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.
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Some, such as former president and leading opponent of the government Negasso Gidada, say the hype and pressure of the campaign makes it very difficult for people to opt out. However, the attitude of a lady selling a handful of vegetables on the streets of one of Addis Ababa's most dilapidated districts is typical: "I would give more money if could afford to." So far, she has donated 30 birr (equivalent to $1.73).Skip to next paragraph
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The populist approach may alarm Western liberals, but unity in pursuit of national goals is key to Meles' "developmental state."
The bond-buying will also foster a savings culture, Bereket hopes. At less than 10 percent of gross domestic product, national savings are under half the rate that funded the investment of much-admired Asian tigers.
So far, no friction with the two downstream nations, Sudan and Egypt, has resulted. A joint committee between the three countries has been set up to study the dam, which Ethiopia insists will benefit all by generating electricity for the region and reducing evaporation due to its deep, elevated reservoir. Indeed, such are the mutual gains, Sudan and Egypt should rightfully cover half the costs of the project, Meles believes. Despite the cordiality, given the political instability in Khartoum and Cairo, relations could rapidly deteriorate.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam also has its detractors and dangers.
The Economist claims a flaw is that export deals have not been struck. However, links with Djibouti, Sudan, and Kenya are complete or underway, and the dam's scheduled 2017 completion date gives the power pool time to advance regional integration.
Also of concern is whether the government will conduct thorough technical studies and environment and social impact assessments. Institutions like the World Bank require them. But government supporters consider these types of activities unacceptable conditions imposed by a hypocritical, carbon-emitting West - not responsible due diligence. Unconditional Chinese funds are much-preferred.
Although the desire to be unshackled is admirable, the impatience could be costly. At the GERD site buzzing with construction activity in late June - 3 months into the project - an Italian engineer explained his team were surveying the rock edifices the dam will bind to. Yes, it was possible they would be found unsuitable, he casually admitted.
For International Rivers, which works "to stop destructive dams," the project is following worst international practice. "No-bid contract, an air of secrecy, and repression of debate. Such a flawed planning process could doom the project from the start," says its Africa campaigner Lori Pottinger.
There's also concern about how the country will pay for the dam given it will cost around 70 percent of this year's government budget. Optimists such as Ernst and Young's Zemedeneh Negatu say continued double-digit economic growth will make it affordable. Private banks, which have been forced to lend to the government for development projects, will be an important source of funds.
But the former World Bank country director Ken Ohashi says a need for foreign loans to finance Ethiopia's ambitious infrastructure projects could lead to debt problems. To the guffaws of a parliament containing one opposition member, Meles dismissed the concerns as the parting shot of a disgruntled neo-liberal.