Renaissance Dam - three years on

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Since its official launch on 2 April 2011, the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, shortly referred to as the GERD project, on Abbay/Blue Nile River has been a subject of heated debate and discussion among experts, politicians and ordinary people.
The 6,000 megawatts installed power generating capacity makes it Africa’s biggest hydroelectric dam and the seventh biggest in the world. The reservoir will hold 74 billion cubic meters of water, more than double the size of Ethiopia’s biggest natural lake, Lake Tana which is also the source of Abbay River.   
A project of this magnitude is bound to attract international attention and hence the debate is not restricted to a discourse within one nation. As a hydroelectric project on an international river, countries of the river basin have a stake in these discussions as well.
Over the course of the past three years, civil dialogues, heated rhetoric, diplomatic comings and goings have been intensified particularly between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. Works on the ground, meanwhile, are being carried out unhindered.
Away from the distractions of talks and debates, workers in Benishangul Gumuz region in Ethiopia’s remote north western location battle the humid and hot weather, with temperatures reaching as high as 48 °C, to piece together the gigantic structure.
Here, more than 7,800 workers, of which some 500 foreigners and nearly 1,700 heavy duty earth moving machineries are at work even during holidays to realize the single biggest development undertaking Ethiopia had ever witnessed.
While diplomatic discussions go one step forward and two steps backwards, works carried out in 24 hours shift at Guba Wereda of Metekel Zone has so far resulted in the accomplishment of over 30 percent of the project.
Indeed, the GERD project has become a symbol of Ethiopian unity, which was demonstrated not just in words but in deeds. According to official figures, civil servants, farmers, private businesses, Ethiopians living abroad and students have purchased over seven billion birr worth government bonds, out of the pledged 11 billion birr. And they continue to do so.
Given the deep-rooted sense of injustice in the utilization of Nile Rivers, the public rally behind this project may not come as a surprise. Such was the faith the government had on its people that, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, while inaugurating the project in 2011, highlighted the need for public backing for the project.
Citing the financial burden the 80 billion birr project would entail, Meles said the options were either to abandon the project or do “whatever we must” to raise the necessary funds.
“I have no doubt which of these difficult choices the Ethiopian people will make. No matter how poor we are, in the Ethiopian traditions of resolve, the Ethiopian people will pay any sacrifice. I have no doubt they will, with one voice, say: “Build the Dam!” the late PM said. Building the dam they are.
Three years on, more than the financial burden, what remains a concern for some Ethiopians is Egyptian efforts to undercut the construction.
Egypt holds a grudge against Ethiopia for the latter’s timing in commencing the project. The announcement of the GERD project, then dubbed the Millennium Dam, coincided with the ‘Arab Spring’ that swept Middle East and North Africa. Internal uprising left Cairo without its long time leader Hosni Mubarak who, like his predecessors, was hell-bent to prevent Ethiopia from carrying out any development activities on the Blue Nile.
Ethiopia’s timing stems from its ambitious five year growth and transformation plan launched a year prior the Arab Spring. Under the GTP, Ethiopia aims to generate 8,000 megawatts of electricity at the end of the period and GERD provides the bulk of the answer. A portion of that energy will be exported to Sudan, Djibouti and Kenya, neighbors who already have agreed to buy power from Ethiopia. Other countries such as Tanzania and Yemen have expressed keen interest to purchase power.
Ethiopia, as a sign of good gesture to Egypt, delayed the ratification of the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), signed by six of the riparian countries, until Egypt elected new president. The CFA seeks to utilize the Nile waters fairly and equitably among the riparian countries replacing old colonial era treaties signed between Sudan and Egypt.
Ethiopia also proposed the formation of an International Panel of Experts (IPoE) which, for a year, evaluated GERD’s possible impacts on and benefits to downstream countries. The initiative by Ethiopia, which was warmly welcomed by Sudan and Egypt, was aimed at building confidence with the downstream countries.
Perhaps Ethiopia’s biggest diplomatic success came after Sudan officially backed the project shortly after the IPoE report. Throughout history, Sudan sided with Egypt when it comes to the Nile issue. 
