In the world of dams and hydro power, the impact of a project is typically measured in megawatts and water storage. But the recent completion of the Tekeze hydro power project in Ethiopia serves as a reminder that large infrastructure projects can extend far beyond engineering metrics and design innovations toward supporting sustained social and economic growth for local communities around the world.

Reliable, renewable energy for Ethiopia

An inauguration ceremony held on 14 November 2009 marked the completion of the Tekeze hydro power project on Ethiopia’s Tekeze river, a tributary of the Nile. The event attracted more than 1000 foreign and Ethiopian government officials, business leaders and project partners, including the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCO), Energoprojekt Hidroinzenjering of Serbia and US-based global engineering firm MWH.

The government-funded project – and the tallest dam in Africa at 188m high – now provides a reliable, renewable source of power for the country that had been forced to impose regular blackouts for its 80M residents due to energy shortages.

The plant officially started generating power in August 2009 at the height of the country’s rainy season. The project’s generating capacity of 300MW is 40% more than previously generated for the entire country. The scheme consists of a double curvature concrete arch dam which created a 70km long reservoir, two river diversion tunnels, a 75m high power intake structure, power waterway tunnels, an underground powerhouse containing 4x75MW Francis turbines, a 230kV substation and a 105km long double circuit transmission line to connect to the Ethiopian national grid.

Strengthening community infrastructure

Beyond the technical specifications, the Tekeze hydro power project is a strong example of the significant energy generation potential of the country’s rivers. It’s also an example of local economic development that supports the growth of local communities.

In 1995, the Ethiopian Ministry of Water Resources conducted a reconnaissance study identifying the Tekeze river as one of two potential dam sites amenable to hydro power development. A pre-feasibility study was conducted in August 1996 and a feasibility study completed in 1997.

In the early stages of the project, the remote location of the site in the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia made it necessary to construct more than 40km of roads. In addition, the significant demand for workers resulted in the creation of several new small villages. At the peak of construction, the new roads connected more than 2500 people in surrounding communities. A residential camp initially constructed to house staff working on the project grew to include more than 100 houses now mostly occupied by EEPCO’s permanent operators of the facility.

Another residential camp, the village of Seboko, developed from a small cluster of houses near the construction site. The villages themselves have also grown to support vibrant local economies, meeting the needs of the workforce and indigenous local population to include shops, small businesses and a church. During original construction of the camp, MWH staff encouraged extensive planting of indigenous trees and shrubs to the point that the camp developed into a leafy oasis in the middle of what was otherwise a very arid and rocky landscape.

With a local economy historically based on agriculture, the area was originally very sparsely populated, leaving land for grazing livestock and seasonal, rain-fed cultivation. These new villages changed the local landscape as infrastructure improvements at the project villages spurred additional growth thanks to readily accessible water and power in areas where previously the only light was by kerosene lanterns and the only water was carried from distant wells. The local population can also access free, treated water at the entrance to EEPCO’s camp.

EEPCO implemented a rural electrification programme to bring permanent electricity supplies to villages like Seboko. As recently as three years ago, one could drive 120km from Tekeze to Mekele, the Tigray region’s capital city, without seeing a single electric light. Today nearly every village along the route is illuminated.

As the project neared completion and some of the buildings were no longer needed, one small settlement was given to the local government to be transitioned into a medical clinic. The new clinic goes a long way to meet the medical needs of the local population, who previously had to travel far from the project to receive medical help. A total of three health centres have been built in the region within close periphery of the reservoir, and construction has just begun on a new clinic in Seboko.

A sustainable Tekeze

The dam itself allows for much needed regulation of river flow, allowing downstream communities access to a constant, year-round water supply to facilitate irrigation for agriculture.

The 70km reservoir created by the Tekeze dam provides an abundant supply of fish for the local population and has great potential for the development of commercial fisheries. It also creates an ideal habitat for birdlife, both endemic and migratory, and with the stunning backdrop of the Simien Mountain Range, the region could yield an attractive centre for eco-tourism if developed sensitively.

As is the case with many large infrastructure projects, the new reservoir has interfered with some traditional migratory routes. To offset those issues, two ferry boats now serve as a link across the reservoir between the Amhara and Gondar regions of the country.

Education and training

Life in Ethiopia can be considered harsh. Each day women and girls carry water long distances to their homes. Regular blackouts are imposed on the country’s residents to combat energy shortages. A child’s walk to school can be as long as 8km and the schools they attend are functional, but very basic in structure and frequently lack necessary classroom supplies.

Projects in remote locations like Tekeze require many international engineers to relocate to live in the local community, typically evolving into engaged and passionate members of that community. That was certainly the case for many of Tekeze’s expatriate engineers and their families.

For example, Lorna Penman relocated to Ethiopia when her husband Derrick was appointed as chief design engineer for MWH’s work on the Tekeze project. She began taking daily walks to build familiarity of her new surroundings. She observed first-hand the challenges, including the distant schools and extreme heat that local children faced on their way to and from school. She began to look for ways to positively impact their pursuit of education. After first supplying textbooks, exercise equipment, pens and benches, Penman began to explore the possibility of building a school closer to Tekeze.

With persistence and support from the local government, Penman’s dream became a reality. The local government funded three teachers for more than 150 students and, through a US$1000 donation from MWH, supplies were purchased and construction began for the schoolhouse near Seboko. The project hired local labourers who were compensated for their effort with donated kilos of grain. Penman rallied further support through a campaign called Just One Birr (about 12 cents in the local currency) to solicit small donations for the school from contractors, engineers and other staff working on Tekeze. She collected an additional US$1000 in total for construction of the new schoolhouse.

The legacy of the Tekeze construction operations will live on for generations. More schools were also built during construction, supported by Chinese and other expatriates. The regional government built a school 10km from the site early during construction, and EEPCO is working to build a third school approximately 50km from the site. An office building used during construction may eventually be converted into a school for the children of Tekeze’s permanent operations staff, and there are plans to convert other buildings into a vocational training centre for young adults from across the Tigray region.

Local children were not the only ones to benefit from additional opportunities provided by the project, as education and training were also provided to local workers in an effort to improve their overall way of life. These programmes also included specific programmes to combat AIDS, malaria, and many of the safety, health and welfare issues impacting the local population. On the job training was provided to locally hired employees for all types of construction crafts, creating a large pool of skilled and experienced workers ranging from truck drivers to concrete workers to electricians and engineers that are now available to construct the next major project. Many locals have also been enabled to become contractors independently, constructing new housing and public buildings.

In addition to the vastly important engineering benefits provided by the Tekeze hydro power project – specifically more reliable access to heat, power and light for the country’s 80M residents – infrastructure projects, particularly in developing countries, have a unique opportunity to extend benefits into the communities they serve. As the international engineering community travels to live and work in these locations, their foresight and commitment beyond blueprints and project milestones will make a significant and lasting impact to build a better world.

Ralph Watt served as project manager for the Tekeze hydro power project for MWH, a provider of environmental engineering, construction and strategic consulting services. MWH provided tender design review, preparation of construction drawings, bid evaluation and on-site construction management for the project. Watt can be reached at

Allan Marshall was resident engineer for the project for MWH. Marshall can be reached at