Africa’s largest hydroelectric power station is slated to go online next year in Ethiopia. But the project along the Blue Nile River is also the source of conflict: Neighboring Egyptians fear it will affect their access to water and local residents don’t want to relocate.
Millions of tons of cement rest beneath Anteneh Mesfin’s feet. The 29-year-old engineer is standing in the sunshine on the 155-meter-high (509-foot-high) retaining wall of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). He’s smiling.
Far below Anteneh, the Blue Nile glistens. It’s a broad, powerful river — at least for now. Soon, Anteneh and his colleagues will cut off the brown current. That’s their plan.
The young engineer stretches out his arms and points to the 10-kilometer-wide (6-mile-wide) Nile Valley, where a shepherd is leading his goats. The man looks minuscule from above. “All this,” Anteneh says and pauses. “All this will be flooded by the Abay.”
Anteneh is working on what is perhaps the most thrilling construction site in Africa. Once the reservoir is full, it will be three times as big as Germany’s Lake Constance and, in some places, over 100 meters deep. Its water pressure is meant to power 16 turbines that will, in ideal conditions, generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity. No power plant in Europe can match that.
In one fell swoop, the entire electrical needs of the country’s 105 million inhabitants would be satisfied, and there would even be enough electricity left for export.
Critics of the GERD project argue that solar cells could generate as much electricity and would require far less space. But while South Africa continues to burn coal, Kenya dreams of atomic energy and Nigeria wheezes in the haze of diesel generators, GERD will supply Ethiopia with energy that is 100-percent renewable.
Visualization: German Aerospace Center (DLR), Earth Observation Center
The view from space shows where Africa’s economic development has failed to gain traction. Aside from a handful of cities, the continent remains dark. It’s true that asphalt streets, railways and skyscrapers are being built, thanks largely to Chinese money. But without electricity, no notable industry, whether digital or manufacturing, can get going. There isn’t enough, and without it, no country can become one of the oft-mentioned African tiger economies. Hence, the dam.
The concerns of the country’s rural population seem puny compared to such lofty goals. From the steep retaining wall, Anteneh points down to the man and his goats: “The shepherds will no longer be here. They will need a boat.”
IIWhen the Water Comes
The inhabitants of Erring, a village on the edge of the Blue Nile, located 30 kilometers from the dam, simply siphon off the water. They let it settle until the sediment in the plastic canister sinks to the bottom before they drink it. Teha Abdilahi, 50, sips from a flat metal bowl on whose bottom a few grains of sand still dance. Then he passes the bowl on. Water from the Nile tastes delicious.
Water is life. But the Nile water that Teha and his family use, just as their ancestors did, will soon mean the end of any semblance of the life they have known in Erring:
Teha and his neighbors are part of the Gumuz people. The men sit on a rattan bed frame under a canopy and explain what the river means to them: The women wash gold in it, and young men jump and do flips from the edge or fish. Sometimes, they even hunt a crocodile with Sudanese ropes and fishhooks, Teha says. But the water will soon rise here.
Visualization: German Aerospace Center (DLR), Earth Observation Center
During the dry season, the brown water gurgles past the retaining wall through two openings in the dam, unhindered. Otherwise, there are no more gaps in the structure. The lowest part of the retaining wall is already at 25 meters. Despite the openings, a large lake formed here during the 2018 rainy season, and the water cascaded in an enormous surge over the lowest point of the barrier construction.
After the rainy season, the wall is set to grow to over 60 meters. The first two turbines could begin producing electricity in late 2020. At that point, it will all be over for Erring.
“When the water comes, we will leave, of course,” says Teha. He and his family will need to relocate, whether his wife and two daughters like it or not. “They’ll go where I go — they can’t live underwater, after all.”
IIIThe Flooding Plan
Ephrem Woldekidan decides who stays and who has to go. The 42-year-old is the lead engineer on the GERD megaproject. “Those who will be affected by the first fill level have already been resettled,” he says.
And the timeline remains unchanged – in December 2020, the first turbines are set to begin operating:
The exact number of inhabitants living in the valley that is set to disappear under the reservoir is still the subject of debate. The body of water will be up to 120 kilometers long and up to 50 kilometers wide. Ephrem, and thus the government, claims 5,000 people live in it and says most of those affected have already been resettled. But driving through the valley in April of this year, one could still see people there tending to livestock, working in front of their huts or napping in the shade.