“We fully support the project because [GERD] benefits Sudan,” Sudanese ambassador to Ethiopia Abdul Rahman Sir-al-Katim said echoing President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s stance. He added that his country’s position is not influenced by politics.  
The IPoE, which included four international experts and six national experts, two experts each from Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, submitted its report to the three countries in May 2013.
The report recommended two further studies, which Ethiopia had carried out on unilaterally, to be undertaken jointly with the downstream countries. These studies are transboundary environmental impact assessment and hydrological simulation modeling.
Things seemed to be moving forward when the three countries started tripartite discussions regarding ways to implement the IPoE recommendations. The first two tripartite discussions appeared fruitful after the countries agreed to set up a joint commission which would hire international consultants to do the additional studies.
The third discussion hit a snag after Egypt insisted on the establishment of international experts parallel the joint commission to adjudicate possible future disputes. Both Sudan and Ethiopia rejected Egypt’s proposal.
Officials at the Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Energy (MoWIE) say Ethiopia do not foresee disputes with Egypt over the outstanding issues. They add there is no need to involve international experts when there are no disputes to adjudicate at this point. What is more, international consultants that would be tasked to conduct the studies is yet to be hired and hence the studies are yet to be done.
“Egypt’s insistence on the inclusion of international experts from day one has a hidden ill intent behind it and hence will not be accepted,” Alemayehu Tegenu, minister of MoWIE, said in his speech at the third year anniversary of the launching of the GERD project.
At this juncture, it would be sensible to question Egypt’s persistence on the inclusion of international experts when the real concern should have been on moving the discussion forward and conducting the studies recommended by IPoE. Instead, Egyptian authorities, accusing Ethiopia of obstinacy, chose to abandon the tripartite talks.
It remains unclear what Egypt’s official next step would be. But after dead ends in tripartite talks, reports have indicated that the north African country have resorted to pulling the oldest tricks in the book trying to subvert Ethiopian efforts to finish the dam. Officially, Egyptian officials have been engaged in diplomatic offensive against the GERD.   
Fekahmed Negash, boundary and transboundary rivers director at MoWIE, likened Egyptian diplomatic offensives to a smear campaign against the GERD project.
The latest war mongering statement also came from a presidential hopeful Mortada Mansour who promised to use force against the dam if elected – dragging the three years gains two steps backward. 
Egypt has witnessed three interim presidents and one elected president since the launch of the GERD project, however the country’s position towards the dam remains the same. Impact or not, Egypt does not want the GERD to be built at its current capacity.
In an interview in March, Fekahmed said the Egyptian position is tantamount to being against Ethiopia’s development.
“Building the dam is our sovereign right and no one can stop us from finishing it,” Fekahmed added.
Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen also said the successful completion of the Renaissance Dam hinges on the resolve of the Ethiopian people rather than the rhetoric coming from Egyptian officials.         
Resolve reverberates in the veins of every worker at the project site over 700km northwest of the capital Addis Ababa. They are determined to reach another milestone by the time Ethiopian’s mark the fourth year anniversary of the commencement of the project.
This time next year, workers at the dam site expect two of the 16 power units each with installed power generating capacity of 375 megawatts to start generating electricity. Earth excavation and the filling of concrete with reinforced bars is underway in preparation to place the power units at the right bank of the river. Adjacently, filling the main dam with RCC (Roller Compacted Concrete) is also underway. 
Project manager Simegnew Bekele says the two power units will generate 108 megawatts of power each at initial capacity. The 1,875 Km2 reservoir, more than the size of Mauritius, will begin accumulating water prior the completion period.
Apart from the much needed energy, the artificial lake which would be created by the dam would open the opportunity for fishery development and navigational activities including water sports.  The site also holds a huge promise as one of tourist destinations in the country boosting the development of towns along the way. The signs are already there, people trek to the project site from every corner of the country almost every week. According to data from the Office of the National Council for Coordination of Public Participation in the construction of GERD, over 44,000 people have visited the project site.
Indeed, the resolve so far demonstrated by Ethiopians has not faded as the country marks the third year anniversary with the motto ‘endejemernew encherisewalen’ (we began to finish it). If genuine cooperation does not bring Egypt on board, fait accompli will.