It is “the birth of a new era,” said Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed as he presided over the launch of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd), a controversial multi-billion dollar project. “This is good news for our continent and for the downstream countries we aspire to work with,” he tweeted.
Accompanied by many of the country’s top officials, Ahmed toured the power plant and clicked a series of switches on an electronic screen to trigger the dam’s production.
“Although this great dam was built by Ethiopians, it was done so to benefit all our African brothers and sisters,” said a senior official attending the inauguration. “This day, for which Ethiopians have sacrificed so much, hoped so much, and prayed so much, is finally here,” he added.
At the project’s launch, every civil servant was asked to contribute one month’s salary towards financing the dam. Subsequently, many government loans also tapped into Ethiopians’ savings.
Tributaries of the Nile
On 20 February, various Ethiopian officials praised Ahmed for successfully financing a project that had long been on the verge of failure. “Our country has lost so much, especially financially, because of work delays,” said project director general Kifle Horo in his opening remarks. In the absence of accurate official accounting, experts have estimated that the total cost of the project was $4.2bn (€3.7bn).
Ever since the project was launched in 2011, the Gerd has been a source of tension between Sudan and Egypt, both of which depend on the Nile for water. Cairo claims a “historical right” over the river, which was guaranteed in a treaty signed in 1929 between Egypt and Sudan, then represented by the UK, the colonial power. Egypt had the power to veto construction projects on the river.
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In 1959, after it reached an agreement with Khartoum on water sharing, Egypt was allocated a quota of 66% of the annual flow of the Nile, compared to 22% for Sudan. Ethiopia was not a party to these agreements and never considered itself bound by them. Furthermore, the countries of the Nile Basin, which originates in Uganda, signed a new treaty, which removed Egypt’s veto power and allowed irrigation and hydroelectric dam projects, in 2010.
“As you can see, this water generates energy and then continues to flow just like it did before to Sudan and Egypt, contrary to the rumours that Ethiopians wanted to block the water to starve them,” said Ahmed.
The United Nations (UN) recommended last summer that the three countries continue their talks under the auspices of the African Union (AU). Cairo and Khartoum, which were worried about their water supply, had asked Addis Ababa to stop filling the dam.
Last July, Ethiopia had nevertheless proceeded to the second phase of filling the dam, announced as one of the largest in Africa with an initial production target of 6,500 megawatts (MW), which was revised downwards to 5,000 MW, or double Ethiopia’s current production. According to Ethiopian state media, the Gerd’s initial output was around 375 MW and the first turbine was commissioned.
Located on the Blue Nile, about 30km from the Sudanese border, the Grand Renaissance Dam is 1.8km long and 145m high.