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The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: Sustainable Development or Not?

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) broke ground on the Blue Nile River on April 2, 2011. With expected completion in 2017, it will be the largest dam in Africa. The GERD has the potential to transform Ethiopia into an energy exporter, driving needed economic growth, but at what cost?

In a report for her Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) directed study project, Aurora Swanson analyzed the GERD according to sustainable development characteristics as they relate to Ethiopia’s economic, social and environmental health and stability. Dams are not automatically unsustainable, but the planning and design of such projects must include proactive consideration of the needs of all affected stakeholders and a deep understanding of the possible consequences. New projects need to be examined carefully, especially if taking place on a sensitive landscape with the potential for far-reaching cumulative effects.

The most recent growth strategy plan developed by the Ethiopian government is called the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), and focuses on water and energy development initiatives for the agricultural sector. Thus, the government has been touting this project’s expected benefits, but there has been little to no recognition of the potential harms that could befall the communities near the dam. Its clandestine planning and the unilateral approach taken by the Ethiopian government leaves its footprint and potential consequences unexamined. Moreover, there have been contentions between Ethiopia and two key downstream riparians stakeholders, Egypt and Sudan, regarding the use of the Nile waters.

Some say that this is a representation of the obsolete 20th century water development approach, wherein an entity builds a large-scale centralized infrastructure without a deep understanding of the environmental, social and political costs or looking at other options for economic development.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Aurora Swanson is an alumna of the Virginia Tech Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) program and graduated in May 2014. She works at the Congressional Budget Office analyzing budgets for water resources and housing finance programs.