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A Tale of Two Dams

A Tale of Two Dams – Comparing Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance to Hoover


Lori Pottinger

Hoover Dam's low water exposes a "bathtub ring"Nile_dam

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Hoover Dam’s low water exposes a “bathtub ring”

Once upon a time, massive dams were built on the US West’s mighty Colorado River, bringing scarce Depression-era jobs, water for farms, and electricity for industry. In the fairy tale version of the Hoover Dam story, everyone lived happily ever after. That’s the story that Ethiopia wants us to believe, as it tries to convince the world of the merit of its own “Hoover Dam”– the giant Grand Renaissance Dam, now under construction on the Blue Nile.

But in recent years, the Hoover story has been taking a turn for the worse. A changing climate is wreaking havoc with the largest dam in the United States. The huge dam’s reservoir, which has been dropping for over a decade, is now less than half full. The Colorado River no longer reaches the sea because of the large storage at Hoover and Glen Canyon dams.

Ethiopian engineers recently compared the Grand Renaissance Dam to Hoover as a project that can lift a struggling nation out of poverty, and a project whose accomplishments will go down in history.  Yet the darker lessons from Hoover’s long history might be equally relevant for Ethiopia to review. Consider:

Shrinking electrical output: The Colorado River is in an extended drought, and is likely to see more “megadroughts” as the climate warms. Lower reservoir levels mean less electricity output from large dams. Already at record low levels, Hoover Dam could drop another 13 feet this summer. Researchers at the University of California in San Diego predict that Hoover Dam has a 50% chance of decreasing to a point too low for power generation by 2017, and an equally high chance of going dry by 2021.

Downstream Devastation: The Colorado River Basin has been transformed by its large dams, in both intentional and unintentional ways. Jacques Leslie, author of the remarkable book Deep Watersummarizes some of these impacts: “Take away the Colorado River dams, and you return the silt gathering behind them to a free-flowing river, allowing it again to enrich the downstream wetlands and the once fantastically abundant, now often caked, arid, and refuse-fouled Delta. Take away the dams, and the Cocopa Indians, whose ancestors fished and farmed the Delta for more than a millennium, might have a chance of avoiding cultural extinction. Take away the dams, and the Colorado would again bring its nutrients to the Gulf of California, helping that depleted fishery to recover the status it held a half-century ago as an unparalleled repository of marine life.”

Competition for Water: Just as damming the Colorado has created winners and losers, it has also increasingly created tension over who gets to use its waters. The river is shared by seven states and two countries; other stakeholders include Indian tribes, farming interests, environmental groups and cities. Peter McBride, who has just published a book on the Colorado River conflict, says, “The big question is how we’re going to address it and on whose shoulders that these are going to lie. Basically, it’s going to be those who have money, those that can pay are going to get water.”

There some signs of cooperation in this saga: Mexico, home to the Colorado River’s delta (now mostly a dead zone), will once again see some water flow into its borders. A historic agreementsigned in November 2012 commits both the United States and Mexico to deliver flow back to the Colorado Delta. The agreement calls for a five-year pilot program to increase water flows to restore the lower river and its delta, and increased water to Mexico during droughts. Although the amounts of water called for are less than American and Mexican environmental groups had argued for, they say it’s a good first step, and hope the agreement will become permanent.

Ethiopia is clearly hoping that its huge dam will make history. Yet it’s possible that the Grand Renaissance Dam will face similar problems as its American cousin, and go down in history for all the wrong reasons. If the dam does founder on the shoals of drought and water conflict, it will be harder for a poor nation like Ethiopia to recover. A thorough environmental impact assessment (EIA) might have turned up some answer, but we’re told the project’s EIA is woefully inadequate (it has not been published). The dam’s downstream impacts were so poorly addressed in the original EIA that conflict over the dam began even before an ounce of concrete was poured. Ethiopia finally agreed to allow experts from Sudan and Egypt to join a panel of experts mandated to look at the dam’s impacts on the downstream neighbors, but the process has been flawed and Egypt is calling for more complete studies on the downstream impacts (something that should have been done before construction was begun).

The Hoover Dam was built in a time when we didn’t fully understand the dire consequences of damming off major rivers. Today we do, and large dams such as Hoover would never be built in the US today. In fact, we’re taking down dams to help restore rivers and the communities they support. The megadam model is a dinosaur. Ethiopia would be better off leapfrogging over it to a more modern and efficient system, and find less provocative ways to assert its interests over the Nile waters.