The River Nile passes through Sudan and Egypt and into the Mediterranean Sea. The Blue Nile, one of two main tributaries to the Nile, makes up 60% of the main river and originates in Ethiopia. The country is currently constructing The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a massive $4.16Bn project that aims to provide hydropower to Ethiopia and the surrounding countries and boost national pride. However, the project has raised ethical concerns and caused tension in the region. Posing the question: how ethical is the construction of the dam?
Ethiopia: a sustainable energy hub in East Africa…
Being one of the least developed countries in the region, Ethiopia aims to implement a climate resilient development plan by 2025. As a part of its plans, the 6,000MW dam will boost the energy supply from hydroelectricity which was only at 1.7% of the country’s total energy usage in 2015. In doing so it will shift its unsustainable dependency on energy from biomass and waste which accounts for about 90% of energy. Subsequently, the Ethiopian Herald reported expectations of the dam to increase the electricity produced in the country by 270%, boosting the Ethiopian grid’s coverage and establishing Ethiopia as an electricity exporter in the region.
Moreover, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in Ethiopia also plans on exploiting the dam as a tourist site through the construction of lodges, parks and recreational sites in the presence of a huge artificial lake.
Looking at GERD from an ethical vantage Ethiopia’s efforts could be recognised as utilitarian as they strive to achieve the greater good for its people and the environment. Utilitarianism says an action is ethical if it produces more good than harm to a greater number of people. In this case, the well-being of the people and the environment outweighs the possible harm caused, through alleviating the pressure to use unsustainable sources of energy production. In addition, the duty ethics framework is more concerned with the morality of one’s action rather than the consequences. When considering duty ethics, it could be argued that the GERD construction is ethical based on the motive of benefiting Ethiopia and the surrounding region.
Despite the potential conflict with the other stakeholders; Sudan and Egypt, a Declaration of Principles was signed by all three parties in 2015 ensuring fair and appropriate use of the Nile resources. Such use would account for the environmental, social and economic needs of all concerned stakeholders, indicating a solid sustainable development standing for the project.
The GERD can then be seen to satisfy a virtue ethical standpoint – an ethical framework concerned with values and moral characters rather than rules and consequences. This is exemplifies in Ethiopia’s conformity to political norms and values in agreeing to the Declaration of Principles, as well as striving to be a sustainable energy hub.
Ethiopia’s desire to implement the adequate strategies for safe design and correct risk assessment is seen through the delegation of a professional company that specialises in such projects. The company’s code of ethics conform to the need of having adequate ethical risk management. Therefore, the effects of inherent risk is lowered to the morally acceptable.
The GERD seems to be a beneficial project to Ethiopia and the region of East Africa, with a good moral initiative according to various frameworks. However, there are two sides to every story…
…Or, development at the expense of the people?
“It’s one of the most important flagship projects for Ethiopia…it’s not about control of the flow, but providing opportunity for us to develop ourselves through energy development. It has a lot of benefit for the downstream countries.”
This statement further emphasises the view that Ethiopia believes the project will produce more benefits than drawbacks. However, can one decide what is best for an other? Surely to say what is best for Egypt and Sudan, strips the countries of their autonomy as they are effectively at the mercy of Ethiopia’s management of water flow – particularly troubling during the filling of the dam. With Egypt’s already very low water per capita, a disrupted or reduced flow could prove devastating to both the people of Egypt and to its hydropower production.
Ethiopia’s gains from the dam at the potential expense of Egypt and Sudan undermines the freedom principle: every entity is free to strive for its happiness as long as it doesn’t hinder others. It also indicates there is the potential that more harm than good may come as a result of the project; suggesting that the utilitarian argument in support of the dam isn’t all that watertight.
Additionally, the project is having a negative impact on the people of Ethiopia. An estimated 20,000 people will be involuntarily displaced from the construction area. Despite plans of monetary compensation and jobs from the project, it disregards the emotional aspect of relocation. In relation to the indigenous people’s attachment to their land and water, as well as their agricultural work, which when taken away for them, would leave them struggling to compete on the job market. This forces the question; will this project have an overall net benefit for the people?
According to experts, the specified 6000 MW sizing of the Dam is up for debate. They argue that due to the flow rate of the river, the maximum power output can only be 2800 MW. Due to the undisclosed designs and plans, no one knows whether the GERD can actually provide double the output the experts say is possible. Moreover, judging by the intense drought seasons Ethiopia goes through and the inconsistent rainfall, such incredible dependency on hydropower is viewed as very unsustainable.
The secrecy and lack of transparency surrounding the design and construction of the dam towards other Nile basin countries and its own people, could be viewed as immoral and is certainly at odds with the Declaration of Principles. Thus, from a duty ethics standpoint, building the dam is unethical. From this perspective, the dam can perhaps be viewed as motivated primarily by the desire of the Ethiopian government to prove its sovereignty, with less attention paid to the potential negative impact on Ethiopians and other citizens of downstream nations.
Overall, the GERD presents a chance for Ethiopia to provide energy to its citizens from a sustainable source and improve their lives. However, the lack of transparency and evidence for the dam’s efficacy form a strong basis for a skeptical view surrounding the ethics of the project.