Ethiopian dams won't cause harm - ex-head of Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority

by E.G. Woldegebriel | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 12 August 2013 13:38 GMT

A man walks over a bridge near the construction site of Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam in Guba Woreda, some 40 km (25 miles) from Ethiopia's border with Sudan, June 28, 2013. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

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Former head of Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Authority says controversial new dams will not cut off water supplies downstream

ADDIS ABABA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – The former head of the Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), now an advisor to the country’s new environment minister, has told Thomson Reuters Foundation that major dam projects will not cut off water supplies downstream nor worsen living conditions for local people.

The EPA was Ethiopia’s main body for environmental regulation and monitoring for nearly two decades after it was established in 1994. The agency – responsible for developing environmental laws and standards – was upgraded last month to become the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Forestry, with a new minister, Belete Tesfa.

E.G. Woldegebriel spoke with Dr. Tewoldebirhan Gebregzabher, the EPA’s former director-general, about its work, as well as his views on cutting emissions, deforestation and controversies surrounding the country’s hydro-electric dam projects.

TRF: Ethiopia plans to have grid electricity by 2014 that will be produced without using fossil fuels. How will it reach that target?

TG: In 2014, when the 1,870 megawatt Gibe III hydro-electric dam starts to generate power, the electricity in the grid system will be entirely from renewable energy. That is from hydro-power primarily, but also from wind power and some geothermal power.

TRF: How would you respond to critics of the Gibe III project who say it endangers the existence of Lake Turkana and will displace thousands of people in southern Ethiopia and northeastern Kenya?

TG: Gibe III is for generating electricity - after it generates electricity, the water will flow to Lake Turkana. I don’t see how it will dry up Lake Turkana. I think it’s either people who mistake hydropower generation with irrigation, or some mischievous individuals who want to cause problems that have been exaggerating.

It’s true that during the filling-up period of the dam, if water was completely stopped, it would prevent water flowing into Lake Turkana from the areas upstream of Gibe III. But that’s not going to happen, because as part of the environmental impact measures, water will continue to flow down and enter into the lake. Therefore, I don’t think there will be any harm.

With regard to displaced people, I think the number is around 100 families. When you consider the employment opportunities it gives - including to them - and the fact that they are being given land and money to resettle, it’s not an issue. There is no development that doesn’t have a negative impact; only a country must be cautious and correct (in its response to) those negative impacts, and (in this case) those negative impacts of displacement are being taken care of.

TRF: Ethiopia contributes about 86 percent of the waters of the River Nile. What is the Ethiopian government doing with its counterparts in downstream Nile Basin countries to assess the impact of the 6000 MW Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project, and to solve potential misunderstandings?

TG: The governments of Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt established a technical workforce that evaluated - and again, for the reasons I described for Gibe III – that the Renaissance Dam isn’t going to stop water from flowing. The water will generate electricity and continue to flow. The technical team who examined it have all agreed that its impact is going to be positive in both Sudan and Egypt.

The reason is that, in summer time, in the heavy rainfall, especially Khartoum (Sudan’s capital) suffers from flooding and this will no longer be the case, because the same water will continue to flow but it will be regulated by the dam. The dam makes sure that the water doesn’t go in one burst, and that it will flow continually throughout the year. Sudan and Egypt will continue getting the water that they have always been getting.      

TRF: Do you think Ethiopia will be able to achieve its vision of becoming a carbon-neutral economy by 2025?

TG: The indications so far are that it will, and I have no reason to think we will slip back, but of course we can only be certain when it happens. I also expect Ethiopia to be the first carbon-neutral economy in Africa - however this isn’t a very easy thing to define in the sense that there are many countries with big forests that existed before and are not considered as valued sinks for carbon. But I think that’s wrong and therefore the forested countries like Democratic Republic of Congo…I believe (are) already carbon neutral.

TRF: Ethiopia’s forest cover is estimated to have fallen to below 3 percent from around 40 percent about a century ago. What is the trend in deforestation?

TG: (The percentage of Ethiopia’s land area covered by forests) was 20 percent 100 years ago… Ethiopia has been an agricultural country for at least the last 5,000 years, and most of its closed (contiguous) forest areas were cleared for crop cultivation….The 40 percent (figure) is only the potential area of the country that could have had (contiguous) forest.

It’s true (that) in the 19th century the forest cover started coming down, and the estimate was that it went down to about 3 percent. But recent estimates show that reforestation programs have been successful and it has been rising. We are planning to make a much more precise measurement soon, but at the moment I wouldn’t be very happy to put a figure on the present forest cover. However I’m absolutely certain it’s more than the 3 percent it had dwindled to.

TRF: What were the main challenges for Ethiopia’s EPA?

TG: The most important was that of capacity - we had more government support than I had expected, but we did not have enough trained staff to meet the demands of the work at hand. And of course, Ethiopia is a poor country, and finance comes next.

TRF: What did Ethiopia take away from the 2012 U.N. climate talks in Doha?

TG: The aspiration that there will be a new legally binding international protocol negotiated by 2015, which will come into force in 2020. It’s so that the whole world can unite and curb climate change - that’s the biggest issue in my view.

TRF: How do you see the likelihood of Ethiopia being able to access climate finance from the fledgling U.N. Green Climate Fund?

TG: The fund has been established, the secretariat is in existence - hopefully then the rich countries will provide the funding they have promised. But we can’t as yet accuse of them of not having provided (money) since the fund has only just started.

TRF: What’s the status of carbon credit schemes that have already been started in some parts of Ethiopia?

TG: The first one was in the Rift Valley region regarding a community forest…there are also others in areas like Bale in southeastern Ethiopia and Welayta in southern Ethiopia. A number of others are in the process. But really in carbon financing, Ethiopia - as the rest of Africa - is a late starter. 

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