Life in Ethiopia: the Grand Renaissance Dam

In the second of a series of blog posts from Ethiopia, TRT World reporter Anelise Borges writes about the country’s most ambitious project.

Photo by: TRT WORLD
Photo by: TRT WORLD

The site of Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam.

“It is not a question anymore - it’s a reality. We are doing this.” Project manager Semegnew Bekele no longer wants to answer the question on whether Ethiopia’s most ambitious project will be completed.

He has devoted the last five years to the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam. He calls it the project of his life.

Project Manager Semegnew Bekele.

During our visit, Bekele told us we were there “to appreciate, not to question,” “look at what we’re doing with concrete… it’s self-explanatory”.

What Bekele, and his 12,000 workers, are "doing with concrete” is going to potentially become Africa’s largest hydropower plant - and produce 6,000 MW of electricity to power Ethiopia's economic growth.

Power to the people

The Ethiopian government is investing in infrastructure and technology that could see this nation become Africa's next powerhouse. 

The pace of poverty reduction has been impressive: health, education, and living standards have improved, with undernourishment down from 75 percent to 35 percent since the 1990s and infant and child mortality rates falling considerably since 2000. 

But a number of challenges remain: in Africa’s second most populous country, 77 percent of the population don’t have access to electricity and other basic services, 37 million Ethiopians remain either poor or vulnerable to becoming impoverished, and the very poorest are becoming even poorer. 

The government is trying to diversify the economy and has been investing heavily in industrializing Ethiopia.

And for that, it needs power.

The dam will help with it. As will the even more ambitious plan to become carbon-neutral by 2025.

Africa’s largest dam will stand 170 metres tall and 1.8km wide.

Water politics: the challenge of sharing the Nile

The project manager tells us there have been no challenges: "we know the science, we know the ingredients, and we have practice”.

But even though there were no technical incidents, diplomatically, the GERD has sparked an acrimonious regional dispute, particularly straining relations between Ethiopia and Egypt since the project was announced and construction began in 2011.

Location of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile.

Egypt relies on Nile resources and believes it has ‘historic rights’ over the river - guaranteed by treaties signed in 1929 and 1959.

According to the treaties, Egypt has 87 percent of the flow and the right to veto upstream projects.

In 2013, then president Mohammed Morsi threatened a war saying “the lives of the Egyptians are connected around |the Nile|. If it diminishes by one drop, then our blood is the alternative.”

The current leader, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, had adopted a more amicable tone and, in March, agreed to sign a pact with Sudan and Ethiopia on the viability of the project - saying that three countries had chosen to “trust one another”.

The GERD's reservoir will be able to hold more than the volume of the entire Blue Nile, one of the major tributaries to the Nile river.

Some scientists have predicted the dam could disrupt the flow of the water into Egypt, but an independent report commissioned by the three governments has yet to be released with a final conclusion on the exact impact the dam will have to the water flow.

With thousands of people working 7 days per week, Ethiopia - in the words of Project manager Semegnew Bekele - “is doing this”.

Whatever the environmental impact, the Grand Renaissance Dam is expected to be completed in 2017.

Author: Anelise Borges