Representatives of the valley communities, meanwhile, claim there are at least 15,000 people. A survey conducted a few years back by American scientist Jennifer C. Veilleux even put the number at 20,000. It is hard to come up with a precise figure. Human rights activists with the organization International Rivers claim that the Ethiopian authorities have stopped several investigations from being carried out in the valley.
The Ethiopian government has also shown in other places how little regard it has for those affected by development projects aimed at promoting progress in the country. The Oakland Institute, an American think tank, has reported that an agricultural and dam project in a valley on the lower course of the Omos River, in the southwest of the country, ultimately led to people being displaced without receiving compensation.
The government’s biggest concern, however, is that nobody knows when the reservoir will actually be full enough to generate sufficient electricity. It’s the Blue Nile’s power confluence with the White Nile in Sudan during the rainy season between June and September that makes the Nile what it is: the lifeline for Sudan and, especially, Egypt. That’s why the project is such a source of conflict.
IVThe Fight for Water
An Ethiopian study from 2014 showed that the reservoir will cause problems for Egypt.
When the reservoir fills up, much of the water will remain in Ethiopia. Despite other tributaries, Egypt’s Aswan High Dam, thus far the biggest hydroelectric dam in Africa, can expect its output to decrease by 12 percent, a development Egypt has so far been unwilling to accept.
“I swear to God, we will never harm you,” Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed promised Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in Arabic in Cairo a few weeks after his own inauguration. But it didn’t help.
Because of Egypt’s distrust of Ethiopia’s calculations, two French engineering firms are jointly putting together a new recommendation for the three countries on how the reservoir can be filled in a manner that is agreeable to all of the neighboring countries. This has been ongoing since 2016 and an agreement has yet to be reached.
Afurther problem are the immense costs, which have exploded, primarily as a result of corruption and the incompetence of the Metals and Engineering Corporation (METEC), a state contractor. Construction has stalled for months at a time in recent years because the state-owned company, which is controlled by the military, promised much but delivered little.
Numerous METEC managers have been arrested, and after the state firm lost the contract, Chinese companies jumped in. Simegnew Bekele, the long-time lead engineer who was considered by many Ethiopians to be the project’s father, was found dead in his car in the middle of the capital city in late July 2018, with a gunshot wound to the head. The official explanation was suicide.
In April 2019, President Abiy ordered a closer look at the accounts: Some 3 billion euros have already been spent on construction of the dam. The cement work is the closest to being completed, and the government claims that two-thirds of all the work on the dam is finished.
The government found creative ways of raising money for the dam: For several years, Ethiopia withheld a complete month’s wages from all public servants — from soldiers, police officers, teachers and even the engineers toiling on the dam’s construction site. It also organized a lottery, extracted a fee for the schooling of children and sold government bonds domestically and internationally.
Now, Ethiopians are supposed to pay again, and this time, it will be even more than before. To finish the wall and its turbines by 2022, the government needs approximately 4 billion euros more from its people.
As much as Ethiopians love their dam, many don’t want to pay any more. Even the government’s English-language newspaper, The Ethiopian Herald, reported that 48 percent of the population wants the government to continue construction without their money. And that estimate may even be too low.
In politically tumultuous times, however, the government needs the dam as a national symbol, perhaps more than ever. Abiy is currently fighting for Ethiopia’s unity. He has cleaned up METEC and reached out to old enemies. But he isn’t budging on one issue: The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will be finished, no matter how much it costs.
When Anteneh, the young engineer, entered the gigantic construction site three years ago for the first time, he could still walk between the two walls from one end to the other. He also lived through the project’s stagnation in the years it was managed by METEC. Now, the wall is almost sealed. Four-thousand workers are currently welding, laying cables and pouring cement on the construction site. Later in the day, Anteneh needs to check a hydraulic cylinder that just arrived from Italy.
He doesn’t think about the worries of the valley’s inhabitants, or the conflict with Egypt or the missing money. He has big plans of his own:
VIDEOS & FOTOS, VIDEO EDITINGJulian Busch
GRAFIKLorenz Kiefer, Cornelia Pfauter
PROGRAMINGLorenz Kiefer, Chris Kurt, Dawood Ohdah
COPY EDITINGLutz Diedrichs
RESEARCH AND FACTCHECKINGCordelia Freiwald
ADDITIONAL IMAGES AND VIDEOS PROVIDED BY DLR, SALINI IMPREGILO
DER SPIEGEL 27/2019
This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
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