the thin line between energy independence, environmental degradation and conflict

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Ethiopia’s hydropower futures: Walking the thin line between energy independence, environmental degradation and conflict

28th March 2013

By: In On Africa IOA


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Energy independence has become a recurring, yet contested, theme in African politics; especially in East Africa where upwards of 90% of the population has no access to electricity.(2) Consequently, energy independence, in the form of hydroelectricity, is one of several avenues many African states contend could bring about the necessary social and economic changes to move Africa out of poverty. Herein lies the debate that has inflamed proponents and opponents of often contested pharaonic (3) dam projects. The actors form two camps with, on one hand, governments adhering to the claim that energy independence is one of the solutions that can transform several sectors of the economy and, on the other hand, civil society and concerned populations who worry about the long-term environmental impacts of the projects.

This CAI paper discusses how, in Ethiopia, the race for energy independence policies often overlooks the long-term environmental and socioeconomic impacts in favour of politically-driven economic success. Ethiopia is a case in point of how climate variability, notably through rainfall variations, has impacted an economy still strongly based on small-scale subsistence farming.(4) It is these symbiotic relationships between mankind and the environment that are being disrupted by massive hydroelectric projects. This is especially problematic in a country in which agriculture, fisheries and forestry provide 80% of jobs.(5) Finally, the paper proposes that climate variability puts at odds the economic sustainability of these dams, which poses further environmental and socioeconomic security challenges. To support the article, Ethiopia’s most controversial dam, the Gilgel Gibe III Dam, is used.

Learning from the past: Overcoming environmental challenges


The Ethiopian environmental paradox is found throughout the country’s history, notably through cultural and economic exchange. The latter is said to have helped Ethiopia create a wealth that is reflected in the country’s heritage of population migrations and trade routes, along with the intellectual flow of ideas, languages and religion that have shaped Ethiopia over millennia.(6) These interactions often reconciled the relations that united populations with their environment, a process through which Ethiopians have adapted and showed resilience in an often unwelcoming terrain. It is a land that oscillates between extreme altitudes and lush tropical locations; and from highlands to a high plateau region which covers about half the country, divided in its centre by the Great Rift Valley.(7) But geography is not the only variable to consider when it comes down to approaching Ethiopia’s environmental challenges and the role of these in the country’s hydropower future. 

Key to this paradox is how Ethiopia, since it regained its independence in 1941, has carried the weight of years of environmental mismanagement. This mismanagement is mirrored by “environmental degradation, slow technological adaptation, and rural development [that] have deepened rural poverty and vulnerability.”(8) Arguably, these challenges, an inheritance from past regimes under Emperor Haile Selassie and later dictatorships, have hampered Ethiopia’s government’s capacity to adopt forward-looking environmental policies that are inclusive of both socioeconomic concerns and of the damage done to the environment.(9) The results thereof have translated into poor agricultural governance which, in turn, has increased the propensity for food shortages and famines. While documenting evidences of these failing policies, several authors point to a contested March 1975 land reform programme, which they argue had profound and lasting social, institutional and environmental impacts throughout the country.(10) In so doing, the redistribution and reallocation of farmland “failed to raise the socioeconomic status of the rural population, which continued to exploit the environment in a survival mode” throughout the 1970s and 1980s.(11) Despite the Ethiopian Government’s attempts to promote conservation efforts through peasant organised associations, the country witnessed an aggravation and exacerbation of already symptomatic deforestation, overgrazing and other agricultural activities which accelerated soil erosion and, ipso facto, the quality and quantity of watersheds.(12)

Only in the past decade has the Ethiopian Government come to grips with the potential for energy independence in its watersheds, namely through the construction of hydroelectric dams. In the case of the Gibe III project, Ethiopian state officials foresee a better alternative than reliance on foreign aid for socioeconomic development.(13) However, the economic boom linked to energy independence goals continues to brush aside the long-term sustainability of how Ethiopia plans to bring electricity to its population. The task ahead is all the more complicated in a country of 85 million,(14) in which up to 84% of households live in rural areas. Numbers further show that only 2% of these rural households are connected to the electric grid (15) and are dependent on low-productivity subsistence agriculture.(16) Given the role of the environment in shaping Ethiopia’s history, one can only conceive of the latter as the quintessential factor to be taken into consideration for all future hydropower projects. As is shown further in this paper, that is not always the case.

