Ethiopia turns to hydro power
Addis Ababa - Ethiopia, which has just inaugurated its largest hydro-electric power station to date, hopes to soon complete a programme that will generate not only enough power for the country's needs but also for export.
The Gilegel Gibe II dam inaugurated last Wednesday is 250km south of the capital Addis Ababa on the River Omo. The new station, which cost €281m and which was financed partly by Italy, will produce 420 megawatts (MW).
The plant is 3km downstream from a first hydro-electric dam Gilegel Gibe I.
A third dam, Gilegel Gibe III, was started further downstream still, and is one-third completed, according to the authorities, who expect it to become operational in 2013. It will have a capacity of 400MW.
On the Blue Nile, to the West, another hydro-electric plant at Tana Beles is nearly finished and will come online in March, according to the Ethiopian government. It will have the capacity to produce 460MW.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a champion of renewable energies, stressed at the inauguration ceremony for the dam that it "is possible to speed up development without polluting the environment".
He also reaffirmed that his government "wants to double the country's energy capacity over the current level of 860MW in the next five years".
But the focus on hydraulic resources is causing problems with Ethiopia's neighbours, particularly now that a fourth dam is planned on the Omo River.
In June Addis Ababa and Nairobi held talks on Gilegel Gibe III. The Kenyan government has not opposed the dam but environmental and civil society groups in Kenya argue that the project will have serious environmental consequences as the Omo River feeds into Lake Turkana.
Numerous experts, including the Kenyan palaeo-anthropologist and ecologist Richard Leakey, have said the project will have a "catastrophic effect" on the environment and on those living downstream from the dam as well as on the ecosystem of Lake Turkana, situated in a very arid region.
Likewise, taking water from the Blue Nile has also triggered recurrent disputes with Egypt to the north.
Ethiopia has branched out into new means of clean energy production. The country has invested in a wind farm, which will be Africa's biggest, currently under construction in the northern Tigray region in partnership with French company Vergnet. It should be producing 120MW by 2012.
In October, Ethiopa encouraged companies to invest in the country's geothermal resources, which could, if fully exploited, the government said, produce 5 000MW against the 7MW currently produced.
Ethiopia has signed deals to export electricity to Sudan and Djibouti.
The authorities have said they will not start exporting electricity to the neighbours until the country's internal requirements, estimated at 1 200MW, have been met.
But those internal requirements keep on rising, notably because of the electrification programmes undertaken for the country's 80 million inhabitants, and because of the construction of new factories, such as cement and glass works, both heavy consumers of electricity.