Reality-check: Renaissance dam a fraud? | Ethiopia

There is no explicit reference to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam  in the 5-year Growth and Transformation Plan(GTP), the opposition media noted shortly after Premier Meles Zenawi launched the dam project on April 2. In fact, the issue was also raised in the press statements of at least two main opposition parties – AEUP(All Ethiopia Unity Party) and UDJP(Unity for Democracy and Justice).

As usual Berhanu Nega, leader of Ginbot 7, took the matter to the extreme and by listing it as one of the demands he drafted for Addis Ababa youth, whom he urged in vain to wage a ‘day of rage’ on May 28. It was in a meeting with OLF and ONLF, in Atlanta, on April 23 that Berhanu Nega announced the demands, dubbed ‘fundamental issues of the struggle’. Of which, one is:

Woyane [the gov’t] shall immediately cease the fraud in the name of the GTP , the dam, and others; and return the fundraised so far to the respective donors.

Yet, western journalists and commentators somehow refrained from including the allegation in their analyses of the government and the Nile issue. That is with the exception of  the piece by René Léfort, former correspondent of Le monde, last month. Léfort said, to back-up his claim that the Ethiopian government is engaged in diversionary tactics to avert a revolt:

there is the construction of a gigantic dam on the Nile. Pompously baptized the Millennium Dam or Renaissance Dam, it would be the largest in Africa and the tenth largest in the world. This project suddenly appeared from nowhere, as it is not mentioned in the recently adopted five-year plan.

Government officials have been responding to the allegations. Dep. Prime Minister Desalegn HaileMariam claimed, in a press conference in mid-April, the project idea dates as far as the days of Emperor Haile Selassie. An official of the Ministry of Water Resources, insisted,  when pressed in an interview on VOA Amharic service, he doesn’t believe the GTP was planned without taking the Renaissance dam into consideration as it is been on the drawing table for a while. Though, apparently, he didn’t read the GTP.

A relatively better articulated response came from A Week in the Horn, the weekly press release of the Ministry of Foreign Affair(MFA). In the context of responding to Mr. Léfort’s article, A Week in the Horn claimed, on its June 3 issue:

Its true there is no mention of the Dam by name in the Growth and Transformation Plan, it was kept secret under a code name, but the figures detailing plans for generating 8 to 10 thousand MW of power in the next five years were a giveaway. Anyone following the Prime Minister’s interview with an Arab TV Network, aired in Egypt, might have realized Ethiopia had significant plans for development along the Nile. Equally, planning such a major project takes years, and it’s difficult to see how anyone interested could have missed the preliminary site survey, feasibility study, impact assessment and  designing process, all necessarily predating the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt by some years.

I couldn’t check out the said interview of Prime Minister, thanks to the outstanding internet connection. Yet, I looked into the other two and more weightier claims of the MFA: The planning took years and it was hinted in the GTP.

Of course, the dam project didn’t come from nowhere. Studies for damming the Blue Nile can be traced as far back as the 1960s. Yacob Arsano stated in his doctorial thesis, titled Ethiopia and the Nile Dilemmas of National and Regional Hydro-politics, published in 2007, on page 153-4, that:

The US Government accepted the Ethiopian request, and a formal agreement was signed between the two governments in August 1957…….the joint project, entitled: USA-Ethiopia Cooperative Program for the Study of the [Blue Nile] Basin….proceeded for five years (1959 – 1964), the result of which was a comprehensive report on the hydrology, water quality, hypsography, geology, sedimentation, mineral resources, land resources, ground water and the local socio-economic situation. ……….The Abbay basin study proposed four dams downstream with a total holding capacity of 51 bcm as the annual rate.

In fact, it was under Meles Zenawi’s watch that the master plans were completed. That is again according to Yacob Arsano’s account, on page 166 of the same book, which states:

The current regime of the Ethiopian Peoples’ Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) completed the master plans for the Abbay, Tekeze and Baro-Akobo basins in the 1990s. The Ethiopian water resource management policy and a proclamation for the management of the nation’s water resources have been enacted. A 15-year water sector strategic program has been drawn up for 2002 to 2016…Nevertheless, government plans to embark on major water resource development have remained largely undelivered.

Yet, one may legitimately ask if the government simply pulled a project profile that has been shelved and gathering dust for more than a decade. To this, the MFA responds saying, ‘the figures detailing plans for generating 8 to 10 thousand MW of power in the next five years were a giveaway’. It must be referring to Section 4.4.3 of the GTP,which outlines the electric power generation plan.

The GTP targets to reach a production capacity of 8,000 to 10,000 MW by the year 2014/15 which stood at 2000 MW in 2009/10. In short, a 6,000-8,000 MW additional production capacity is to be created by 2015. Yet, the GTP document, immediately after stating the target, lists 16 plants, to be operational by 2015, with the combined capacity of only 5,715 MW. This is a 285 MW to 2,285 MW difference.

How is the 6,000-8,000 MW additional production capacity to be created while the 16 plants – 8 hydropower, 7 wind power and 1 geothermal – which would be operational by 2015 could only deliver 5,715 MW? That, the MFA claims, is where the Renaissance dam fits in.

