A Western anti-dam group joined Egypt’s campaign against the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam.

The American-based International Rivers – better known for its campaign against another Ethiopian dam, Gibe III dam – issued a statement last week urging that the construction of the Renaissance dam be halted. The group claims to have based its position on a “leaked document”; that is the Final Report of the International Panel of Experts (IPOE) on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam.

The 10-member Panel comprised six national experts – from Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt – and another four international experts. Ethiopia proposed the formation of the Panel a month after the launch of the Renaissance dam. However, the Panel didn’t hold its first meeting until May 2012, as Egypt dragged the assignment process.

International Rivers’ incorrectly calls the Panel an “oversight” body, even if the Panel was established with the mandate of reviewing the project documents and building trust and confidence between Ethiopia and the downstream countries.

The Panel submitted its 800plus pages final report on May 2013 to the three countries as a confidential document. Thus, the report has never been released to the public. That report was immediately accepted by Ethiopia and Sudan reaffirmed its support for the dam project shortly after. Whereas Egypt continues to question the report, at the same demands the implementation of the recommendations in the report.

It is only a portion – 54 pages – of the report that was leaked to International Rivers. Though that portion provides a summary of the entire report, it makes several references to the rest of hundreds of pages; thereby necessitating a reading of the full report.

International Rivers claims that the report concluded that the Renaissance dam is based on “piecemeal preliminary studies and design documents, with only a very basic analysis of how the project would affect downstream neighbors”, that the “construction on the project is proceeding on an aggressively accelerated schedule with little room for adjusting key elements of dam design to reduce harm or prevent problems”, and that “the process seems chaotic and incomplete”.

However, a thorough reading of the document indicates that International Rivers have made a gross misrepresentation the document – either by design or by accident.

Renaissance Dam’s designs

The anti-dam group claimed that the Panel dismissed the basic design of the Renaissance dam. A “summary” of the Report presented by the anti-dam group reads:

Quality of project documents: The present design criteria are “quite general, and do not include project- and site-specific conditions … The most essential geotechnical, seismological, hydro-geological, hydrological, hydraulic and structural design data should be compiled into a consolidated report and not scattered in numerous design reports.”

However, upon a careful reading of the Report, it becomes clear that the anti-dam group cherry-picked and assembled phrases from different sections of the report.

The relevant sections of the Panel’s Report read:

The present document “Design Criteria-Basic Design, December 2010” is of general nature and does not include project- and site specific conditions. Such basic design criteria are acceptable as an early general guideline at the beginning of the GERDP. This report needs to be updated and detailed as well as to reflect the the prevailing geological, geotechnical, seismological, hydro-geological, hydrological and hydraulic conditions at the site of the GERDP.

It is noted that the present Design Criteria refer to a number of International Standards, Codes and Guidelines including ICOLD and USACE which is appreciated.

In view of the fact that the construction of the GERDP is already ongoing and most of the corresponding geotechnical field and laboratory investigations are completed, it is highly recommended that the “Design Criteria-Basic Design, December 2010” is refined and detailed as well as updated to reflect the actual project- and site specific conditions known today. The most essential geotechnical, seismological, hydro-geological, hydrological, hydraulic and structural design data should be compiled into a consolidated report and not scattered in numerous design reports.”

In other words, the Panel saw no flaw with the reports submitted, given the stage of the project at that time. The recommendations were made only because of “the fact that the construction of the GERDP is already ongoing and most of the corresponding geotechnical field and laboratory investigations are completed.”

It is only the “experts” at International Rivers who might assume that every single aspect of the project design could have been completed before the launch of the project. In a recent visit the construction site, Horn Affairs learnt from the chief Engineers that it was after the diversion of the river course that “all possible areas of unknown became known” (as it became possible to make more studies and concretize the river bed without the distraction of the water flow).

The anti-dam group also misquoted the Panel as saying that: “The project’s main design report is outdated and does not reflect numerous and significant design changes to the project.”

It was not clear from which page of the report that International Rivers took the quote. After several reading of the document, we found the following section from which the anti-dam group might have gotten the idea. The Panel’s comment on the Main Report of the dam reads as follows:

The present Main Report (Volume I) is a preliminary project report which was prepared by the EPC-Contractor at the beginning of the GERDP. This report provides a general understanding of the GERDP and reflects the status some 2.5 years ago. In view of essential design modifications and/or changes introduced during these past years the present report is outdated…..In view of the scale and importance of the GERDP, it is strongly recommended to prepare an updated version of the Main Report, reflecting modifications and changes introduced so far.

“the original design(2010) of the GERDP was changed due to various new hydrological, geological and geotechnical findings….In view of the scale and importance of the GERDP, it is strongly recommended to prepare an updated version of the main report, reflecting all the modification and changes introduced so far.

The essence of the above-quoted statement is nothing but a reminder for an updating of the studies in light of the findings in the process of the construction. Notice that: The suggested updates became possible only because the on-going construction made available new hydrological, geological and geotechnical data.

