Ethiopia's 'grand dam' rouses citizens, dismays critics
In April, Ethiopia's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced plans to build Africa's largest hydropower plant along the Blue Nile river. The project is popular, but lack of transparency is a concern.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
In the western fringe of Ethiopia on the banks of the Blue Nile river, the nation's Prime Minister Meles Zenawi thundered that the country would overcome all obstacles to complete Africa's largest hydropower plant.Skip to next paragraph
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"No matter how poor we are, in the Ethiopian traditions of resolve, the Ethiopian people will pay any sacrifice," he said. "I have no doubt they will, with one voice, say: 'Build the Dam!'"
The government portrays the dam as a 5,900-foot long, 475-foot high beacon of progress that will banish the country's reputation for famine and dependency. The $4.8 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will lift the country out of poverty, the government argues, by electrifying the country's industrialization and making Ethiopia a regional power-hub - and all without a drop of the aid Ethiopia is synonymous in the West for.
But critics worry that the country may have taken self-sufficiency and ambition a bit too far in the way it pushed ahead with its largest-ever project unilaterally and with little transparent planning.
Secrecy has shrouded the 5,250-megawatt plant, nearly 20 miles from the Sudanese border. Although the site was identified in 1964, the decision to go ahead with what had been known as Project X became public less than a month before construction began on April 2.
Its unveiling shocked a host of interested parties.
At a launch in Addis Ababa, the Egyptian embassy's spokesman was astonished to learn a reservoir more than twice the size of Singapore would be created by a barrage Cairo had not been consulted on. Over four-fifths of the water for the Nile, Egypt's lifeblood, comes from Ethiopia's highlands, leading to historic tensions over usage.
Also uninformed was the Eastern Africa Power Pool, which was just putting the finishing touches on a regional integration study that leans heavily on exported Ethiopian hydropower. "We look forward to getting more information so we can factor it into our master plan,” Jasper Oduor, its Executive Secretary, said.
Similarly, the unilateral move was a blow to the Nile Basin Initiative, which is supposed to establish cooperative management of the river, and Norwegian consultants whose ongoing studies on a potential cascade of Blue Nile dams were rendered obsolete by the announcement.
The covert approach may have had the twin purposes of minimizing foreign opposition to the scheme while maximizing the impact of its announcement on Ethiopians - if so, it seems to be working.
Since Meles' speech, the public has been bombarded with advertisements, posters, reports, and speeches about the dam, as the state sells bonds to partially fund it. Most of a patriotic citizenry, who consider Egypt's domination of the Nile an acute injustice, approve of the scheme - even opposition politicians.
"We need this resource to lift people out of the abject poverty we have been wallowing in for centuries,” former member of parliament Temesgen Zewdie says. “There’s no question it’s an idea the Ethiopian people support.”
The popular cause combined with the ruling party's extensive influence - around 1 in every 17 Ethiopians is a member - has made for a highly-effective fundraising campaign. Often following a collective decision at staff meetings, public and private sector workers have bought bonds, taking the total raised to 7 billion Ethiopian birr ($408 million) in September, according to Bereket Simon, a longstanding ally of Meles and co-head of a GERD Public Mobilization Council.