Blog: Hydropower development in Ethiopia to attain sustainable growth

Hydropower based development in Ethiopia provides a gateway to economic transformation through industrialisation, urbanisation and through the provision of access to modern energy to rural areas, writes Hon Seleshi Bekele, Minister of Water, Irrigation and Electricity.

Renewable energy provides one of the most effective strategies to simultaneously promote clean development, sustainable access and energy security with its irreplaceable role in climate change mitigation at all levels.


Gibe III dam, Ethiopia. Credit: Salini Impregilo.

Today, more than two-thirds of the world’s renewable electricity comes from hydropower dams. Investment in hydropower generation very often has multiple water resources development benefits. It has a benefit to provide regulation and storage structure, enhance capacity to mitigate the adverse impact of climate change resulting in pronounced flood and drought, play crucial roles in stabilising the energy mix, easily take peak loads, and enable access to relatively cheap electricity in many countries of Africa.

Hydropower generation can serve as a catalyst and entry point for regional collaboration, regional integration and the formation of broader regional markets and industrialisation in trans-boundary rivers. It also provides a platform for inter-riparian win-win cooperation to engage in terms of energy and power trade, in the coordination and regulation of water infrastructure, and in the maintenance and rehabilitation of ecosystems.

In the past two decades, electric power development policies and activities have played a pivotal role in achieving economic growth and prosperity in Ethiopia with the ultimate goal of facilitating regional economic cooperation and integration through the additional mission of interconnecting neighbouring countries with electricity.

Hydropower is also sensitive to climate change because of its dependence on river runoff, a resource which is dependent on a climate-driven hydrological cycle. Run-off depends on meteorological parameters such as precipitation and temperature. Studies using global circulation show that, in the future, some regions of the world will experience increased runoff while others will have reduced runoff as a result of global warming.

Ethiopia, like many other countries, is impacted by the effects of climate change. The government has initiated the Climate-Resilient Green Economy (CRGE) strategy to protect the country from the effects of climate change and to build a green economy. The Green Economy Strategy identified and prioritised more than 60 initiatives to achieve development goals while limiting greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 to the levels of 2010 base (150 MtCO2e) with 64 per cent equivalent of CO2 reduction. The key to attaining green and low-carbon development is clean energy development, where hydropower plays the major role. Developing hydropower for domestic consumption and exporting the excess amount to neighbouring countries would mean to take the leading role to meet the ambition of the Paris Climate Agreement of reducing MtCO2e in 2030 in the region.

The role that energy, or Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7, plays is immense in the overall future sustainability of our planet. Particularly, hydropower plays the lion share, especially in developing countries due to its proven technical and technological ease and relatively low cost per MW investment. It also encompasses other services such freshwater management, climate mitigation, climate adaptation services, firm energy, energy storage and other ancillary services which could contribute to other SDGs including water (SDG 6), resilient infrastructure (SDG 9), and climate change (SDG 13).

Energy access is increasingly seen as a vital catalyst to wider social and economic development, enabling education, health and sustainable agriculture as well as creating jobs. By 2025 electricity access is expected to reach 100 per cent in both rural and urban areas of Ethiopia. To attain this, electrification enables the provision of affordable electricity to poor households who are forced to use fuel-wood to meet their energy needs, over 85 per cent of which is used for cooking and heating.

Because of this, thousands of square kilometres of deforestation takes place annually for fuel wood collection and charcoal burning, which also triggers massive land degradation and soil erosion.

Ethiopia’s hydropower potential is estimated at up to 45,000 MW and is the second highest in Africa. Hydropower based development provides a gateway to economic transformation through industrialisation, urbanisation as well as through the provision of access to modern energy to rural areas. The current electricity installed capacity of 4,284 MW is 97 per cent renewable of which effective hydropower installed capacity is 3,810 MW. Furthermore, 8,864 MW of hydropower development is under construction.

Development of hydropower started in the early 1930s with the first Aba Samuel dam commissioned in 1932 with an installed capacity of 6.6 MW. After that, the country has not made significant progress in hydropower development up until the last decade when the construction of dams saw a significant boom.

Since 2009, the country has commissioned five hydro dams with a total capacity of 3,147 MW. The latest commissioned is the Gibe III Dam with an installed capacity of 1,870 MW with the largest roller compacted concrete dam technology in the world. Among the dams under construction, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), with an expected installed capacity of 6,450 MW on completion, will be the largest hydropower dam station in Africa. It is also important to note that Ethiopia has about 17 identified sites of hydropower potential sites ranging from 60 MW to 2,000 MW in the pipeline and expected to be largely developed by the private sector as independent power producers.

Renewable energy mixes from wind, solar and geothermal sources are expected to be increased significantly in the coming future in Ethiopia. Ethiopian policy and strategy emphasises the diversity of the energy mix by developing wind, solar and geothermal, etc, to complement hydropower. On the other hand, it is equally important to guard against the negative impacts of hydropower development and to pay close attention to climate resilience, social inclusion and environmental services.

This piece was originally featured in the 2018 Hydropower Status Report.

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