The genesis and current state of GERD

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By Yohana Kassahun

By now, all Ethiopian citizens have heard about the Great Renaissance dam and the not only geopolitical significance it has but also the historical and economic relevance it has always had as well. “It’s our dam!” Being the echoing slogan for all Ethiopian social media fanatics for the past few months, it’s quite clear to anyone who has leaned an ear to realize how much this infrastructure means to our nation.
The significance of The Nile from a religious point of view has always been prominent. Gish Abay, or the Blue Nile source in Ethiopia, is seen as the direct outflow of the River Gihon from Paradise. The historical origin of the White Nile in Uganda, on the other hand, has a very different character. The water is not holy, but the waterfalls’ forces testify to the powers the river spirits possess. The Gish Abay spring in the Lake Tana region in Ethiopia is believed to be the Blue Nile source coming from Paradise. The holiness of Gish Abay has its origin in both Old and New Testament contexts. In Genesis, it is written:
A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there, it was separated into four headwaters. The first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Asshur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. (Genesis 2:11–14)
The River Nile is a history of salvation in Christianity. Moses and all the other Biblical figures like Abraham and Jacob drank of the Nile’s waters, including Jesus with his family. Among the Agows, it is called Gzeir, Geefa, Seir; the first of these names signifying God; it is also called Abba, or Ab, Father with sincere and genuine devotion, under these, or such like appellations, they pray to the Nile, or the spirit residing in that river.
The dam is one way to harvest the powers of the Nile river. The main contractor is an Italian company. We build (formerly Salini Impregilo), which also served as the primary contractor for the Gilgel Gibe II, Gilgel Gibe III, and Tana Beles dams. Simegnew Bekele was GERD’s project manager from the start of construction in 2011 up to his death on 26 July 2018. The dam is expected to consume 10 million metric tons of concrete. The government has pledged to use only domestically produced concrete. In March 2012, Salini awarded the Italian firm Tratos Cavi SPA a contract to supply low- and high-voltage cable for the dam. Alstom will provide the eight 375 MW Francis turbines for the project’s first phase at the cost of €250 million. As of April 2013, nearly 32 percent of the project was complete. Diversion of the Blue Nile was completed on 28 May 2013 and marked by a ceremony the same day. By January 2016, the dam had 4 million cubic meters of concrete poured, and the installation of the first two turbines was imminent. The first power production of 750 MW was slated for sometime later that year.
The work was approximately 70% complete by October 2019. As of March 2020, the steelworks reached 35% complete; civil works are 87% complete while electro-mechanical works are 17% complete, to attain 71% construction complete. Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia agreed to delay filling the dam for a few weeks on 26 June 2020.
On 21 July 2020, Ethiopian prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, announced that the first filling of the dam had been completed. The early filling of the dam was attributed to the heavy rains. In his statement, Abiy stated that “We have completed the first dam filling without bothering and hurting anyone else. Now the dam is overflowing downstream”. The first year filling target was 4.9 billion cubic meters, while the dam can hold 74 billion cubic meters when completed.
The first phase of filling the reservoir began in July 2020, to a maximum depth of 70 meters (230 ft), utilizing a temporary sill. Further construction work is necessary before the dam can be filled to a level for electricity generation.
Ethiopian Minister of Water and Irrigation, Selchi Bakli, mentioned that the engineering work in constructing the dam reached 91%, while the total construction rate was 78.3% in February 2021.
Although the completion of the multi-billion dollar dam was set to finalize in five years since its launch in 2011, the time-frame, given the new developments, extended to 11 years. According to Ethiopia’s The Reporter newspaper, the dam has consumed 98 billion birrs ($3.5 billion) against its initial total budget of 80 billion birr. The latest we’ve heard about the dam is that the possible defects with the hydro-electrical plant’s equipment will postpone its completion to the end of 2022. For seven years, constant tripartite talks have been between top officials from Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia to reach an agreement on the period required for filling the Ethiopian reservoir. The two other states are concerned over its effect on their share of the Nile River. Through the last negotiations and empathy for the two downstream countries, Ethiopia extended the filling of the dam for 4 to 7 years, although it can be filled within three years as per the design. Scientists of the three countries have developed a stage-based filling mechanism which takes about 4 stages where the first stages have 2 steps, and in the second year, the dam will be filled up to 595 meters that constitutes dead storage volume. Ethiopia suggested that all the parties conclude the first agreement based on the first filling up to the full level and then continue negotiating on the difficult part; which is the operational one entangled with rules that are beyond GERD. This is where we have serious contention and still have not reached conclusion. The assertion that GERD is built for political purposes is fake. It is meant to transform the lives and livelihoods of the 110 million people in Ethiopia who have contributed each walk of their resources to build the dam.
The dam has social and political importance to Addis Ababa, given its expected immense generation of hydro-power that would help in the country’s power shortage and consequently having an impact on the education and health sectors. Besides, the completion of such a giant project is considered substantial political leverage for Ethiopia’s people.