Framing the hydroelectric construction debate

With 12 water basins, Ethiopia certainly has the hydrological resources necessary to produce more than enough electricity for its population.(17) In this regard, the Gilgel Gibe III Dam hydroelectric project on the Omo River has garnered the most international attention. The Gibe III is slated to generate upwards of 1,870 megawatts (MW).(18) Notwithstanding these enormous figures, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, is yet another hydroelectric dam set to generate upwards of 5,250 MW, which would put electricity production way beyond Ethiopia’s actual energy needs.(19) Adding to these figures, the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo) estimates the country’s potential energy output from hydropower at 45,000 MW.(20) In and of itself, energy production is the gamble taken by the Ethiopian Government on future prospects of exporting its electricity to neighbouring countries.(21)

However promising these government endeavours, often punctuated by vibrant official public speeches, they hardly, if ever, address the underlying issues that often accompany such construction projects. Instead, they paint a very blurry canvas of the social and environmental impacts on the population.(22) The result is a dyadic discourse that fuels the debate between, on the one hand, Ethiopian authorities and their backers, and grassroots movements supported by international agencies on the other hand. This is the major paradox of Ethiopian energy independence: how to reconcile a country so rich in renewable water resources thanks to extensive watersheds, while avoiding mistakes of the past in terms of environmental degradations.

Environmental catastrophe in the making: A repeat of history

In the case of the Ethiopian Government, good governance or lack thereof, like in many other African nations, remains at the heart of effective environmental policies. Largely documented in Human Rights Watch reports, the legitimacy of a government that has upped the monitoring, restrictions and censoring of any news that may potentially criticise government officials or government policies has been questioned.(23) In so doing, the Ethiopian Government runs away from its civil accountability to the people by promulgating a political system of repression that has clamped down on any attempts by independent civil society and environmental activists to bring the energy independence debate and its environmental impact to the table.(24)

Arguably, one of the most outspoken opponents to the Gibe III project is certainly the organisation International Rivers, which works “to protect rivers and the rights of communities that depend on them.”(25) Building on a long expertise in water, energy and climate policies, International Rivers has catalogued, through several papers, the effects of the dam projects on environmental and human security.(26) International Rivers’ assessment is in line with that of other agencies’ reports that point to the Gibe III as an environmental and social catastrophe in the making.(27) Their latest report, published in January 2013, warns of even greater danger for the whole Lower Omo Basin. It warns of “a cascade of hydrological, ecological and socio-economic impacts that will generate a region-wide crisis for indigenous livelihoods and biodiversity and thoroughly destabilize the Ethiopia-Kenyan borderlands” by impacting the natural flood cycles, Lake Turkana’s water level and surrounding environment and biodiversity.(28) The latter would not only alter the rich ecosystem, but also impact the lives of the eight tribes estimated at 200,000 people in the Lower Omo River, who rely on “agro-pastoral and fishing livelihoods” for their survival.(29) It points to the danger of transforming the “Omo Valley into an agro-industrial powerhouse” by allowing the developments of massive sugar plantations and by allocating traditional “pasturage in the Lower Omo to foreign firms.”(30) The report further underlines the social impact of “resettling 1.5 million people in four regions,”(31) which, considering Ethiopia’s disastrous past history of failed resettlements, does not bode well for the numerous tribes inhabiting these regions.(32)

Another dam that has been the source for growing environmental and social concerns is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, whose construction was announced in April 2011. Given the infancy status of the construction advancements, it is still too early to draw conclusions on future environmental impact of this particular project. However, the project’s sheer size and cost (US$ 4.5 billion) are a lot for Ethiopia’s weak economy to bear alone.(33) The cost alone has forced the country to issue ‘dam bonds’ in massive publicity campaigns at home and among foreign buyers.(34) Similarly, Ethiopia’s hydroelectric roadmap is in conflict with a previous International Monetary Fund (IMF) report which estimates that 40% of all overseas development assistance and concessional finance is “the proportion of the investment that is sensitive to climate risk.”(35) These risks are legitimised by unforeseen climate futures and a dependence on seasonal rainfall that could be disastrous for Ethiopia’s economic future, as well as a destabilising factor in the regional geopolitical map by influencing the Nile’s flow towards Egypt.(36)

