Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam near completion

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The resumption of discussions on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam follows the recent commitments made in August, by President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who expressed their intent to achieve an agreement within four months regarding the operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a project with an estimated cost of $4.6 billion situated on the Blue Nile. It’s important to note that the Blue Nile merges with the White Nile in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, before flowing northward through Egypt and ultimately reaching the Mediterranean Sea.

Egypt continues to raise concerns about the potential negative consequences if the dam operates without considering its water share, viewing it as an existential threat. As the most densely populated country in the Arab world, Egypt heavily relies on the Nile River to provide water for its agriculture and sustenance for its vast population, which exceeds 100 million people. Approximately 85% of the river’s flow originates from Ethiopia.

Ethiopia does not recognize the 1959 Nile Water Treaty, an agreement it was not party to, and one which was made between Sudan and Egypt, allocating the entire average annual flow of the Nile river to be shared among the two downstream countries, at 18.5 and 55.5 billion cubic meters respectively, but ignored the rights to water of the remaining eight Nile countries, of which Ethiopia contributes approximately 85% of the river’s flow.

The initiation of fresh discussions in Cairo, with Irrigation Minister Hani Sewilam emphasizing Egypt’s desire for a legally enforceable agreement regarding the operation and filling of the massive dam. Sewilam alluded to the presence of various “technical and legal remedies” for the dispute but refrained from providing specific details.

In the recent past tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa had escalated due to Ethiopia’s commencement of reservoir filling without a prior agreement. Significant uncertainties persist regarding Ethiopia’s downstream water release during multi-year droughts and the mechanisms for resolving future conflicts.

Ethiopia has firmly opposed the idea of a binding arbitration in the project’s final stages. It has also refused third party mediation by the United States, and more recently Arab league members states. It was rumored the United Arab Emirates’ involvements has sidelined the African Union arbitrations, a suggestion that was refuted by Ethiopia.

Ethiopia underscores the dam’s critical importance, citing the lack of electricity access for a significant portion of its population. Ethiopia’s rapidly growing economy and population, which is now larger than Egypt’s will requires a big boost in energy production.

Sudan, which has recently been mired in civil war is advocating for Ethiopia to cooperate and share operational data on the dam to prevent flooding and safeguard its own hydroelectric dams on the Blue Nile, the Nile’s primary tributary. The dam’s proximity to Sudan is a mere 10 kilometers (approximately 6 miles). Indeed, Sudan has long regarded the GERD as protection against seasonally damaging flooding.

Construction Update

The fourth and largest filling of the GERD reservoir is now complete. The amount of water to be stored in the reservoir during this latest filling will surpass the past three fillings combined. Given the pace of construction recently, and a strong rainy season, the dam’s filling is likely to be ahead of schedule. As such it marks a major milestone for Ethiopia’s mega project, which overcame past challenges and mismanagements, including corruption by the previous contractor, the Ethiopian Metals and Engineering Corporation. Seleshi said, “These are some of the impediments we had to overcome to get the project up to full speed from where it stood about four years ago”.

Civil engineering construction of the dam is now 98% completed, and the critical electromechanical work is 78% complete. Overall, the entire project is now 92.5% complete. It has been over one month since Water has reached the saddle dam. At the time of writing, the reservoir has overtopped the 620 meters height of the dam, with 5 meters to go in the the months ahead. This means for all intensive purposes the water filling is a fiat accompli.

Video tweet from Ethiopia’s Prime Minister showing the filled reservoir of GERD

The number of turbines was reduced to 11 instead of the original 13, the cost- benefit analysis indicates a cost saving to the tune of $210 million during the initial construction phase, and an added efficiency to the power output per turbine from 28% to 34.8%. Efficiency comes into play during the life of the dam when you consider maintenance costs and other servicing. These are some of the technicalities that the public was largely misinformed about.

Ethiopia anticipates substantial advantages from the dam. This monumental national endeavor has unified a country that has grappled with political turmoil and unrest in recent times. Despite possessing significant hydroelectric potential, Ethiopia’s large-scale hydropower infrastructure remains largely untapped, with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam being the nation’s most extensive self-funded initiative thus far. In essence, the GERD dispute is intricate and demanding; nevertheless, there is a potential for Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan to discover a resolution that is mutually advantageous and averts additional discord.

At 620 meters and 11 turbines energy output efficiency increases from 28.2% to 34.8%. This reduction in turbines saves $210 million and has a cumulative servicing and maintenance cost savings above $1.5 billion in 10 years.

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