Furthermore, the Panel said, in its review of the ” Main Dam Stability Analysis, Version A, July 2012 and Version C March 2013″ documents that:

The present updated Design Report is well prepared and detailed design report in view of the Level 1 design stage which will be refined and updated for construction purposes. ….It is noted that the present updated stability analysis (version “C”) and its results is endorsed as a Level 1 Design document, provided few topics addressed in the updated review.

Whereas the anti-dam group claimed to have consulted an expert for the review of the Panel’s Report, we can safely bet that that expert was probably with an eight grader English language skills or blinded by Egyptian lobby.

International Rivers claimed that:

[The Panel’s Report] do question some assumptions on the project’s “shear strength” and raise concerns about sliding, seepage and other safety issues.

However, the relevant text on the Panel’s report (regarding Main dam stability wedge analysis) reads as follows:

when studying and considering the long term stability of a rock foundation the residual shear strength of the joint system shall be used instead of the peak shear strength. This procedure and approach is recommended by ICOLD and other professional organizations is the only reliable parameter.

For the Level 1 design stage the methodology applied (2-D wedge analysis) is endorsed in principle. However, the shear strength parameters used in the analysis are considered too optimistic in view of long-term stability aspects. Therefore, the EPC contractor/designer has to reassess has to re-assess its original judgment, taken into account the results of its previous studies. Structural measures might be needed to stabilize the foundation to achieve the required safety against sliding.

As you can understand from the above-quoted text, “shear strength” is not a reference to the dam rather the soil beneath it. The Panel was simply commenting on how to calculate the resistance of the soil on which the dam is built. And, that it is better to calculate minimal capacity of the soil. (You will get a better grasp from this link).

Surprisingly, International Rivers mistook “shear strength” for “sheer strength”, then sheered into making armature statements.

Environmental impact

Despite International Rivers’ posturing as an environmental activist, its presentation of the relevant facts defies common sense and fairness.

Take a look at the following quote from the Panel’s Report regarding its findings and recommendation on the Hydrological and simulation study of the Renaissance dam presented by Ethiopia. (International Rivers cherry-picked only the underlined phrases):

[The Hydrological and simulation study] reflects a preliminary attempt to assess the downstream impacts of the GERDP on water resources and power generation, both during initial impoundment and under regular operation. No detail is given on the simulation model software that was used. The analysis presented is very basic, and not vet at a level of detail, sophistication and reliability that would beneflt a development of this magnitude, importance and with such regional impact as the GERDP.

[I believe any reader can comprehend that the above-quote indicates limitations not with regard to the entire project rather only with regard to the impact on downstream.]

Similarly, International Rivers cherry-picks the sentence “no upstream developments are taken into account, and no downstream flow records … are given as would be needed to assess downstream impacts” from the Panel’s Report regarding the Hydrology report submitted by Ethiopia.

However, it deliberately skipped the subsequent qualifying statement: “this information is partially covered in the simulation report”

Again, International Rivers claimed that: “The panel notes that the hydrological report uses questionable estimates of evaporation from the reservoir.”

However, what the Panel concluded was that: “Although the estimated net evaporation is of the right order, the estimation is not sufficiently conclusive.”

In fact, this is what the Panel’s commented regarding Ethiopia’s Environmental and Social impact Assessment (ESIA):

In terms of structure and content, the ESIA satisfies the recommendations of most international funding agencies……The ESIA provides comprehensive information on the existing water quality of the Abbay/Blue Nile River and its main tributaries feeding the proposed GERD reservoir, and provides a water quality forecast in terms of eutrophication risk, based on classical empirical models.

However, the most important water quality issue, which concerns the reduction of dissolved oxygen because of the decay of flooded vegetation and soil, is not adequately addressed in the report. The Impact is considered in the ESIA as insignificant because vegetation clearance will be carried out prior to first impoundment. The IPoE expresses reservation on such conclusions.

Concluding Remarks:

It shall be noted that Ethiopia completed implementing her part of the Panel’s recommendations by December 2012 – six months after the Panel submitted its report. The rest awaits Egyptian cooperation.

The last quote from the Panel’s Report indicates nothing but the Panel’s concern with the Renaissance dam’s impact on downstream countries. In fact, the panel recommended for a “comprehensive study in the context of the Eastern Nile System”.

There is nothing wrong with that.

However, what the world should understand is that Ethiopia is neither capable nor obliged of conducting a detailed impact assessment of the Renaissance dam inside Egypt without the cooperation Egypt.

In fact, I shall add Ethiopia has no moral obligation to worry about the water-wasting rice farms of Egypt.

As the Panel’s Report noted:

“[the Renaissance dam] will increase the overall regulation capacity of the Eastern Nile Basin by about 50,000 Mm’ which will add resilience to impacts of climate extremes including droughts and floods.”

That suffices to guarantee Egyptians’ legitimate worry for basic water supply.

The rest could be a matter on which International Rivers’ Egyptian financiers and experts may lose sleep over.


Daniel Berhane

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