Ethiopia's disputed Nile Dam starts to produce electricity

Sudan and Egypt have expressed concerns the dam will reduce their fresh water supply

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed at a ceremony to mark the start of power generation from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. AFP
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Ethiopia began generating electricity from its dam on the Blue Nile on Sunday, taking a step forward in its plans to use the $4 billion project to develop the country and lift millions out of poverty.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed toured the power station of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and started one of its turbines. He described the occasion as "the birth of a new era".

"This is a good news for our continent and the downstream countries with whom we aspire to work together," Mr Abiy said on Twitter.

The dam will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric project once completed and is expected to generate more than 5,000 megawatts. But it has been at the centre of a dispute with Egypt and Sudan since construction began 11 years ago.

Egypt reacted angrily to news that Ethiopia had started to generate power using the dam. The Foreign Ministry said it was the latest in a series of steps by Addis Ababa that "violate its commitments" under a 2015 declaration of intent signed with Egypt and Sudan that prohibits any of the three nations from taking unilateral actions.

Egypt, which depends on the Nile for more than 95 per cent of its fresh water needs, says the dam could significantly reduce its share of the river’s waters, wiping out hundreds of thousands of jobs and disrupting its food balance.

Sudan, which borders Ethiopia, says the dam could disrupt work on its own power-generating dams on the Blue Nile and, unless supplied with real-time data, poses a threat of flooding.

Egypt and Sudan have for years tried to persuade Ethiopia to enter a legally binding agreement on the operation of the dam and filling of its reservoir, and to agree to mechanisms to deal with persistent drought. The latest round of negotiations collapsed in April last year and no date has been set for future talks.

Mr Abiy dismissed these concerns on Sunday, as he has done repeatedly.

"As you can see this water will generate energy while flowing as it previously flowed to Sudan and Egypt, unlike the rumours that say the Ethiopian people and government are damming the water to starve Egypt and Sudan," he said.

"Ethiopia doesn't have the desire to hurt anybody. Ethiopia's only desire is to provide electricity to the mothers who have never seen a light bulb, to alleviate the burdens of those who carry sticks on their backs to generate electricity, and to extricate them from the poverty we're in currently."

Only one of the dam’s 13 turbines is currently operational, with an installed capacity of 375 megawatts. Project manager Kifle Horo said on Sunday that a second turbine would come online within a few months, and the dam was expected to be completed by 2024.

The 145-metre high dam is located in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of western Ethiopia, about 20 kilometres from the border with Sudan.

Ethiopia began filling the reservoir in 2020, a move that angered Egypt and Sudan because they had not received advance notice.

Ethiopia said it achieved its target for the year of filling 4.9 billion cubic metres of the reservoir's capacity of 74 billion cubic metres.

In July last year, Ethiopia said it had reached its target of adding another 13.5 billion cubic metres, meaning there was enough water to begin producing energy.

Mr Kifle did not say what the target would be for the coming rainy season.

Updated: February 21, 2022, 6:20 AM