The Ethiopia-Kenya Power Systems Interconnection Project—the first phase of eastern Africa’s $1.3-billion power integration initiative—is set for takeoff after the World Bank approved $684 million in construction funds for the project in June, even as global environmental groups step up pressure to halt the work.
The African Development Bank (AfDB) and the French Development Agency are the other financiers for the transmission line. In February, AfDB approved $231 million for the project.
Opponents have sought to block the World Bank's funding as part of a larger effort to put the brakes on hydroelectric dam development in Ethiopia, particularly Ethiopia's Gibe III Dam, now under construction, which will feed the line.
Opponents say the environmental and social consequences of the dam are grave but have not been given adequate study or weight in the decision and that indigenous peoples' rights are being violated. And while the World Bank also has declined to fund the dam on similar grounds, opponents say the bank's approval of financing for the transmission line sends Ethiopia the opposite signal and amounts to tacit approval.
The transmission-line project will link the national grids of Ethiopia and Kenya with a 1,045-kilometer, 500-kV double-circuit bipole transmission line of high-voltage direct current. In March, Kenya signed a power-purchase agreement with Ethiopia for 400 MW for the first phase of electricity importation once the 1,830-MW Gibe III Dam is complete, according to Kenya’s state-owned electricity transmission firm, Kenya Electricity Transmission Co. (KETRACO).
The World Bank's funding of the line paves the way for the project's implementation six years after Kenya and Ethiopia—which currently have a combined installed capacity of 2,000 MW—signed an agreement of cooperation on electricity generation, transmission and interconnection of their national grids.
The goal of the pact is to reduce the cost of energy and promote sustainable, renewable power generation by eventually exporting the same amount of power from Ethiopia to Kenya as both countries now generate, combined. The tie-in would also serve as a regional load-balancing tool.
The project has faced stiff opposition from international environmental groups.
Opponents say the construction of the hydroelectric dam to feed the line is causing serious harm. The 610-meter-long, 243-m-tall roller-compacted-concrete Gibe III Dam is being built by Italian construction giant Salini Costruttori S.p.A. about 250 km southwest of Ethiopia's capital city, Addis Ababa. Opponents say it threatens the survival of thousands of indigenous peoples that rely on Kenya's Lake Turkana and, feeding it, Ethiopia's Omo River.
The controversial dam has a reservoir capacity of 14 cu km and a surface area of 210 sq km. According to design details published by the AfDB, the dam will have a catchment area of 34,150 sq km. The reservoir’s useful storage has been estimated at 11.75 cu km and dead storage at 2.95 cu km.
Opponents claim there was no genuine environmental impact assessment on the dam.
They say the construction has led to the forced displacement of large populations from the lower valley of Omo River and gross violations of human rights of tribes around the project area by the Ethiopian authorities.
A joint statement on July 13 by Human Rights Watch, Friends of Lake Turkana, International Rivers, Survival International and Bank Information Centre, said the World Bank “undermined the rights of indigenous peoples and the environment with its approval of a $684-million loan.”
“The World Bank stood by its principles in 2010 when it refused to fund the Gibe III Dam in the absence of concrete measures to uphold the rights of indigenous peoples and address serious environmental concerns,” said Ikal Angelei from Friends of Lake Turkana. “Now it has stamped on those same principles by funding Gibe III through the back door.”
“The World Bank is lowering its standards and assuming serious reputational risk by taking on this project,” said Joshua Klemm, Africa manager of the Bank Information Center. “Financing the transmission line sends a signal to Ethiopia that it can ignore massive impacts of damming its rivers and still get rewarded.”
“Indigenous communities in the Omo Valley are paying a terrible price for the Gibe III Dam and agricultural development that runs roughshod over their rights,” said Jessica Evans, senior international financial-institutions advocate at Human Rights Watch. “The World Bank should be standing firmly behind its social and environmental policies rather than pretending that the dam is unconnected to this project.”
Last year, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee urged Ethiopia to halt construction of the dam until an independent study is carried out to establish the impact the project will have on Lake Turkana, a World Heritage Site.
The plea came after a study by the AfDB in 2010 concluded that filling the Gibe III Dam will lead to a reduction of water levels in Lake Turkana by two meters.
The environmental groups said, “These projects (electricity generation and irrigation) will dramatically decrease water supply for downstream areas including Lake Turkana, which receives 90% of its water from the Omo River. This will further increase competition over scarce resources for the additional 300,000 indigenous peoples who live around Lake Turkana.”
Ethiopia has an estimated 45,000 MW of undeveloped hydro generation potential at dozens of sites. The big ones are located in the Nile River, Gibe River and Omo River basins. At many of those locations, hydroelectric-generating facilities are proposed, planned or under construction.
The transmission-line project promises to end Kenya’s electricity challenges, say backers. Those challenges are characterized by low and fluctuating voltage levels that result in frequent blackouts and brownouts.
The World Bank said in June that the power line will be “built according to strong social and environmental safeguards” to help Kenya “reduce the need for polluting thermal power.”
“This landmark transformational project will change the fundamentals of the power sector in East Africa,” said Makhtar Diop, World Bank vice president for the African region, in June.
“It will expand access and lower the cost of electricity supply to homes and businesses across Kenya and help to reduce thermal power emissions in Kenya, a clear benefit to the region’s environment,” Diop said, adding, “Only one in three Africans has access to electricity in their communities, so boosting power sharing between countries is an essential step toward addressing Africa’s needs.”
The Ethiopian part of the transmission line will be 433 km long; the Kenyan portion will be 612 km long.
An environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) report on the transmission-line project by Tropics Consulting Engineers Plc and Gamma Systems Ltd. indicates the line will have 38-m-high, self-supporting steel-lattice towers with concrete foundations. It will be constructed on 1,060 towers, of which 995 will be suspension towers and 65 will be tension towers. The suspension towers will be set 2.45 towers per km, while that of the tension towers will be seven kilometers apart.
Substations will be constructed at either end, and an access road, about five meters wide, will be constructed along the line route for maintenance and repair.
“The project has low overall environmental impacts since it will source energy from green sources, thus reducing environmental consequences of thermal energy production that is currently used to complement hydro-power production in Kenya," the ESIA report states. "When alternatives are considered, it is clear that this project will provide Kenya the opportunity to reduce its carbon footprint over time.”
In April, a tender was advertised for an as-yet-unnamed consultant to review and update the transmission line’s design and contract bid documents. According John Githinji, the engineer in charge of coordinating the project at KETRACO, the consultant being sought will review and update the design and bid documents assist the two state agencies executing the project—KETRACO in Kenya, and the Ethiopian Electric and Power Corp., or EEPCO, in Ethiopia—during the bidding stage. The consultant also will assist with the review and approval of the contractor's design documents as well as helping with construction supervision and project management.
Githinji says the consultant will lead two teams working separately under separate contracts in the two countries.
Both Kenya and Ethiopia are expected to announce the selection of a contractor for the project before the end of the year. Originally, transmission-line construction was to begin September 2011 and be finished in March 2014.