What emerges is a salience built around environmental, social and economic interests. An often impoverished population, faced by government pressure and coercion, finds no means to make its voice heard unless it reaches out or is helped by civil society or international agencies. The causes of discontent are not essentially focused on building an argument against energy independence as much as they are based on the fact that local populations are oftentimes the last ones to be consulted and, arguably for socioeconomic reasons, the least likely to benefit from these projects. The Gibe III Dam, like many other large scale hydroelectric dams under construction around the country, is being sold to the public as Ethiopia’s economic gift to its people. At the same time, the Ethiopian Government downplays, when it does not ignore, the potential lasting environmental and socioeconomic impacts that are at the core of contestation. These grievances do not find much echo on the official Ethiopian side, which refutes all contestation by singling out international agencies and independent reports as public agitators “want[ing] everything but the good of our country.”(37)

What energy futures? Ignoring the shadow of climate change and conflict

Equally important issues are also found in economic and social variables which, for the purpose of brevity, cannot be developed in this paper, but are either directly or indirectly linked to the environment and impact thereupon. While the paper has only scratched the surface of a complex issue, the fact remains that Ethiopia’s foray into expanding its hydroelectric production requires that environmental concerns and impacts over the long-term not be taken lightly. Beyond the ambitious economic plans that the Ethiopian Government so feverishly defends, environmental costs have remained hidden from public debate. This is all the more intriguing when one considers the plethora of contemporary environmental-linked challenges comprising, to name a few, climate change, water access, food insecurity and agrarian reforms in an already conflict and famine prone East and Horn of Africa; all representing variables to which Ethiopia is no stranger.(38)

Concluding remarks

Ethiopia, despite its abundance in watersheds (dependent on seasonal rainfall), remains a country of contrasts that pits old-fashioned political elite grasp over resources and dreams of a Grand Ethiopia against the harsh reality endured by the vast majority of its population. This is a discourse in which environmental and socioeconomic variables, aided by a multitude of variables that the Ethiopian Government has not addressed nor can claim to control, may eventually clash into uncontrollable violent crisis in the affected and peripheral regions of the Gibe III Dam.(39) This is demonstrated in Ethiopia’s history in which the ghosts of past conflicts and famines, driven by a combination of ethnic tensions, migrations and climate change, along with environmental degradation, can quickly come back to haunt the most feverish politicians.(40)

In the meantime, Ethiopia’s energy policies continue unabated with the Gibe IV and Gibe V dams already in the planning stages. Ultimately, energy solutions aimed at addressing the electricity needs of the population may be found in smaller electricity generating projects or even through the exploration of alternative resources such as solar energy, which is also abundant in Ethiopia and fitting to small community needs. This is all the more important when meaningful socioeconomic development, be it hydroelectric or solar, translates into policies in which environmental and social challenges can truly be integrated in sustainable long-term energy policies.

Written by Sébastien Jadot (1)


