The giant dam Gerd on the Nile
An enormous new dam at the Blue Nile valley promises to transform Ethiopia — if it doesn’t plunge the area into con?ict What’s the difficulty ?ared up now? Largely due to remarks made by Donald Trump a week in a call with Sudanese and Israeli leaders. The US president asserted Ethiopia was failing to negotiate in good faith over the project;”Egypt,” he said, will eventually”blow up that dam”. “Ethiopia won’t cave in to aggressions of any sort,” he insisted. Change its economy. For much of the 20th century, Ethiopia was a byword for African American poverty. Its autocratic Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974; and below the Marxist military junta that displaced him — the Derg — it had been ravaged by famine in the 1980s. However, since the Derg’s overthrow in 1991, Ethiopia’s fortunes have revived. Annual economic growth has been close to 9% since the turn of this century, and there are hopes that it could achieve what the World Bank calls”Middle Income” standing by 2025. To accomplish this, successive governments have sought to exploit the power of the Blue Nile, the origin of which is in Ethiopia’s mountainous highlands, and from which 86% of the Nile’s waters ?ow. In 2011, 50 years later it had been ?rst proposed, building began on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd) near the boundary with Sudan.
How big is the Gerd?
The dam, now partially ?nished, is 1.1 miles around and 509ft high. When operational, it is going to be Africa’s biggest hydroelectric power plant, generating 6GW of power — doubling Ethiopia’s capacity. Its reservoir will be the size of Greater London and hold 17.7 cubic kilometers of water, over the volume of the 900-milelong Blue Nile. The cost is too vast: structure is put in $4.8bn. Yet, unusually, it has largely been ?nanced domestically. Under the past but one PM, Meles Zenawi, Ethiopians were urged to make donations and purchase low-denomination bonds. Most did so voluntarily, but civil servants were compelled each year to donate a month’s wages and companies to purchase higher-value bonds.
How will the Gerd help Ethiopia?
It could transform it. Just 30% of the 115 million population at present have a steady electricity supply. The government hopes the Gerd will not only stimulate domestic industry, but create enough surplus in order for it to be Africa’s largest power exporter. Along with the draw isn’t just economic; it is too, as Ethiopia sees it, about righting historic wrongs. The nations downstream on the Blue Nile — Sudan and, in particular, Egypt — have historically viewed its waters as theirs by right (as did Britain as it was their colonial ruler). The Gerd is an opportunity for redress. “Ethiopia is trying to correct past injustices and discuss this valuable resource in a fair and reasonable manner,” says Taye Atske Selassie, its UN ambassador. Angrily. The Nile provides 90% of its water and 95% of its own 102 million people live within a few miles of the river. Cairo fears Ethiopia’s plans 2,000 miles upstream may have a devastating effect on agriculture, and that the Aswan Dam — a vital Egyptian energy supply — could be severely affected if the water ?ow drops as a result of this Gerd. Egypt was caught off-guard by the job; President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has stated it’d never have got off the ground in 2011 had his nation not been diverted by the simultaneous turmoil of the Arab Spring. In 2013, the scale of Egypt’s opposition became clear when its then-president, Mohamed Morsi,was captured talking, among other steps, the possibility of an aerial bomb attack on the dam.
Have things calmed down?
To some extent, yes. A number of Ethiopia’s acquaintances — including Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti and Eritrea — see the Gerd as a possibly useful power source. The project may, in particular, bene?t Sudanese farmers, by regulating the water ?ows and consequently limiting the effect of ?oods during the rainy season. Hence in 2015, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan signed a statement outlining their commitment to working on the job and peacefully resolving differences. More recently, in a 2018 assembly in Cairo, Ethiopia’s PM, Abiy, told President Sisi:”I swear to God, we’ll never harm you.” But none of that’s so far translated into a tangible deal, and the dispute remains unresolved.
What’s the situation at present?
At the summer rainy season, Ethiopia started ?lling the reservoir. This is an extremely controversial matter; ?ll it too fast, and insufficient water will reach downstream, where it’s required by Sudan and Egypt (which suggests a ?lling schedule of 12 to 21 years).
On 21 July, Abiy declared the ?rst year ?lling had been finished: 1.17 cubic kilometers, of a total projected capacity of 17.7 cubic kilometers. He has also used strong language about his country’s plans: cautioning that he is ready to”mobilise millions” to defend the Gerd, and adding that”nobody can stop” its conclusion. But Egypt is currently facing water shortages, and its population is rising. “The Nile is a matter of life, a matter of existence into Egypt,” President Sisi said this past year, adding that he would use”all available means” to shield it.
What are the outcome? Both countries describe the problem as”existential” to their own people. Prime Minister Abiy, that faces re-election next year, knows that the Gerd is one of the few problems that unites Ethiopians of all ethnicities. Meanwhile President Trump, who once described President Sisi as”my favorite dictator”, has sided with Egypt, the US’s closest ally in the region, and blames Ethiopia for failing to cooperate. “I had a deal done and they broke the deal and they can’t do this,” he said. “It’s a very dangerous situation because Egypt isn’t likely to have the ability to live that way… they will wind up blowing off the dam.” Apart from a last-minute job by Mussolini’s Italy in the 1930s, it’s also the only sub-Saharan African nation that was never colonised. And its 9% annual growth rate over the past 15 years makes it Africa’s fastest-growing economy now. There are other reasons for optimism, too: over 70% of its citizens are under 30, with 50% under 15; and Prime Minister Abiy has controlled a successful procedure of societal and economic liberalisation. And its complicated ethnographic make-up introduces challenges to stable governance. A number of Abiy’s reforms have unleashed waves of protest within the nation’s nine ethnically based areas. For Abiy, the Gerd is a special chance for Ethiopia to put its own divisions aside. But — since Ethiopians are so heavily invested in it — it is also politically combustible. When the project’s chief scientist, Simegnew Bekele, was found dead in 2018, officially by suicide, protests broke out.