GERD – The Ethiopian Imperial Dream that may Turn into an Illusion

Ethiopian GERD dam an illusion or a reality
“All our efforts to [finance the dam] have been unsuccessful, leaving us with only two options. Either to abandon the project or do whatever we must to raise the required 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!” – Meles Zenawi, April 2, 2011, Guba Benishangul Gumuz.
By Malick Sarr,

According to the free online Encyclopedia Wikipedia: “Defined broadly, a visionary is one who can envision the future. Extended, a vision can be political, religious, environmental, social, or technological in nature. By extension, a visionary can also be a person with a clear, distinctive, and specific (in some details) vision of the future, usually connected with advances in technology or social/political arrangements.”

President Isaias Afewerki, fondly referred to by many as the great visionary leader, really did use his visionary acumen when he tried to dissuade his Ethiopian counterpart Melles Zenawi from going ahead with the Imperialist Ethiopian Legacy dream of damming the Nile.

The brotherly advice was given while both heads of state were attending the OAU conference held in Cairo, Egypt in 1993. Melles, who was apparently in a heated state of mind after having his feathers ruffled by Egyptian officials while trying to bring up the sensitive issue of building a dam on the Nile had vowed to President Afewerki that he was going ahead with the dam despite Egyptian concerns.

President Isaias has explained in an interview that the happenings at Cairo in 1993 is some what of a landmark of stepping stone to beginnings of the Renaissance Dam. The visionary leader foresaw already then in 1993 that there were more pressing needs for the Ethiopian nation and its people that the Ethiopian Government was better advised to address rather than engaging in a dubious costly exercise like the mammoth dam project; and history has proven him right.

The then President Melles was more bent upon achieving what all his predecessors had dreamt to establish: namely to be the Ethiopian president who finally turned the historic Imperial dream into a reality.

As President Isaias further explained, the genesis of the Renaissance Dam was rooted in politics and not on a solid long-term study that took the strategic cost-benefits of a mega project like that to the Ethiopian people.

Although President Zenawi may have vowed to President Afewerki in Cairo in 1993 that he would bring the Egyptians and Sudanese to their knees by building the dam, it was not until in April 2011 when the current Ethiopian Government announced that it was their intention to build four large dams on the Nile, including one of the largest in the world, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

Prime Minister Melles Zenawi thus never lived to see his dream come true.

The GERD project is by no means the first big dam project of its magnitude that have passed the drawing board in Ethiopia although it is the first scheme that has taken off. Similar plans which never saw daylight include “Project X” and “The Grand Millennium Dam”.

GERD will flood 1,680 square kilometers of forest in northwest Ethiopia (an area almost four times the size of Cairo), near the Sudan border, and create a reservoir that is nearly twice as large as Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest natural lake. The reservoir itself is estimated to contain some 67 billion cubic meters of water when it reaches capacity and that would take up to almost seven years to attain.

Ethiopia is the second largest recipient of International aid after Afghanistan and at present, the nation is faced with severe starvation with millions going hungry. It is estimated that 20,000 people will be displaced as a result of the GERD project.

The question many ask is how such a poor country with the severe problems that the nation is battling with can embark on a project tuning up to US$5 billion. A dam the size of GERD will entail lots of political consequences since the River Nile is a shared river with Ethiopia being the source of 85% of its waters.

As the Nile meanders from Ethiopia through Sudan, and into Egypt, Egypt depends almost entirely on the Nile as its main source of water. The impacts of the GERD project on the flow of the Nile are expected to be many, and Sudan and Egypt in particular are obviously very worried. Many International Observers fear that the problems imposed by the project may trigger tension or even war in the region.

It seems almost as if only the Ethiopian Government who are interested in getting the dam up and running; Ethiopia’s traditional donor nations don’t want to have any part of it because they all fear that if the dam becomes reality, the problems in it’s wake will flare no end of tensions in the region.

China is expected to fund the cost of the turbines but has wisely decided to wait until the project reaches that stage; if it ever gets there. The World Bank has thus far committed some US$230 million for the grid extension. The biggest problem faced by all stake holders is that the Ethiopian Government has up-to-date been very secretive about the project and all the stakeholders are frustrated about the lack of transparency in the project, it’s impact study and other related documentation.

The contract for construction of the dam was given to the Italian company Salini without any prior competitive bidding process. Salini is also currently engaged in constructing another of Ethiopia’s hydro electric dams, the Gibe III dam on the Omo River.

Norway, a key donor nation had thitherto been busy designing two other Nile dams got a rude awakening when learning of the GERD project process through parties other than the official channels sheepishly realized that she had just wasted almost US$3 million of taxpayer money. Their designs were no longer required as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was now the order of the day. It is internationally widely agreed that the GERD project was poorly planned and the expected output capacity of 6000 MW grossly exaggerated.

Should the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam ever become a reality, it will never reach the capacity that it is envisaged to generate and will have cost a lot more than initially budgeted; a budget the overoptimistic government thinks it will finance through the sale of dam bonds both inside Ethiopia and to the Ethiopian Diaspora. Those bonds have attracted more demonstrations by the Ethiopian diaspora in the US and Canada than the enthusiasm the government had hoped for.

The International Donor funders don’t want to be part of funding a dam that will strangle the water supply of Egypt and at the same time create massive ecological problems inside Ethiopia. The study is just not adequate enough and the Ethiopian authorities are not letting anyone else into it, not even Sudan and Egypt who will be directly affected by the negative impacts of the intrusion on the Nile.

The dream may yet turn into an ugly illusion just as President Afewerki tried to warn the demised Prime Minister Zenawi.

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