Ethiopia activates dam
Ethiopia began producing electricity for the first time from its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) – a massive hydropower plant on the River Nile that neighbours Sudan and Egypt say will cause severe water shortages downstream.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed officially inaugurated electricity production on Sunday from the mega-dam, a milestone in the controversial multibillion-dollar project.
Abiy, accompanied by high-ranking officials, toured the power generation station and pressed a series of buttons on an electronic screen, a move officials said initiated production.
The prime minister sought to assure neighbouring nations his country did not wish to harm their interests.
“Ethiopia’s main interest is to bring light to 60 percent of the population who is suffering in darkness, to save the labour of our mothers who are carrying wood on their backs in order to get energy,” Abiy said.
“As you can see, this water will generate energy while flowing as it previously flowed to Sudan and Egypt, unlike the rumours that say the Ethiopian people and government are damming the water to starve Egypt and Sudan.”
Egypt’s foreign ministry, however, accused Ethiopia of “persisting in its violations” of a preliminary deal signed between the three nations in 2015, prohibiting any of the parties from taking unilateral actions in the use of the river’s water.
The first violations of the initial agreement related to the filling of the dam, the ministry said in a statement on Sunday.
There was no immediate comment from Sudan.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is set to be the largest hydroelectric scheme in Africa but has been at the centre of a regional dispute ever since Ethiopia broke ground there in 2011.
Ethiopia’s downstream neighbours Egypt and Sudan view the dam as a threat because of their dependence on Nile waters, while Addis Ababa deems it essential for its electrification and development.
The $4.2bn project is ultimately expected to produce more than 5,000 megawatts of electricity, more than doubling Ethiopia’s electricity output.
State media reported the 145-metre (475-foot) high dam – which lies on Blue Nile River in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of western Ethiopia, not far from the border with Sudan – had started generating 375 megawatts of electricity from one of its turbines on Sunday.
Egypt has condemned Ethiopia’s move to partially operate the first turbine in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
“The Ethiopian side has taken a further step in violating its obligations under the 2015 Declaration of Principles,” the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement published on its Facebook page on Feb. 20. Cairo believes the unilateral measure will disrupt the Blue Nile, despite not having a direct impact on Egyptian water interests.
On Feb. 20, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed inaugurated the first turbine of the controversial dam, with a capacity of 375 megawatts.
Once completed, the dam is expected to generate a total of 5,150 megawatts from 13 turbines. Approximately 7.2 billion cubic meters of water have been held in the dam’s lake over the past two years.
Negotiations under the auspices of the African Union (AU) were halted in April 2021 after the failure to reach a binding agreement on filling and operating the dam. Meanwhile, Ethiopia continued to fill the dam’s reservoir, while Sudan’s AU membership is still suspended following the Oct. 25 military coup.
An Egyptian official told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “We have not received any official information from the Ethiopian side since the start of this trial operation. Ethiopia is still following the policy of imposing a fait accompli without any prior consultations [with the downstream countries].”
He added, “The Nile cannot be managed unilaterally by any of the riparian countries. We discussed in the negotiations the importance of linking the GERD with the system of dams on the Blue Nile, which Ethiopia rejects.”
The fifth item on the Declaration of Principles between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia in March 2015 states that all parties should agree on rules for the first filling of dam and its annual operation, and that Ethiopia should “inform the downstream countries of any unforeseen or urgent circumstances requiring adjustments.”
The fifth item also calls for a coordination mechanism among the three countries. Yet none of the provisions were implemented by Ethiopia, which completed the first and second filling without the approval of either Egypt or Sudan.
Karim Kamal, an Egyptian engineer specializing in water facilities, told Al-Monitor, “Operating one or two turbines in the GERD does not have a direct negative impact on Egypt at the present time,” because “the quantities of water expected to pass from the dam after the partial operation remain equal to the quantities that were coming out of the GERD’s middle spillway.” But, he added, “the greatest harm is in the permanent operation of the dam without coordination with Egypt and Sudan.”
During his speech, Ahmed defended the largest hydroelectric dam project in Africa. Power from the dam could also be exported to Europe to reduce gas emissions, he was quoted as saying.
Ahmed also said that power generation from the dam will benefit the downstream countries as well. “The Ethiopian people do not want to starve and thirst the people of Sudan and Egypt,” he said.
However, Cairo stands firm in considering the partial operation as a step that harms its interests.
In an interview with Al Arabiya TV channel Feb. 12, Ethiopian Foreign Minister Redwan Hussein called on Sudan and Egypt not to stick to their position on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), noting, “The Ethiopians cannot wait forever. We expect the green light to use our resources.”
He said, “Egypt should encourage Ethiopia to finish building the GERD quickly because we must cooperate together in taking advantage of our resources, even during droughts.”
Hussein noted, “We have informed the Sudanese that we are ready to exchange data regularly to meet their concerns over the security of their smaller dams, but their position now serves the interests of a third party, not theirs.”
He continued, “Ethiopia provided more opportunities for Egypt and Sudan to benefit from the dam, despite their failure to appreciate it.”
He stressed that Ethiopia will use its resources without causing any harm to the downstream countries and that the dam is a project of cooperation and regional integration.
The Egyptian government said Tuesday it continues to implement its comprehensive plan to develop the country’s water network.
Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Dr. Mohamed Abdel Aty said the comprehensive development process of the water network aims to rationalize water use, rehabilitate canals and ensure sustainable development for agricultural projects.
The African nation suffers from water shortages, as it needs 114 billion cubic meters annually, while it only has 74 billion meters available.
To confront these challenges, Egypt set a plan to develop the irrigation system, replace and rehabilitate drainage and irrigation stations and spread awareness among citizens to conserve water.
The Nile water accounts for more than 90 percent of Egypt’s needs, or 55.5 billion cubic meters.
Cairo is anticipating a water shortage as Ethiopia began producing electricity on Sunday from GERD.
Egypt has embarked on implementing a strategy to manage and meet water demand until 2037, with investments nearing $50 million.
The program includes building seawater desalination plants and wastewater recycling plants with triple treatment.
Abdel-Aty held a meeting on Tuesday to follow up on the implementation process of the canal rehabilitation project and the switch to modern irrigation systems in al-Qalyubia Governorate, north of Cairo.
The ministry targets rehabilitating canals with lengths of up to 500 km in the governorate and switching from flood irrigation to modern irrigation systems in an area of 60,000 feddans by late June.
Work is underway to rehabilitate canals with 88 km lengths, of which 17 km have been completed so far.