The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam - Ethiopia’s hydro-powered Cleanleap

The construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) resonates of nothing but patriotism and deep commitment of Ethiopians towards achieving clean energy for their country. The project (formerly known as the Millennium Dam) is under construction in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia on the Blue Nile River, some 500 km of North West of Addis Ababa. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam - a project owned by the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation - began construction in April 2011.  The project is over 40% complete and expected to be finished by July 2017. The dam will be the largest dam in Africa: 1,800 m long, 170 m high and with an overall volume of 10.2 million m³. The engineering, procurement and construction of the dam, was awarded to Salini Impregilo with most of the funding coming the people through sale of bonds and the government of Ethiopia. 

The primary goal of the project is to generate hydroelectric power,  It involves the construction of a main dam in Roller Compacted Concrete (RCC); two hydroelectric power plants located on the two banks of the river – the one on the right bank with 10 Francis turbines (each with a 375MW capacity), the one on the left bank with 6 turbines – with a total installed capacity of 6000 MW and an expected output of 15,000 GWh/year; a concrete surface spillway with a capacity of 15,000 m³/s, a 5 km long saddle dam built in rock fill with an overall volume of 17 million m³; and a 500-kV substation and ancillary works. 

Apart from power generation the dam is expected to create other sustainable leaps in the country. For instance it is expected to create employment for over 12,000 people. This project will offer major benefits to Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. The dam which will be capable of handling a flood of 19,730 cubic meters per second will reduce alluvium in Sudan by 100 million cubic meters and also facilitate irrigation of around 500,000ha of new agricultural lands. It will also reduce approximately 40 km of flooding in Sudan, upon its completion. 

The regulated flow of water from the dam will improve agriculture and the impact of evaporation of water from the dam will be minimal compared to other dams in the country a step that will improve water conservation.

Since the inception of the dam in 2010, there have been a number of issues especially its possible consequences on Sudan and Egypt as downstream nations that heavily rely on the waters of the Nile for agriculture, industry and drinking water. However, to help address this dispute, MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Laboratory (J-WAFS) convened a small, invitation-only workshop of international experts last November to discuss the technical issues involved in the construction and operation of the dam, in hopes of providing an independent, impartial evaluation to aid in decision-making. The group’s 17- page final report, which was shared with the three concerned governments in early February, was released to the public on the 22nd of April, 2015. On March 23, the three governments signed an agreement to enter negotiations for final settlement of issues surrounding the dam’s operations. 

Though the agreement is preliminary, it marks a significant step forward. The group was carefully selected to include top experts on water resources engineering and economics and on the Nile Basin, and was charged with reviewing the current state of technical knowledge on the GERD and its potential downstream impacts. The idea was to give advice, and do it impartially. The hard negotiations ahead will require that foreign policy and water experts from each of the three countries have a shared understanding of the technical issues and willingness to compromise while hammering out detailed agreements on reservoir operation policy, power trade agreements, dam safety, and salinization control. Once this is done, 2017 when the dam is expected to go operational, Ethiopia will be one of the major suppliers of power to countries in the region like Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan and South Sudan.