Ethiopia has started generating electricity for the first time from its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) – a huge hydropower plant on the Nile which neighbors Sudan and Egypt say will cause severe water shortages downstream.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed officially inaugurated power generation from the mega-dam on Sunday, a milestone in the controversial multi-billion dollar project.
Abiy, accompanied by senior officials, toured the power plant and pressed a series of buttons on an electronic screen, a move that kickstarted production.
The Prime Minister sought to assure neighboring nations that his country did not wish to harm their interests.
“Ethiopia’s main interest is to bring light to 60% of the population suffering in darkness, to save the labor of our mothers who carry wood on their backs for energy” , Abiy said.
“As you can see this water will generate power while flowing as it once flowed to Sudan and Egypt, contrary to rumors that the Ethiopian people and government are blocking the water to starve Egypt and Sudan.”
Egypt’s foreign ministry, however, accused Ethiopia of “persistent violations” of a preliminary agreement signed between the three nations in 2015, prohibiting any of the parties from taking unilateral action in the use of the river water.
The first breaches of the original agreement involved filling the dam, the ministry said in a statement on Sunday.
There was no immediate comment from Sudan.
No binding agreement
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is set to be Africa’s biggest hydropower project, but it has been at the center of a regional dispute since Ethiopia paved the way for it in 2011.
Ethiopia’s downstream neighbors Egypt and Sudan view the dam as a threat due to their dependence on the Nile’s waters, while Addis Ababa considers it essential for its electrification and development.
The $4.2 billion project is ultimately expected to produce more than 5,000 megawatts of electricity, more than doubling Ethiopia’s power generation.
State media reported that the 145-meter (475ft) high dam – which sits on the Blue Nile in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of western Ethiopia, not far from the border with Sudan – had started producing 375 megawatts of electricity from one of its wind turbines on Sunday.
Egypt, which depends on the Nile for around 97% of its irrigation and drinking water, sees the dam as an existential threat.
Sudan hopes the project will regulate the annual floods, but fears its own dams could be damaged without an agreement on how the GERD will operate.
The two countries have lobbied Ethiopia for a binding agreement on the filling and operation of the huge dam, but talks under the auspices of the African Union (AU) failed to yield a breakthrough.
“Undermining the sovereignty of Ethiopia”
William Davison, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, said the GERD is viewed domestically “as a symbol of Ethiopia’s resistance to external pressure”.
“The government has propagated the idea that foreign actors are trying to undermine Ethiopia’s sovereignty, so I think this will be interpreted as showing that they are still making progress despite a hostile environment,” Davison said.
Addisu Lashitew of the Brookings Institution in Washington added that the commissioning of the GERD was a “rare positive development that can unite a deeply fractured country” after 15 months of brutal conflict with Tigrayan rebels.
“Newly generated electricity from GERD could help revive an economy that has been devastated by the combined forces of a deadly war, rising fuel prices and the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. .
Ethiopia, the continent’s second most populous country, has the second-largest electricity deficit in Africa according to the World Bank, with around two-thirds of the population of around 110 million without a grid connection.
The dam was launched under former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the leader who ruled Ethiopia for more than two decades until his death in 2012.
Civil servants paid a month’s salary to the project the year it was launched, and the government has since issued dam bonds targeting Ethiopians at home and abroad.
Samuel Getachew, a freelance journalist from Addis Ababa, told Al Jazeera it was the biggest public project the Ethiopians have been involved in.
“This is [seen as] a welcome addition to what Ethiopians have aspired to be – a self-sufficient nation,” he said.
On Sunday, officials credited Abiy with restarting the dam after what they claim was mismanagement delayed his progress.
“Our country has lost so much because the dam has been delayed, especially financially,” project manager Kifle Horo said in his remarks.
The process of filling the vast GERD reservoir began in 2020, with Ethiopia announcing in July of the same year that it had reached its target of 4.9 billion cubic meters.
The total capacity of the reservoir is 74 billion cubic meters and the goal for 2021 was to add 13.5 billion.
Last July, Ethiopia said it had met that target, meaning there was enough water to start generating power, although some experts have questioned those claims.