The reality of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)

Ethiopia commenced the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Abbay River, the Blue Nile, at Guba in the in the Benishangul Gumuz Regional State in 2011. The decision to build the Dam followed the signing of the Nile Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) a year earlier by the countries of the Nile Basin Initiative, set up in 1999. In addition to embodying the two cardinal principles of international water law, the principles of reasonable and equitable utilization and the no significant harm, the CFA provided for an alternative to the former unfair colonial treaties and agreements concerning the Nile River. The Nile Basin Initiative and the Cooperative Frame Work Agreement between them encouraged the spirit of cooperation among the Nile Basin states, granting each and every country the right to fair shares of the water. GERD was one result of such enhanced cooperation.

GERD, with its intended 6000MW of sustainable hydroelectric power, is an essential element in responding to Ethiopia's expanding energy needs for fast-growing economy, booming urbanization, increasing industrial development and establishment of industrial parks in different regions of the country. The attainment of the Millennium Development Goals was closely linked to access to energy; and there is no doubt that the Sustainable Development Goals can only be achieved if there is sufficient access to energy. Ethiopia is now engaged in a major expansion of its energy infrastructure to sustain its fast growing economy, create jobs and meet the needs of its growing population by utilizing its available natural resources, among which is water. Ethiopia`s hydropower potential is estimated about 45,000MW, two thirds lying in the Nile Basin. GERD is a part of the development of this potential. The construction of a hydropower dam on the Nile, in fact, is not a luxury but a necessity.

Since construction began, what the late Prime Minister Meles called ‘hydropower extremists' have been working against Ethiopia's hydropower development. Prominent among these has been the US-based advocacy organization, International Rivers. In its latest comment on GERD, International Rivers offers a typical misleading and inaccurate set of allegations, using false facts, and not bothering to carry out adequate research. It even begins with the absurd exaggeration that GERD threatens the Nile River, and thus "the source of life for about 300 million residents of Africa in 11 different countries." This absurdly fallacy (GERD can only directly affect three countries at most, of course) is followed by suggestions that Ethiopia's claims that GERD is locally financed, will provide significant amounts of sustainable energy for Ethiopia and for export, and benefits are all myths.

International Rivers claims that in the absence of foreign funding for GERD, the government looked for "unethical means to raise funds". It claims people have been coerced to buy bonds or lured" into participating into playing a lottery. They haven't. International Rivers also argues that "self-finance" is very risky and one result is that the government can't afford to exploit other renewable energy sources because of the cost of GERD. In fact, as any recent knowledge of Ethiopia underlines, the GERD has become a very real and prominent symbol of national pride, a flagship project for efforts of poverty alleviation and the renaissance of the country. It has significantly contributed to the sense of urgency surrounding energy development to respond to internal domestic demands. The real advantages of the GERD in response to the demand for electricity have encouraged citizens' participation, through bond purchases and voluntary support. There has been no compulsion. GERD has, indeed, supported economic and political change at the national level over the last few years, key driving factors for development.

It is also worth noting that GERD has also provided some 10,000 job opportunities, and substantially expanded infrastructure in the region. The multiplier effects will continue. The reservoir is, for example, expected to produce more than 7000 tons of fish every year, as well as allow for tourist development on a large scale. GERD's site was carefully chosen to take advantage of a narrow and deep gorge located in one of the country`s less settled areas, and avoid the need for massive human resettlement or environmental consequences. Less than 3500 households are being relocated to a similar area with provision of basic service facilities and infrastructure development previously lacking. They have given their full support to the project.

In terms of environmental issues, there is no sensitive habitat, national park, wildlife reserve, or National Forest Priority Area involved. To replace the small amount of woodland vegetation involved, an area of more than 2000 will be developed and protected. To avoid water quality problems, vegetation-clearing activity is being carried out as recommended by the International Panel of Experts. The clearance of vegetation that has been and is carried out prior to flooding will also minimize any production of carbon dioxide and methane. Far from contributing to climate change, GERD's output will actually replace more than 10,000 tonnes of greenhouse from gas or coal power plants. Indeed, overall, the Government, underlining its commitment to environmental protection and conservation activities, has mobilized people at the local level to get involved in environmental conservation activities at a cost of 42 billion birr.

