Geography in the News: Ethiopia’s Dam Projects

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM


In addition to Egypt’s latest political turmoil, its government is extremely worried about Ethiopia’s newest dam on the headwaters of the Blue Nile. The Blue Nile is the leading source of water for the north-flowing Nile. Fears in Egypt and the Sudan are that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will radically reduce the Nile’s flow. 

Ethiopia seeks to become a major exporter of electricity. Its leaders are hoping that exports of electricity to neighboring countries within a decade will surpass coffee as a source of revenue. Ethiopia’s latest hydroelectric project (GERD) will reduce the flows to the Nile Valley. Because the Nile is Egypt’s “lifeline” in its desert environment, the dependability of its flows are critical downstream.


When completed, the GERD will be the largest hydroelectric project in Africa, but it wasn’t the first controversial Ethiopian dam. In fact, there have been several such projects. One of the other most recent ones is a huge one called the Gibe III located on the Omo River. Slightly over half finished, the project will displace or impact 500,000 Ethiopians, but it alone will more than double Ethiopia’s power output.

The Gibe III, however, is being constructed on the Omo River of southern Ethiopia. The Omo is a perennial river, meaning it has continuous flow in parts of its bed all year round. With its course completely contained within the boundaries of Ethiopia, no other country depends directly on the Omo’s water (although Kenya shares Lake Turkana).

The Blue Nile, on the other hand, is the source of as much as 60 percent of the Nile’s water. Egypt and the Sudan, lying downstream, depend on the Blue Nile’s water to replenish the Nile’s flow and maintain the levels of Lake Nasser (contained by the Aswan High Dam) in southern Egypt and northern Sudan. Silt from the seasonal flooding of the Blue Nile historically replenished the floodplain soils downstream, helping Egypt become one of the world’s first civilizations. The dams on the Nile have largely stopped the movements of silt in modern times. The GERD will also halt the flooding and contain much of the silt, but it will also hold back considerable water until the lake is filled. Herein lies the problem for the Nile downstream.

The projected size of the GERD reservoir is immense and realistically may take up to 20 years to completely fill with water after it is completed. Ethiopia, however, intends to fill it in just five years, although the rainfall is very erratic in the Ethiopian Highlands. Attempting to fill it in five years, on average, would consume as much as 20 percent of the Blue Nile’s annual flow, which would be a disaster to downstream farmers.

Alternatively, trying to capture the waters only from the wet season (June-September) would require decades, according to estimates. Because the reservoir will be located at relatively high elevation compared with the lower desert location of Lake Nasser, its evaporation rate will be significantly lower. 

Currently, almost all of Ethiopia’s electricity generation is hydroelectric. Therefore, when severe drought occurs, as it did in 2003, power outages are frequent. Power outages often result in loss of economic productivity for the country. In 2003 alone, those losses added up to an estimated $200 million, representing 3.2 percent of the gross national product (GNP).

Currently, very few Ethiopians have access to electricity. Of Ethiopia’s rural population, which is approximately 85 percent of the country’s total, less than two percent have access to the electrical grid.

Through ambitious projects like the Gibe III and GERD, Ethiopia’s government, with support of China and others, is trying to expand electricity access to the country’s rural masses. Unfortunately, the incredible poverty in the rural areas may keep people from accessing electricity even if it is available.

The controversies surrounding the Gibe III and GERD dams in Ethiopia are familiar to many developing countries of the world. Governments hoping to increase their country’s revenue and benefit the masses often implement such large-scale projects. Sadly, displaced indigenous populations and impacts outside the region are often overlooked in the name of progress and a “new economy.”

 Egypt may object strongly to a 20 percent decline in water to the Nile.

 And that is Geography in the NewsTM.

Sources: GITN 1065 Ethiopia’s Newest Dam Controversy, Oct. 29, 2010;;; and The Christian Science Monitor, Sharing the coveted Nile, July 8 &15, 2013.

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM  is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.


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Meet the Author
Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..