Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed officially inaugurated electricity production from the country’s mega-dam on the Blue Nile on Sunday, a milestone in the controversial multi-billion dollar project.
Abiy, accompanied by high-ranking officials, toured the power generation station and pressed a series of buttons on an electronic screen, a move that officials said initiated production.
“This great dam was built by Ethiopians but not only for Ethiopians, rather for all our African brothers and sisters to benefit from,” an official presiding at the launch ceremony said.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is set to be the largest hydroelectric scheme in Africa but has been at the centre of a regional dispute ever since Ethiopia broke ground there in 2011.
Ethiopia‘s downstream neighbours Egypt and Sudan view the dam as a threat because of their dependence on Nile waters, while Addis Ababa deems it essential for its electrification and development.
The $4.2-billion (3.7-billion-euro) project is ultimately expected to produce more than 5,000 megawatts of electricity, more than doubling Ethiopia’s electricity output.
State media reported that the dam, which lies in western Ethiopia not far from the border with Sudan, had started generating 375 megawatts of electricity from one of its turbines on Sunday.
Africa’s biggest dam
Ethiopia in 2011 launched the construction of GERD on the Blue Nile, roughly 30 kilometres (18 miles) from the border with Sudan.
The first phase of filling the vast reservoir for the 145-metre (475-foot) dam began in mid-2020.
The reservoir’s total capacity is 74 billion cubic metres, and the target for 2021 was to add 13.5 billion. Last July Ethiopia said it had added enough water to begin producing energy, though officials have not provided a specific figure and are believed to have fallen short of the target.
The project has raised tensions with Egypt, an arid nation of nearly 100 million people, depends on the Nile for most of its water needs, including for agriculture.
Cairo claims a historic right to the river dating from a 1929 treaty between Egypt and Sudan, represented by colonial power Britain, that gave Egypt veto power over construction projects along the river.
A 1959 treaty boosted Egypt’s allocation to around 66 percent of the river’s flow, with 22 percent for Sudan.
Ethiopia was not party to those treaties and does not see them as valid.
In 2010 Nile basin countries, excluding Egypt and Sudan, signed another deal, the Cooperative Framework Agreement, that allows projects on the river without Cairo’s agreement.
Ethiopia, one of Africa’s fastest growing economies in recent years until war broke out in November 2020, insists the dam will not affect the onward flow of water.
But Egypt fears its supplies will be reduced during the time it takes to fill the reservoir.
Egypt considers the dam a threat to its existence and Sudan has warned millions of lives would be at “great risk” if Ethiopia unilaterally filled the dam.
Talks sponsored by the African Union (AU) have failed to yield a three-way agreement on the dam’s filling and operations.
Another source of regional tension is the conflict since November 2020 in northern Ethiopia, which has sent tens of thousands of refugees fleeing across the border into Sudan.
Sudan is struggling with its own political and economic woes since a coup in October ousted the transitional government.
Relations between Addis Ababa and Khartoum have also deteriorated because of a territorial conflict over the fertile Fashaqa border region where Ethiopian farmers have long cultivated land claimed by Sudan.
There have been sporadic deadly clashes in the area.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)