The Ethiopian prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegne inaugurated the 243-metre (800ft) Gibe III dam on the Omo River on December 17th. Its hydroelectric plant has the potential to double the country’s measly energy output at the flick of a switch. Dubbed “the water tower of Africa”, Ethiopia has long sought to harness the power of the rivers that tumble from its highlands.
Gibe III is the latest in a series being built along the Omo River by the government, which is also constructing what will be the largest-ever dam in Africa when it opens, in theory, next year: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. Together these projects are intended to turn Ethiopia, which has scarce minerals but enormous hydropower potential, into a renewable-energy exporter.
Gibe III alone is expected to generate as much electricity as currently produced by the whole of neighbouring Kenya, which has enthusiastically signed up to buy some of its power. The export earnings will help to plug Ethiopia’s gaping current-account deficit, while the cheap power will provide a timely fillip to its nascent manufacturing sector. The Ethiopian government financed the project with the help of a $470m Chinese loan.
Besides electricity generation, Gibe III will support a vast irrigation complex, equal in size to the entire irrigated area of Kenya. In particular, the complex will supply a 245,000-hectare sugar plantation, the Kuraz Sugar Development Project, run by the Ethiopian Sugar Corporation and perhaps the country’s largest-ever agricultural scheme. As much as half of the river’s flow could end up being diverted to supply the thirsty sugar cane.