The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a powerful generational pivot

Do your emotions run high when the subject of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam comes up? Many consider it a highly controversial and politicized project that will endanger water supplies and escalate tensions and armed conflict.

These views are often based only on news headlines, while some people have expert or first-hand knowledge. However, it is also a subject that many are not comfortable discussing. Either way, it will be Africa’s Olympus when it’s finished.

The size of the project alone is enormous. The construction consists of four cascading dams, at an estimated cost of $5 billion. The reservoirs will hold about 74 billion cubic meters of water, which is the main concern of Ethiopia’s downstream neighbors Sudan and Egypt. But with a generating capacity of 6.45 GW, the Ethiopian government has cited the project as vital to the country’s economic growth.

Another impressive snippet of information is that the Ethiopian government is funding the entire project, along with loans mostly from China.

As the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) takes shape on the Ethiopia-Sudan border, the Nile is no stranger to damming (see Figure 1 below). In addition to several reservoirs, the Nile also sports the 2.1 GW Aswan Dam in Egypt. And, on the continent, the Nile is not the only one to see its hydroelectric capacity increase. The Konkoure River in Guinea is home to the Souapiti Hydroelectric Power Station where two units (225MW out of 450MW) became operational in November 2020. Another is the Kafue River where the 750MW Kafue Gorge Lower Hydropower Project in Zambia is set to be put in service in 2021.

Figure 1: Storage volumes of active reservoirs on the Nile and its tributaries. Source: Natural Communications

According to the International Hydropower Association (IHA), this resource is currently the main source of renewable energy on the continent with more than 38 GW of installed hydropower capacity, including 971 MW commissioned in 2020.

While the IHA places African hydropower at over 70% of renewable electricity share and around 16% of total electricity share, the potential impact of new developments on water resources raises concerns. concerns. Since hydropower has the power to sustain economies and provide much-needed access to electricity, IHA has tackled the problem head-on through a sustainability fund. As a result, project developers can access this fund to help them assess the environmental, social and governance performance of their hydropower project.

Learn more about the IHA sustainability fund

Full of downsides, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam also has co-benefits

Meanwhile, the worrying valve around GERD is that around 85% of the Nile’s water comes from Ethiopia. At the same time, almost all consumption occurs downstream in Egypt and Sudan. As stated earlier, Ethiopia is constructing the GERD primarily to generate electricity rather than to bolster its bulk water supply.

With countries depending on this water supply, it is essential to keep the channels of information open as to how quickly Ethiopia will fill the dam and how much water will be released seasonally.

According to an article in Nature Briefing [1], as of August 2020, construction was over 70% complete, as well as the filling of the first year of the reservoir by retaining 4.9 billion cubic meters (bcm) and, at the same time, retaining part of the inflows in the GERD tank throughout the filling process. Additionally, the remainder will be released by turbines to generate hydroelectricity or by the spillway and diversion structures.

The document explains that the levels in the Upper Aswan Dam (HAD) reservoir will decrease during the filling period compared to what they would have been without the GERD. In addition, HAD’s hydroelectric production will decrease due to reduced hydraulic load on the HAD turbines. When filled, the average release from GERD will be equal to its average annual input (49 billion m3), but with less annual evaporation losses of about 1.7 billion m3. Yet the seasonal pattern of these releases will have changed.

Aswan Lake and Lady in Egypt

It is predicted that the eventual regulated water flow from the GERD will improve agriculture and reduce the risk of flooding for all countries. At the same time, evaporation will be minimal compared to other dams in Ethiopia, which will help conserve water. Meanwhile, the dam will serve as a new traffic and pedestrian bridge over the Blue Nile, which includes a small number of bridges and a few pedestrian bridges.

So, without discrediting downstream water resource concerns, the GERD is an impressive building feat for Africa.

Until next week.
Nicolette
Editor, ESI Africa

[1] Wheeler, KG, Jeuland, M., Hall, JW et al. Understand and manage new risks on the Nile with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Nat Common 11, 5222 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-19089-x

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