In the west of Ethiopia, just before the border with Sudan, one of the largest dams in the world is nearing completion: the Grand Renaissance Dam. The gigantic construction is Ethiopia’s prestigious project, it is to build up the Blue Nile to a more than 250 kilometers long lake. Ethiopia wants to boost its economy by exporting huge amounts of electricity. But criticism and disadvantages have been ignored: The farmers in the area have to give way, Sudan and Egypt fear for their drinking water.
Huge cranes lift concrete and steel mats up. Flocks of construction workers hammer, saw and weld at a huge dam wall. It should be almost two kilometers long and 150 meters high. In the barren west of Ethiopia, about 25 kilometers from the border with Sudan, the Grand Renaissance Dam, the largest dam in Africa, is being built. Project manager Simegnew Bekele enthuses, “It’s going well and is driving us all together, the whole nation is hanging on this dam, it’s our flagship project.”
The huge construction site attracts onlookers from all over the country. Sabla Beyene has taken extra vacation for the endless car tour of Addis Ababa: “It is a big thing when the land is transformed: from someone who gets help to someone who can give help Ethiopia will be able to help ourselves and others by selling the electricity, we are not begging from other countries, in the future the others will come to us.”
The hydropower plant on the dam is expected to produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity – more than enough for all of Ethiopia and its plans for industrialization and growth. This will benefit all of East Africa, Simegnev Bekele is convinced: “This project is a tool in the fight against poverty to improve our lives and livelihoods, ultimately it will benefit us all.”
Ethiopia’s neighbors are very different. Eventually, the mega-dam will dam the Blue Nile, which provides a whopping 86 percent of the Nile, and is vital to Sudan and, above all, Egypt. “We do not want to attack anyone, for whatever reason, but we’ll take serious action to save every drop of Nile water, every single drop,” said Egypt’s then-president Mohammed Mursi in 2013.
The Nile and its waters are hotly contested. Decades of old treaties accede to Sudan and Egypt around 90 percent, but the countries on the upper reaches do not want to accept this anymore.
Yilma Seleshi leads the negotiations for the operation of the dam for Ethiopia. He assures: “Ethiopia has no intention of harming the countries downstream – neither Egypt nor Sudan – we just want our rights: the fair and reasonable use of the Nile.”
Nearly 10,000 people work around the clock and seven days a week at the dam construction site. Actually, GERD, as the dam is called shortly, should be finished this year. But the construction is delayed. It will be some time before the Nile can actually be dammed, Ethiopia’s Minister of Water Alemayehu Tegenu explains: “One does not fill a reservoir in one day, but over a long period of time, which is called progressive filling. We are not greedy.”
It will take six to seven years for the Nile Valley to disappear under a huge lake, 250 kilometers long, three times the size of Lake Constance. An estimated 20,000 people on the riverbank have to be relocated. “There is also good farmland there, but there is another problem: we also have a lot of livestock and in the new village there is no water for the herds, but the government said we had to go,” Mohammed Alfeki complains.
The prestige project has cost all Ethiopians a lot – in the form of non-voluntary donations, said Alemayehu Tegenu, Minister of Water: “We are not dependent on international donors, we finance ourselves. The Grand Renaissance dam is being paid by the Ethiopians and the Ethiopian government.”
Ethiopia had little choice: international loans for the five-billion-dollar construction did not exist – because of the political dispute over the Nile water. The threatens now to escalate again: The negotiations on GERD burst in early November. Nobody knows exactly how to proceed, but the Egyptian parliament has reiterated what President Mursi has already emphasized: Egypt is not prepared to give up a single drop of water.