[Note that, though the Renaissance dam project is expected to take up to 78 months, two of its fourteen turbines will become operational in 42 months – producing 700 MW. Presumably, more turbines will be operational subsequently.]

Could this be a spin? a manipulation of an originally simple mathematical error? It would be far-fetched to assume such simple error could go unnoticed in a brief document reviewed and discussed by dozens of experts before publication. Yet, one may insist, things happen.

However, the same ‘mathematical error’ can be found in the 5 year plan document of EEPCO (Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation) that was released in mid-2010. The EEPCO 5-year plan appears to have been prepared several months earlier, as it makes no mention of the GTP or to its components, like, the 14.9% high-case growth scenario.

Interestingly, the presentation is even clearer in EEPCO 5-year plan document, thus impossible to miss that the numbers do not add up. A target to produce an additional 6,000-8,000 MW and a tabled lists of 16 power plants with only 5,715 MW capacity to be operational by 2015. A 285 to 2,285 MW gap again!

It is highly implausible to attribute this to chance.

It is no wonder that the government could easily rebut the two allegations, however. As the allegations were far-fetched to begin with.

A more sensible question could be raised, however. Had the government the plan to embark on the construction of the dam this year? In other words, did the government started the project prematurely – for whatever reason?

The answer should have been in the EEPCO’s Corporate plan for year 2010/11(2003 Eth Calendar). The Plan document, written in Amharic, that I downloaded from EEPCO’s website on Dec. 16/2010, makes a reference to ‘Project X’, albeit only once and in brief.

Under the headings Overall Objective – ‘making Ethiopia a powerhouse of east Africa by transforming the power sector’, Specific Objective – ‘reaching 8,000-10,000 MW production capacity’, and Main Activity – ‘power plants construction works’; the plan document states the following goal and tasks( translation mine):

Goal Tasks
Preparation works for project X, which is of more than 5000 MW power generation capacity *set up project office
*carry out works leading to the signing a contract
*carry out monitoring to ensure performance is in line with the timetable and specifications and provide inputs for Monitoring and Supervision officers
*conduct payments, as per the time frame in the contract, for works conducted
*prepare letters of support and cooperation
, and deliver to the concerned bodies, as per the timetable, and follow-up the implementation
*to address issues that arise in relation to the contract within the specified timeframe
*submit reports on time so as to expedite monitoring
*acquire the man power and resources necessary for the project

It appears that by the time of the writing of the plan most study works, like preliminary site survey, feasibility study, and designing, had been completed as such works shall precede the signing of a contract. Again, the signing of the contract with Salini Costruttori SPA in Nov. 2010 fits with the annual plan.

Furthermore, the building of offices, homes and the like in the project area, which we saw on the national TV, matches with the tasks listed in the annual plan.

Apart from those, I couldn’t make anymore inferences from the tasks listed for Project X. Because, the tasks are more or less the same with the tasks listed for few other power plants, of which some were awarded to a contractor while other were at the stage of negotiation by mid-2010. Moreover, there is no uniform practice on when an inaugural ceremony is held for a project.

Was the April 2 inauguration ceremony in Meles Zenawi’s to-do-list before the Egyptian revolt? An insistent reader might ask. To this, I have no definitive answer.

Yet, speculating on that there are a number of things to be taken into account.

It was on February 6 that Ethiopia’s plan to dam the Nile was leaked to the media. That is about a week before Hoisin Mubarak’s downfall. Well, the ruling party might have expected Mubarak’s fall and became wary of a similar revolt a week in advance. Yet, the Egyptian revolt has much more implications than making EPRDF anxious. It means a weakened Egypt. An important variable in the Nile equation.

It should be noted that Burundi became the seventh signatory of the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement(CFA) after the Egyptian revolt began. It was landmark as it made the CFA legible for the ratification process. That is why for a year Egypt cajoled Burundi not to sign, including allegedly bribing its Ministers. There is a consensus in the Egyptian media that Burundi switched sides due to the revolt seeing that Egypt is unlikely to be able to deliver the assistances it had pledged which already were behind schedule.

Despite what the Ethiopia government claims and the public wishes to believe, the CFA is desperately needed in an international environment dominated by Egypt’s chief sponsor USA and  former colonial master UK, which still insists the 1929 and prior treaties on Nile are valid until replaced by another treaty.

There could be other developments of which we are not yet aware of. Perhaps, a USD 1.6 Bln Chinese loan that The Economist reported in April? Though, the Ethiopia government curiously insists it has no plan to seek foreign finance. Claims by The Economist, or its diplomatic sources, are not always accurate, yet it won’t be surprising if Beijing and Addis Ababa prefer to keep low-profile on the matter.

On second thoughts, it doesn’t matter much which factor, or a combinations of them, made Meles Zenawi pick April 2 as the date to lay the foundation stone with his name inscribed on it. As a politician, he acts with an eye on his public opinion ratings anyway. That is the name of the game. What matters is whether he will be worth his salt and realize a dream of generations, thus deserving of the name of the reservoir, like the late Nasser.

That, as they say, is a million dollar question.


Check out the posts in the Reality-check Archive and the Nile Waters Archive.


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