Demystifying Ethiopia’s claims about the operational readiness of its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
Ethiopia has fallen far below target in its second filling of its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
It initially announced it planned to add 13.5 billion m3 of water to the dam’s reservoir. Then it halved the figure to a more conservative 6.9 billion m3. In the end, it has only been able to add a paltry three billion m3 of water, despite the ample time of the filling season, which began in late April when Ethiopia simultaneously opened the sluices to allow a daily 50 to 70 billion m3 (about 1.8 billion m3 per month) of water to pass through to Egypt and Sudan in order to ensure that water would not be completely cut off from the downriver nations during the filling.
Ethiopia had planned to heighten the central section of the dam by 30 metres, which would have been sufficient to store the anticipated 13.5 billion m3 of water. The work on this was supposed to take only seven weeks and be completed by mid-June in time for the flooding season in July and August. However, in June Ethiopia announced that it had only been able to elevate the dam by 13 metres, which would only permit 6.8 billion m3 of water this year. It then came to light that it had only managed to complete six metres of the elevation and would therefore be able to store no more than an additional three billion m3 of water this year.
The failure to reach the construction target has once again stirred doubts about the GERD’s safety features and the extent of the cracks in the body of the dam. This led the Italian company in charge of the construction to ask the Ethiopian government to put off the filling this year, so that it could repair the dangerous cracks, signalling that the dam would not be able to accommodate even the more conservative filling target of 6.9 billion m3 of water this year.
As usual, the Ethiopian government tried to distort the truth and present this failure as a success. On 18 July, it announced that it had completed the second filling of the dam successfully in only two weeks. It did not mention the volume concerned or admit that structural problems had forced it to postpone the rest of the second filling until next year.
An average of 11 billion m3 of water flows through the Blue Nile in July and August. Ethiopia’s announcement that the second phase of the filling was complete in mid-July was an implicit admission of its failure to reach its target. Satellite imagery and monitoring of the work in progress on the dam confirm that Ethiopia has only managed to store three billion m3 of additional water in the GERD reservoir this year.
Ethiopia was also unable to begin operation of the two lower-level electricity generation turbines at the dam this year, despite its plans to begin generating electricity late last year or early this year. A reserve of around four billion m3 of water is needed to run these two turbines. More than this amount was already available after the first filling last year, which created a reservoir of 4.9 billion m3, and this year it has increased to eight billion m3.
The water level also reached 572 metres, whereas electricity generation at the dam only requires a level of 560 metres. The fact that the turbines have not begun working yet, despite the apparently favourable conditions, is another instance of Addis Ababa’s lack of transparency with the public at home and the world abroad, as it is clearly hiding the fact that work on the turbines, the electricity generating station, or the network of electricity cables is incomplete.
US-based scientist of Ethiopian origin Asfwo Beneni, a hydraulic engineering professor at Southern California University, has recently claimed that Ethiopia’s mega dam is “oversized”. He maintains that there was no need for the reservoir capacity of the GERD to exceed 30 billion m3 of water, instead of its projected 74.5 billion m3, and that the dam would never be able to produce more than 2,000 Megawatts of electricity instead of the 6,500 Megawatts that Ethiopia claims it will.
He also doubts whether Ethiopia will be able to operate more than eight turbines out of the 16 the designs call for. Somebody in Ethiopia must have realised this, because already the number of turbines has been reduced to 14 and a further reduction is expected to eight to 10. There is also a likelihood of slippage during the first heavy flooding of the Blue Nile, which could cause the dam to slide in the direction of Sudan.
One cannot help but recall the first report of the international inspection committee for the GERD that was submitted in 2013. The four-member team from Germany, France, the UK and South Africa, formed in 2012, said that the dam lacked feasibility and impact studies. The reality has since borne this out, as is evidenced by the changes Ethiopia has introduced to the number of turbines since it began work on the dam 11 years ago. Further evidence is provided by the postponement of the remainder of the second filing of the dam until next year as a result of structural deficiencies that are probably the result of Ethiopia’s haste to proceed with the construction of the dam, taking advantage of the circumstances in Egypt in 2011.
As a result of the Ethiopian failure to complete its second filling of the dam as planned and due to the fact that we are in the fifth year of the high flood years, the flooding of the Blue Nile began early in Sudan and with more than average pressure this year. As a result, some of Sudan’s dams have already begun to feel the strain from the extra weight of water and silt. This has put paid to another Ethiopian claim, which is that the GERD would spare Sudan from excess flooding and silt, a claim it made to give the impression that Addis Ababa had built the GERD as much for the sake of the Sudanese as for the Ethiopians.
Ethiopia is fully aware of the potential adverse effects of the dam on the downstream nations, but it has a habit of inverting the facts and sidestepping the truth.
The high flooding of the Blue Nile this year has enabled Egypt and Sudan to accumulate extra reserves of water. Next year’s anticipated high flooding will enable them to do so again, that is if Ethiopia, between now and then, does not repair the flaws in the GERD’s concrete walls, remedy the reduced security factors, and take all the necessary actions to prevent other possible cracks or flaws that could cause slippage or collapse, wreaking disaster on Sudan and Egypt.
*The writer is a professor of land and water resources at Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.