While energy prices are rising exorbitantly worldwide, some countries like Ethiopia remain largely in the dark. Half of the population has no electricity. Two hydroelectric power plants at a superlative dam are supposed to supply them with it this year. But economically and politically, the project is tricky.
A dark strip runs through Central Africa and ends in Addis Ababa. If you look at a nighttime satellite image of global energy consumption, you will see that there is hardly any light in the middle of the continent, in countries like Ethiopia. The government in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa wants to change that. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Africa’s largest dam, is to supply Ethiopians and many Africans in general with electricity thanks to two hydropower plants.
Enough water is available for this. The Blue Nile, an important tributary of the main river, rises in the mountains of Ethiopia. Because a good half of the households currently live without electricity, the hydropower plants are a ray of hope. Ethiopia has plans to become Africa’s largest electricity producer. GERD could produce an average of nearly 16,000 gigawatt-hours per year. By comparison, Ethiopia itself consumes only half as much annually. The reservoir is soon to hold 75 billion cubic meters of water. That is one and a half times more than Lake Constance contains.
The dam is largely complete, as shown by LiveEO’s exclusive satellite images for WirtschaftsWoche. This year, Ethiopia has dammed the water for the second time. The images show how much the course of the river has widened after the first closure of the dam gates, and not only in the immediate vicinity of the gigantic structure, but far inland.
However, the final completion and, above all, the commissioning of the power plants are stalling. Apparently, the turbines are not yet generating any energy. In mid-September, the government in Addis Ababa announced that the first two turbines would go into operation within the next few months. Exactly when remained unclear. According to various sources, the GERD will be completed in 2023 at the earliest and 2028 at the latest.
In addition: Internationally, doubts keep arising, for example from the International Monetary Fund, as to whether the financing of the nearly five billion U.S. dollar project of the “Great Rebirth” is secured. Institutions such as the World Bank are holding back on investments. As is so often the case with African infrastructure projects, however, Chinese companies have made broad investments.
Ethiopia not only wants to supply its own population with the electricity generated from the Nile water, it is also a business model far beyond the country’s borders. A pipeline from Egypt to South Africa is to bring electricity to the surrounding states and expand the energy market in the direction of Libya, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
The effect would be enormous for many people, some of whom previously had no access to electricity at all. But the water that is abundant in Ethiopia and is supposed to provide for electrification is lacking elsewhere. About 2000 kilometers further north in Egypt. GERD has been a source of tension between Ethiopia, its neighbor Sudan and Egypt for many years. The Mediterranean country is heavily dependent on water carried by the Blue Nile from the interior of the continent toward the sea. After flowing through Sudan, it provides nearly 90 percent of Egypt’s water supply. The UN Security Council called on the contending states of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to find a solution to the conflict in mid-September.
Egypt not only threatens Ethiopia politically, but also spreads scientific doubts. At the end of September, scientists presented a study that criticized inadequate safety precautions and warned of a collapse of the dam. The Egyptian Ministry of Water was also involved in the study, i.e. the very authority that is responsible for the scarce commodity in Egypt.
Egypt is pushing for guaranteed quantities of water to be allowed through Ethiopia. However, the two countries have not yet been able to agree on this. At least the government in Addis Ababa signaled that it would not completely fill the basin in front of the GERD within the next two years, but would extend this process to four to seven years in order to accommodate the conflicting parties.
The LiveEO images from space show how the megaproject has developed since construction began in 2011. In 2015, the dam took shape, but water was still flowing through it. In July 2020, the water was dammed into a lake for the first time during the rainy season. Ethiopia uses the rainy months to collect five billion cubic meters of water in a best-case scenario. This amount would be enough to start up the first two turbines of the hydropower plants. The power plants are located on the left and right of the river directly at the dam. The 16 Francis turbines installed there – the most common type used in hydroelectric power plants – each have a capacity of 375 megawatts. Some of the turbines were supplied by the French company and Siemens competitor Alstom. Siemens, on the other hand, is counting on doing business with Egypt; German participation in GERD would probably have caused considerable disgruntlement in Cairo.