The dam that wasn't built: the first Tekezze dam project

A US engineering company was hired to design a "Hydropower/Irrigation project along the Tekezze-Setit river in Eritrea"

In 1995 and 1996, a US-based engineering firm (Harza) conducted feasibility studies on a proposed dam on the Tekeze river. The studies were fairly advanced and included preliminary dam, powerhouse, and irrigation canal designs. An outline of the project can be found at the Harza webpage.

The curious thing about this project is that the Tekeze river is described as the "largest river in Eritrea." In fact, Eritrea has no rivers that flow year round. The Tekeze river is one of the major rivers of Ethiopia, and drains the massive Simein mountains in Gonder, as well as most of Tigray and Wello.

The false description of the Tekeze river as Eritrean and located in Eritrea is interesting. Even more interesting is the proposed dam site along the "shared" section of the river, and the design specifications that place the main irrigation canal in Eritrea.

Considering that the dry section of Eritrean land bordering the Tekezze contributes a negligible amount of runoff to the river, it seems that Eritrea has very little justification for taking the main canal. In fact, according to the Italo-Ethiopian treaty of 1902, the Eritrean river frontage along the Tekeze is even less than indicated by most of the common maps in public circulation.

The lake formed by the dam would have extended upstream for many kilometers and prevented Ethiopia from utilizing other dam sites located within Ethiopia. Moreover, Ethiopian acquiescence to the original dam would have formalized legal Eritrean claims to large percentages of the Tekeze river flow.

First Run on the Tekeze: September, 1996


Across the northern highlands of Ethiopia, the Tekeze River cuts a savage gorge 7,000 feet deep - the deepest canyon in Africa. The headwaters of the Tekeze, near Lalibela, form a maze of slot canyons.

Through the 250-mile-long canyon that lies downstream, the river pounds and plunges, foaming with rapids, contorted by sharp bends. Surrounded by desert buttes and pinnacles, seamed with tributary ravines, the upper Tekeze looks something like the Grand Canyon, though its gorge is even deeper than the one carved by the Colorado River. Click for multimedia expedition file

In summary, the proposed dam seems to have been a bad deal for Ethiopia. After seeing how the Ethiopian government saw it fit to transfer over one-billion Birr to Eritrea in 1996-97, we can only breathe a sigh of relief that this dam project never came to fruition. It would have been another scandal to add to the file. In the US this would be called "Eritrea-gate."

The private Ethiopian media have been calling attention to these issues for several years now. So far, no one has taken responsibility or been held accountable.

Thankfully the originally Tekezze project has been cancelled. In its place, Ethiopia is now proceeding with the design and construction of a Tekeze dam that will truly benefit Ethiopia. The dam will increase Ethiopia's power generation capacity by 30 percent, and probably supply water for irrigating several Finchaa-sized projects in northern Ethiopia.

The upper and middle portions of the Tekeze river are clearly a natural treasure to be preserved, and the location of the new Tekeze Dam will probably not affect the section of river traversed by the American expedition in 1996. The Mungo Park expedition ended at the bridge on the Gonder-Axum highway. There is more than 100 km of river length beyond this point which certainly contains suitable dam sites and irrigation possibilities.

Tekeze Pictures:

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