ICES 20: The politics of hydropower development in Africa


The politics of hydropower development in Africa: new Water-Energy paradigms?

by Edegilign Hailu Woldegebrael (Paris-Nanterre, LAVUE)

In the first week of October 2018,  during the 20th International Conference of Ethiopian Studies I and Kristin Feder organized a panel on “New water-energy paradigms?” in Mekelle. We have started with a session on the Tana Beles Valley. We attended Kristin’s presentation on “Hydraulic missions, ruins and revival: politics of space in the Tana-Beles basin from 1985 to today” that highlighted the changes and continuity of dam projects in this valley throughout successive regimes, various ideologies and institutional structures: Imperial monarchy, Marxist military dictatorship, and the current Ethno-federal republic. Then the journey led us in the Nile basin with “The grand Ethiopian renaissance dam as an energy discourse” in which Wondwosen Michago Seide revealed the Ethiopian government’s framing of the dam from “climate change” and “clean energy security” perspectives to legitimize its construction both to domestic and regional stakeholders. He demonstrated the extent to which the Ethiopian ruling party has managed to promote this imagery of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam within discourse of Ethiopia’s being “a clean energy hub in Africa”, whilst cultivating support in the Horn of Africa and beyond. Likewise Emanuele Fantini and his colleagues highlighted on the “The role of mainstream and social media in shaping debates and negotiations over the grand Ethiopian renaissance dam: evidences from Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.” Their presentation demonstrated how the same renaissance dam related events have been framed by the media in the respective countries from different perspectives. In this regard, the need to unpack nation-states, in analyzing narratives and discourses, was also emphasized as the States are not monolithic and static units. Sofie Annys and her colleagues also presented on “Downsides for downstream living communities – the case of the Tana-Beles hydropower project.” They underscored the dominance of top-down practices in the project planning and implementation, and the lack of transparency between developers and developed in the project process, which have adversely affected the downstream rural livelihoods in the Valley.

In the light of the above the ruling elites have attempted to build states or nations through building water infrastructures over the last century[1]. In this vein, by the turn of the twenty first century, economic, ecological and demographic trends around water-energy-food nexus have changed and newly shaped countries’ politics in Africa. In this respect East African nation States like any others in the continent are seizing the new opportunities to reshape their national politics, their relations with their local communities and neighboring countries[2]. Thus, the water-energy security discourses are not predominantly defined by the external biophysical environment; rather it has become constructions internal to the strategies and calculations of the political elites to consolidate power. In doing so, the projects and infrastructures that are securitized are followed by their representations as issues of national interests that would be developed within “a closed political space[3]”. However, concerns about the project’s social and environmental impacts are silenced from this rhetoric. For instance Sofie Annys and her colleagues’ presentation underlined, under the banner of “a national development”, as to how the promises of development for all were not delivered to all by illuminating the project’s grave poverty inducing impacts on the affected people, which were not considered for mitigation.  Thus, by considering the competing logics of different scales within nation-states and among different countries, the panel has highlighted the need to examine how and for whom these contradictory and dynamic politics of water-energy security are working at local, national and regional scales. 

[1]Mohamud, M. & Verhoeven, H., 2016, “Re-engineering the state, awakening the nation: Dams, Islamist modernity and nationalist politics in Sudan”, Water Alternatives, 9 (2), pp. 182-202.

[2]Verhoeven, H., 2013, “The politics of African energy development: Ethiopia’s hydro-agricultural state-building strategy and clashing paradigms of water security”, Royal society publishing, no 2002, pp. 1-16.

[3]Fantini, E., 2017, “Dams and democracy”, FLOWS,



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