International Rivers claims that Ethiopia has shown no interest in other possible sources of energy, and that the cost of GERD makes this impossible anyway. This demonstrates either appalling ignorance or deliberate obfuscation. It is hardly a secret that Ethiopia possesses enormous potential for wind, geothermal and solar energy as well as hydropower, and it is putting a lot of effort into utilizing these sources.  According to the Renewables 2016 Global Status Report (REN 21), Ethiopia is the 5th major investor in renewable energy in Africa. It has currently over half a million solar lighting systems and over four million installed clean cooking stoves. The International Finance Corporation told the World Future Energy Summit in January that it was currently preparing the first round of tenders concerning 200 MW to 250 MW of solar PV projects and anticipated reaching 500 MW. Last year, Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation signed an agreement for 500 MW of geothermal power from the Corbetti geothermal source and has negotiated with Reykjavik Geothermal to develop an additional 500 MW. These two agreements could generate sufficient geo-thermal power for up to two million households by 2018 and 2021. This will be the largest independent geothermal power production investment in Africa. In addition, in September 2014, the Icelandic International Development Agency (ICEIDA) signed a Partnership Agreement with Ethiopia for geothermal surface exploration and capacity building for geothermal development. ICEIDA believes Ethiopia's geothermal potential is at least 5,000 MW. The Government is also investing significantly in wind power, inaugurating the Ashedoga wind farm (120MW) in 2013, and Adama wind facility in 2015 (153 MW). It is now building another wind farm project near the border with Djibouti,  for 300MW, and during this current Growth and Transformation Plan (2015-2020) it plans at least five further wind farms, and potentially many more, aiming to deliver up to 5,200 megawatts from wind power within four years at a cost of US$3.1 billion. Ethiopia has some of the best wind resources in the world and has a fully developed plan to reach around 7 GW of wind energy by 2030.

Similarly, at the domestic level, despite International Rivers' disparaging, and inaccurate, remarks about the lack of power in rural areas, rural electrification across the country is one of the Government's major foci to achieve the goals set under the Second Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP-II). Currently, around 5,554 towns have been connected to electricity in the country.  During GTP II, using local, private investment and intentional cooperation, a total of 10,205 towns will be connected to the national grid, raising the current 54% rural access to electricity to 90%. A major element in this will, of course, be from the GERD whose output, together with other renewable energy development projects, will raise the country's energy generation to 10,000 MW.

From the outset, Ethiopia has demonstrated that the benefits of GERD would accrue to downstream countries and the Northeastern African region as well as its own citizens. It based the construction of GERD on international standards and extensive environmental impact assessment as well as on the principles of equitable and reasonable utilization and of no significant harm. To enhance confidence and trust Ethiopia called for an International Panel of Experts (IPoE) to review the project shortly after construction started to help resolve the concerns of Sudan and Egypt as well as ensure transparency. The Panel, with experts drawn from each country and four additional international figures, reviewed the project documents reported to the three governments in May 2013. Its conclusions found GERD was being constructed to international standards and would have benefits for all three countries. It recommended two further studies to provide for a Hydropower/Water resources modeling of the whole Eastern Nile system, and a further Socio-economic and Environmental impact assessment as well as specific suggestions for each country. Ethiopia made it quite clear from the very beginning it would accept all the Panel's recommendations and it has already implemented those applicable to it. A series of meetings were held in Khartoum to discuss the two further studies. The three countries established a Tripartite National Committee with four members each, and this has now signed a contract with a French consulting firm, BRLi, to conduct the studies. Ethiopia has already committed itself to accept and implement the studies.

Studies by the Eastern Nile Technical Regional Office of the Nile Basin Initiative have confirmed that energy generation from the GERD will enhance regional and economic integration through power interconnectedness, regional cooperation, trust and confidence building. Regulated flows will allow a longer period of navigation on the Nile River downstream from the High Aswan Dam to the benefit of tourism in Egypt.  Capacity loss due to sedimentation at the High Aswan Dam will be reduced and its evaporation losses significantly reduced. Indeed, overall loss from evaporation will decrease by 12%. GERD will provide increased flood control and any risk of the dams located in Sudan and Egypt overtopping would be eliminated. Total storage capacity along the Nile River will significantly increase in the long term and this will reduce the risks from hydrological variability.  GERD will control the flow of the Blue Nile and reduce negative impacts on population and infrastructures in Sudan caused by recurrent floods. It will capture sediment and so protect irrigation canals and equipment from damage caused by sedimentation both in Sudan and Egypt. It will also improve the efficiency of Sudanese dams and water use and so increase their energy generation.

The GERD offers an  impressive list of potential benefits, and these are all ignored by International Rivers in its determination to provide misinformation and disinformation in its "proxy campaign against Ethiopia", and its efforts to disparage the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. It will not be successful. There is no doubt that GERD will play a catalyzing role in the 2063 African Union agenda of "Regional Integration" as Ethiopia shares the output with other basin countries. It is already providing the first power to Kenya, Sudan and Djibouti and building transmission lines; this in turn is encouraging people-to-people relations as well as expanding trade. International Rivers and its allied advocacy organizations should understand that if all the states of the Nile Basin act in the spirit of the two cardinal principles of customary international water law, that is equitable and reasonable utilization, and the no significant harm, as Ethiopia does, then the Nile Basin Initiative and the Cooperative Framework Agreement will, inevitably, prove the opportunity for further cooperation and real and extensive regional development.