Field and river

20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies (ICES20)
Mekelle University, Ethiopia

"Regional and Global Ethiopia - Interconnections and Identities"
1-5 October, 2018

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Sofie ANNYS, Department of Geography, Ghent University, Belgium
ENYEW Adgo, Department of Natural Resource Management, Bahir Dar University, Ethiopia
TESFAALEM Ghebreyohannes, Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, Mekelle University, Ethiopia
Steven VAN PASSEL, Department of Engineering Management, University of Antwerp, Belgium; Centre for Environmental Sciences, Hasselt University, Belgium
Joost DESSEIN, Department of Agricultural Economics, Ghent University, Belgium
Jan NYSSEN, Department of Geography, Ghent University, Belgium

In the context of its Climate-Resilient Green Economy strategic plan, the Ethiopian government increasingly focuses on hydropower, and has constructed several large dams in the past decade (e.g. Tekezze, Tana-Beles). Such large-scale projects have important implications for local communities, upstream/downstream of the dams. Pre-construction feasibility studies consider both upstream resettlement and downstream impacts on natural and socioeconomic environments, but is enough attention paid to downstream communities in practice? To answer this, we consider the downstream impacts of the Tana-Beles hydroelectric project. This project transfers water from Lake Tana towards the Beles river (since 2010), transforming the river from ‘seasonal’ to ‘regulated’ river, with respectively mostly low to nearly constant high discharges (± 90 m³/s at outlet), for which the river valley is underdimensioned. To obtain information on the changing downstream socio-ecological systems (upstream of Jawi bridge), interviews with local people (n = 65) and local to federal authorities (e.g. municipal and district chairmen, EEP, MoWIE…) are combined with hydro-geomorphic field observations and GIS-analyses of aerial photographs/Google Earth imagery. Results show that the project has entailed unintended consequences for downstream communities, especially in the first two years after dam commissioning. The unequal spread of the mere five bridges (located at 2, 3, 4, 31 and 53 km downstream of the outlet) and the insufficient awareness raising (through radio) has led to the loss of life of over 250 people in 11 municipalities. In this area, people cross the river to go to market, visit family, for cattle grazing… Important livestock losses (> 500 cows/goats) have occurred as well. In addition, bank erosion and river pattern adjustments have led to significant losses of arable land, which are not compensated to the farmers. Other hydropower schemes in Ethiopia are anticipated to have consequences of lesser magnitude, as they regulate discharges and do not transfer water from other basins. In that view, Tana-Beles is an atypical case. However, important lessons are the need for a sufficient amount of footbridges, better awareness raising, compensation for loss of land considering long time-frames, and a good follow-up of downstream situations - including field visits to inaccessible areas.