We're forced by nature to share the Nile with our neighbours, says Ethiopian dam project manager

Bassem Abo Alabass in Benishangul, Thursday 4 Aug 2016

Ahram Online traveled this week to Ethiopia to take a first hand look at the under-construction Grand Renaissance Dam and sought to gauge local opinions on the project

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in close snapshots
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in close snapshot (Photo: Bassem Abo Alabass)

"You have the High Dam in Egypt, and we hope to have the GERD, because we want electricity and our country to grow,” an Ethiopian taxi driver in Addis Ababa told Ahram Online, “and I am paying for this dam.”

“It’s not fair for Egyptians to think that we want to harm them; we are brothers,” 28-year-old driver Temesqen said.

The driver’s words came as Ethiopia lifted the photography ban on the under-construction Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, leading to the first field visit by local media outlets as well as counterparts from the Nile Basin region, to the 55-percent-complete site.

The dam has long been a source of controversy in Egypt, which with Sudan is one of the two countries downstream from the dam site.

Egypt relies almost exclusively on the Nile for irrigation and drinking water, and there have been ongoing concerns that the Ethiopian dam – which when complete will be the largest hyrdoelectric dam in Africa – could effect its share of the Nile water, estimated to be around 55 billion cubic metres annually.

Field visit

The hydroelectric dam is located on the Blue Nile, one of the Nile's two main tributaries, in a rural area roughly 500 kilometres north west of the capital, in the region of Benishangul-Gumuz. When completed, it will generate 6,000 megawatts of power.

According to project manager Semegnew Bekele, the dam, which is anchored between two high mountains, is 1,870-metres long and 145 metres high, and will be equipped with 16 turbines. The total labour force is around 11,000, including 350 foreign workers.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in close snapshots
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in close snapshot (Photo: Bassem Abo Alabass)

“So far we have consumed 6.5 million cubic metres of concrete out of total 10.5 million cubic metres, with the raw material supplied by local companies,” Bekele told reporters, during the visit organised by the Swedish Stockholm International Water Institute.

The second section of the controversial dam project is the saddle dam, a 5.2 kilometre-long and 50 metre-high dam that helps filling the reservoir. The reservoir itself has a capacity of total 74 billion cubic metres and covers a surface area of 1,874 square kilometres, or less than half of Egypt’s Lake Nasser in Aswan.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in close snapshots
The Saddle Dam (Photo: Bassem Abo Alabass)

The reservoir’s to-be-flooded area is currently covered by forest.

“We can’t keep the water because it will go over the dam and reach Egypt, we are forced by nature to pass it,” Bekele said.

"It’s a non-water consuming scheme,” Bekele added.

The dam, which is being built by the Italian Salini Impregillo Group, the leading global infrastructure company in the water sector, will cost 3.44 billion euros and is likely to be completed in mid-2017.

A scientific perspective

Kevin Wheeler, an American engineer who conducted a recent study on the GERD at the University of Oxford, said that storage of the dam can provide a drought “safety net” for the downstream countries with a basin-wide drought management plan.

Within dry years, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have to agree that the GERD will release a certain amount of water for Sudan and Egypt's reservoirs to address any shortage, according to Wheeler, who visited the dam site last year.

Wheeler expects a temporary impact on the amout of Nile water Egypt receives during the dam’s filling time, which will be decided, along with the filling pattern, by the ongoing negotiations between the three countries. He believes that the Aswan High Dam will help ease the problems caused by filling the dam, however.

Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan are also awaiting two studies being carried out by French firms BRL and Artelia on the dam's impacts.

Seif El-Din Hemdan, a Sudanese member of the tripartite national committee which brings together officials of the three affected countries to discuss issues related to the dam's construction, told reporters during the field visit that Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia will hold their 12th meeting in Khartoum within a week or two to continue negotiations.

Generating electricity

About 71 million of Ethiopia’s total popluation of 90 million do not have access to electricity, giving the country an electrification rate of 24 percent, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency.

Addis Ababa is hoping that the GERD will change that.

The African nation is aiming to become the world’s eight largest electricity producer on the back of the massive hydroelectric dam.

Alan Nicol, a senior political economy researcher at the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute, stated that annual revenue from power sales could be some $1 billion, at an estimated rate of 15,000 gigawatt-hour for $0.07 per kilowatt-hour, according to studies.

Ethiopia has long said that the two downstream countries, as well as other neighbours, will benefit from the abundant and cheap power it hopes the GERD will provide.

Nicol agrees that Egypt could be a major electricity consumer in around five years, after the completion of necessary transmission infrastructure

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in close snapshots
The upstream of the Blue Nile (Photo: Bassem Abo Alabass)

After several years of public concern in Egypt about the GERD and its implications for Egypt's water flow, recent diplomatic developments suggest that the three countries are focusing on cooperation.

Last year, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed a Declaration of Principles in Khartoum on the sharing of Nile waters and the GERD, include giving priority to downstream countries for electricity generated by the dam and providing compensation for any damages, former Egyptian Irrigation Minister Hossam Al-Moghazi said in July.

Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, who last year visited Ethiopia and addressed the country's parliament, has also reassured Egyptians about the state of affairs. Water is “a matter of life and death” he said during a public address last December, but Egyptians should not worry about the dam because “matters are in hand.”

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