With hopes of reversing several years of economic decline, Ethiopia is aggressively pursuing the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, currently the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa. The effort would go a long way in furthering the country’s commitment to renewable energy in Africa and once filled, will bring electricity to the 65 million Ethiopians who are not currently connected to the grid.
Blue Nile geography
At 6,037 feet, Lake Tana is nestled in the midst of the Ethiopian highlands. During monsoon season, the highland mountains capture moisture from the winds blowing in from the Indian Ocean, flooding Lake Tana. The overflow that surges through the attached Blue Nile River and joins the White Nile River in Khartoum, Sudan, accounts for 87% of the water that will eventually flow into the major Nile River and into Egypt downstream.
A survey conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation between 1956 and 1964 under Emperor Hailie Selassie identified the site for the dam; however, 17 years of civil war and opposition from neighboring countries stalled progress. Egypt, with 95% of its population living within a few miles of the Nile River, was the dam’s most significant opponent.
When Ethiopia first openly pushed for the Renaissance Dam’s construction, then Egyptian President Anwar Saddat in a public statement declared, “We are not going to die of thirst in Egypt. We’ll go to Ethiopia and we’ll die there.” In spite of the promise of mutually beneficial, renewable energy in Africa, poor relations between the two countries would stall the project.
Ethiopia reluctantly held off plans to construct the dam until 2011, when Egypt was occupied with the civil upheaval of the Arab Spring. The Ethiopian government then laid the first foundation stone for the project, with its main detractor engaged with more pressing concerns.
Dam completion and unilateral decisions
Italian contracting firm Salini Impregilo, in collaboration with Ethiopia’s military-controlled Metals & Engineering Corporation, completed the dam in July 2020, to the discontent of Egypt. As Ethiopia continues to make moves towards making the dam fully operational in 2024 without consulting its neighbors, it could be undermined by its potential to send the region into conflict.
The first phase of filling brought the dam up to 540 meters. After receiving notice of Ethiopia’s intent to fill the dam a second time, Egypt issued a statement declaring the act “a violation of international laws and norms.”
A spokesperson from the European Union called for the involvement of the international community to ensure the dam would benefit the “over 250 million citizens of the Blue Nile Basin,” rather than become a source of conflict in the region.
Potential to connect Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia
Amidst all the tension, there is an undeniable silver lining. Through aggressive industrialization projects, Ethiopia’s government has been able to reduce poverty from 39% of the population in 2004, to 23.5% in 2021. Ethiopian citizens, both at home and abroad have purchased bonds to support the dam, signaling their belief in its poverty reduction potential. If Ethiopia can fill the dam and produce its goal of over 6,000 megawatts, it can strengthen the entire region’s economy.
Sudan especially, bordering Ethiopia, would be able to purchase reliable energy for its citizens.
Initially opposed, Sudan’s government has changed its tune, citing the potential of the dam to lift some of its people out of poverty. In addition, both Egypt and Sudan could benefit from a more controlled flow of the Nile, which is increasingly prone to unpredictable flooding.
For Somalia, Eritrea and the other countries that make up the Horn of Africa, the promise of a potentially stable, economically prolific presence in Ethiopia that draws in investors could bode well for the entire region.
The construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has forced all 11 of the countries it passes through to come to the table for negotiations. Apart from Egypt and Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Eritrea will need to come to the table to discuss the difficult politics of the Nile, as water quality and quantity deteriorates with climate change and as populations in the Nile river Basin grow.
The relationships that will be built between them, more than the promise of furthering the cause of renewable energy in Africa, might end up being the most positive product of the saga.
Edited by: Steven London & James Sutton