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Ethiopia launches construction of massive power plant

February 15, 2011 (ADDIS ABABA) - The Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo) has launched the construction of a massive hydroelectric generation plant in Benishangul state, very close to the Sudanese border, according to an Ethiopian newspaper.

The construction of the dam on the Blue Nile River has been awarded to Italian multinational Salini Costruttori SPA, anonymous sources told the Fortune newspaper.

Salini Costruttori SPA is the same Italian construction company that built the Gilgel Gibe II and Tana Beles dams. The Ethiopian government has been accused of awarding the projects to the same company without a competitive international tender. Opponents say it was negotiated directly with Salini, in violation to government’s own procurement guidelines.

The company has already begun deploying heavy construction machinery to the site, located 40 kilometers away from the Sudanese border. The project has not been made official so far and EEPCo officials have declined to comment on the project.

Secretly known as “project x” by Ethiopian authorities, upon completion, the power plant will have an electric generation capacity of 6,000MW, three times more than what all its dams currently operation could generate.

This generating capacity will be a significant boost for the Ethiopian Electric Power Company (EEPCO), which intendeds to end the country’s electricity shortage and plans to extend export power to other countries in East Africa.

Expected to take at least five years to be completed, the dam is one of three the Horn of Africa nation plans to begin building before mid 2011. Three other power plants, which have been under construction in the past few years, are expected to become functional in 2011.

Ethiopia considers itself an African powerhouse due to its high hydropower potential. However, experts say only a fraction of this potential has been exploited so far.

In 2009, less than 10 percent of Ethiopians had access to electricity and the country was plagued by power outages. In order to overcome this situation, the government has embarked on an ambitious power plant building program also as part of the recently launched ‘5 year development and transformation plan’.

The successful completion of this project power is hoped to increase the current electric power provision capacity of the country to 8,000 MW from the current rate of 2000 MW.

Ethiopia has plans to export power to its neighbors Sudan, Kenya, Djibouti and even across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen.

The government says the benefits of the dams are not limited to hydropower. Many dams are multi-purpose dams that are also designed to provide water for irrigation and flood control.

Almost all Ethiopia’s power plants lie either in the Nile River basin or on the Omo River. Both rivers are shared with Ethiopia’s neighbors and for none of them an international water sharing agreement exists. However, Ethiopia does participate in the Nile Basin Initiative, a forum for dialogue with the other Nile basin countries.

While hydropower does not consume water, the filling (impoundment) of reservoirs reduces the previous water flow. In addition, evaporation from the reservoir surfaces constitutes a permanent loss of water from the river. Irrigation also consumes water making it unavailable for it to be used downstream.

The Blue Nile joins the White Nile at its confluence in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. The Atbara River joins the Nile in north of Khartoum at the town of the same name. Ethiopia has no agreement with Egypt or Sudan about the sharing of the Nile’s water. Egypt says that its historic water rights would be violated by dams in Ethiopia and that its water security would be affected.

Egypt and Sudan concluded a water sharing treaty in 1959. The agreement does not consider the water rights of other Nile riparian states and has never been recognized by Ethiopia. It is not known exactly to what extent the dams in Ethiopia will reduce the flow of water to Sudan and Ethiopia.

According to studies, assuming an evaporation rate of one meter per year, an irrigated area of 200,000 hectares and a combined reservoir area of 1,000 square kilometers, the flow of the Nile could be reduced by three billion cubic meters per year, equivalent to about 5 percent of the current allocation of Egypt under the 1959 agreement.

The Omo River flows to Lake Turkana in Kenya. Kenya has not expressed concerns about downstream impacts on Lake Turkana, although two environmental organizations, Friends of Lake Turkana and International Rivers, challenged the project in terms of its ecological soundness arguing that it threatens biodiversity in the Omo River and Lake Turkana,

The organizations also argue that it endangers the lives of large populations whose livelihoods depend on the rivers.