(1) Contact Sébastien Jadot through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Enviro Africa Unit ( This CAI discussion paper was developed with the assistance of Angela Kariuki and was edited by Liezl Stretton.
(2) Otieno, H. and Awange, J., 2006. Energy resources in East Africa: Opportunities and challenges. Springer: Berlin.
(3) Pharaonic refers to a construction that is enormous in size or magnitude. Merrian-Webster,
(4) Trocolli, A., 2009. Management of weather and climate risk in the energy industry. Springer: Dordrecht.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Levine, D., 2000. Greater Ethiopia: The evolution of a multiethnic society. University of Chicago Press: Chicago.
(7) Nyssen, J., et al., 2004. Environmental policy in Ethiopia: A rejoinder to Keeley and Scoone. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 42(1), pp. 137-147.
(8) Patterson, K., ‘Integrating population, health, and environment in Ethiopia’, Population Reference Bureau, 2007,
(9) Mequanent, G. and Taylor, D., 2001. “Decentralization and local autonomy: Regional planning in Ethiopia”, in Kumssa, A. and McGee, T. (eds.). New regional development paradigms: Decentralization, governance, and the new planning for local-level development. Greenwood Publishing Group: Westport.
(10) See for example Tedla, S. and Lemma, K., ‘Environmental management in Ethiopia: Have the national conservation plans worked?’, Organization for Social Science Research in Eastern and Southern Africa, October 1998,;  Ofcansky, T. and Berry, L., 2004. Ethiopia a country study. Kessinger Publishing: Whitefish; Kloos, H. and Legesse, W., 2010. Water resources management in Ethiopia: Implications for the Nile Basin. Cambria Press: Amherst.
(11) Kloos, H. and Legesse, W., 2010. Water resources management in Ethiopia: Implications for the Nile Basin. Cambria Press: Amherst.
(12) Ofcansky, T. and Berry, L., 2004. Ethiopia a country study. Kessinger Publishing: Whitefish.
(13) Note that the Gibe III Dam is one of five Gilgel Gibe dams that have been commissioned to be built on the Omo River and Gilgel Gibe River.
(14) ‘Ethiopia’, The World Bank,
(15) Dejeneh, A., ‘Integrated natural resources management to enhance food security: The case of community-based approaches in Ethiopia’, FAO Working Paper No. 16, July 2003,
(16) ‘Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia’, WHO, May 2011,
(17) Awulachew, S., et al., 2007. Water resources and irrigation development in Ethiopia, working paper 123. International Water Management Institute: Colombo.
(18) ‘Ethiopia on track to complete first mega-dams by 2015-minister’, Reuters, 12 November 2012,
(19) Ibid.
(20) ‘GIBE III hydroelectric project - executive summary environmental and social impact assessment’, Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation, March 2009,
(21) ‘The dam speech’, Grand Millennium Dam, 2 April 2011,
(22) Briscoe, J., 1999. The financing of hydropower, irrigation and water supply infrastructure in developing countries.  International Journal of Water Resources Development, 15(4), pp. 459-491.
(23) ‘Ethiopia’, Human Rights Watch, January 2010,
(24) Ibid.
(25) ‘About international rivers’, International Rivers,
(26) Ibid.
(27) Carr, C., ‘A commentary on the environmental, socioeconomic and human rights impacts of the proposed Gibe III Dam in the Lower Omo River Basin of Ethiopia’,  Africa Resources Working Group (ARWG), January 2009,; Johnston, K., ‘Kenya assessment – Ethiopia’s Gibe III hydropower project trip report (June - July 2010), USAID,
(28) ‘The downstream impacts of Ethiopia’s Gibe III Dam: East Africa’s “Aral Sea” in the making?’, International Rivers, January 2013,
(29) Ibid.
(30) Ibid.
(31) Ibid.
(32) For additional coverage on the issues affecting the populations along the Omo River, consult the following websites  ‘The Omo Valley tribes’, Survival International,; ‘Ethiopia: Pastoralists forced off their land for sugar plantations’, Human Rights Watch, 18 June 2012,
(33) Davison, D., ‘IMF urges Ethiopia to slow Nile Dam project to protect economy’, Bloomberg, 14 September 2012,
(34) ‘Buy the dam bond!’, Grand Millennium Dam,
(35) ‘Clean energy and development: Towards an investment framework’, DC2006-002 Annex K, World Bank, 5 April 2006,
(36) ‘Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’, International Rivers,
(37) ‘Weekly Horn Africa’, Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, September-October 2010, and
(38) Tamer, A., et al., ‘Climate change, vulnerability and human mobility: Perspectives of refugees from the east and horn of Africa’, UNHCR, 2012,
(39) Some of these variables were first highlighted in the seminal work published in 1991 by Homer-Dixon entitled ‘On the threshold: Environmental changes as causes of state conflict’. Homer-Dixon details how “environmental stresses and the conflicts they induce may encourage the rise of revolutionary regime” but also how these “pressures might overwhelm the management capacity of institutions in developing countries.” Such variables are beyond the scope of this article but are an important starting point in addressing how hydroelectric projects fit into the environmental change and acute conflict debate at the intrastate level and its periphery. Ethiopia’s porous borders on the disputed Ilemi Triangle is an example which could see local groups displaced from their homeland converge out of Ethiopia into more fertile lands across the border into  Kenya and South Sudan. See Homer-Dixon, T., 1991. On the threshold: Environmental changes as causes of acute conflict. International Security, 16(2), pp. 76-116.
(40) Over a decade ago, Robert Kaplan had already forewarned about the upcoming danger of environmental challenges resulting in forced migration and resettlements as variables for ethnic tensions and conflict likelihood. See Kaplan, R., 2000. The coming anarchy: Shattering the dreams of the post Cold War. Random House: New York.


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