Dam Rising in Ethiopia Stirs Hope and Tension By JACEY FORTIN

October 12th, 2014 Print Print Email Email

There is a remote stretch of land in Ethiopia’s forested northwest where the dust never settles. All week, day and night, thousands of workers pulverize rocks and lay concrete along a major tributary of the Nile River. It is the site of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the continent’s biggest hydropower plant and one of the most ambitious infrastructure projects ever in Africa.

Ethiopia is a poor country, often known best for its past famines, but officials say the dam will be paid for without foreign assistance — a point of national pride. Computer-generated images of the finished structure are framed in government offices, splashed across city billboards and broadcast in repeated specials on the state-owned television channel.

“We lean on the generousness of the rest of the world,” said Zadig Abrha, deputy director of the dam’s public mobilization office. “So there is a conviction on the part of the public to change this, to regain our lost greatness, to divorce ourselves from the status quo of poverty. And the first thing that we need to do is make use of our natural resources, like water.”

Ethiopia, one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, has poured its resources into a slew of megaprojects in recent years, including dams, factories, roads and railways across the country.

But its strong, state-driven approach has been criticized for displacing rural communities, elbowing out private investors and muzzling political dissent. The Renaissance Dam, its biggest project, has met with resistance even outside Ethiopia’s borders, setting off a heated diplomatic battle with Egypt that, at one point, led to threats of war.

The hydropower plant is expected to bring Ethiopia’s electricity generation to more than triple its current capacity, Africa’s second most populous nation, where constant power shortages stifle economic growth. Aside from a $1 billion loan from China for a transmission line, the government projects a $4.02 billion cost for the dam, with more than $1.3 billion already spent.

Near the border with Sudan, the dam is inching skyward as workers apply layer after layer of concrete that will eventually create a reservoir covering nearly 650 square miles. About 8,500 workers live at the project site, served by several cafeterias, a market, a barbershop and spotty Wi-Fi access. Giant floodlights keep construction going around the clock, and employees often work the whole week through.

From the very beginning, this relentless drive has put Ethiopia at odds with Egypt. The Renaissance Dam is on the Blue Nile, a tributary that contributes most of the water flowing into the Nile River, heightening concerns that it could threaten Egypt’s most vital natural resource. Fears of armed conflict surfaced during the brief tenure of Egypt’s former president, Mohamed Morsi, who said last year that “Egyptian blood” would substitute for every drop of lost water.

But under Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the icy relationship between the two countries has begun to thaw. Ethiopia’s prime minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, and Mr. Sisi had a cordial first meeting in June, and water ministers from Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan met for renewed discussions in late August. Egypt’s new foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, set a diplomatic tone during a visit last month to the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, declaring “a new phase of our relationship based on mutual understanding, mutual respect and a recognition that the Nile binds us.”

Ethiopia’s biggest obstacle to finishing the dam is not geopolitics — it is money. The project is overseen by Ethiopian Electric Power, a state-owned utility that is helping finance the project with its own revenue and loans from state-owned banks. Though the government may raise more money by selling bonds on global markets in the coming years, the current tactic of borrowing from state banks is draining available credit. That could squeeze private enterprise in a country that already has the world’s sixth-lowest rate of private investment as a percentage of G.D.P., said Lars C. Moller, the World Bank’s lead economist in Ethiopia.

“For every dollar of credit and every dollar of foreign exchange the project gets, there’s less for the rest of the economy, including the private sector,” he said.

“But in the long term, the investment is likely to pay off well,” Mr. Moller added, noting that Ethiopia’s plan to sell excess energy to neighboring counties could bring in about $1 billion in annual export revenue starting in 2021, four years after the dam is scheduled to be completed.

Ethiopia’s state finance minister, Abraham Tekeste, said it was a price worth paying. “We know that we are sacrificing in the short term, but this is for a long-term objective,” he said. “We don’t see any contradiction.”

More than $357 million spent so far has come from Ethiopians, both domestically and abroad, who have been encouraged to donate money or purchase bonds, according to Mr. Zadig.

Workers on the government payroll, some of whom make as little as $32.68 per month, have been pushed to buy bonds worth a full month’s salary every year through a system that deducts straight from their paychecks.

Merera Gudina, an opposition party leader who teaches political science at the government-funded Addis Ababa University, said he and colleagues had complained when their wages were siphoned off for bond purchases, leading the university to stop the program after about one year.

“People were not against the dam, but there were a lot of logistical questions,” he said. “We were not paying voluntarily.”

The government also leads meetings to encourage private-sector workers to buy bonds. Wossene Hailu, whose Wossi Garment Design Factory sits on the outskirts of the capital, got involved when members of her garment association were invited to one of these gatherings. “We got a lot of information — how it’s done, how we can benefit from it, things like that — and everyone was convinced,” she said.

Ethiopia is desperate to spur manufacturing, which it sees as critical to its long-term growth. But the industry has been just 4 percent of the nation’s G.D.P. for years. Ms. Wossene’s lean enterprise fills small international orders and produces clothes and blankets for local markets, but she said whole-day power failures sometimes caused delays.

The situation is even more dire in rural areas, where most households are not connected to the grid. This is a symptom of broader developmental challenges: Despite government claims that the economy has grown at an average rate of 10.9 percent annually over the last decade, Ethiopia remains poor, with about 30 percent of the population living on less than $1.25 per day.

Officials hope the dam will chip away at that imbalance, but its first impact on poor communities will be disruptive. The project manager, Semegnew Bekele, said the reservoir would displace an estimated 3,700 households.

Other development projects have also been criticized. A smaller dam nearing completion in southern Ethiopia could threaten ecosystems affecting hundreds of thousands of people. Huge land leases to foreign commercial farms have displaced communities and left tens of thousands of acres uncultivated.

Clearing land has only just begun, but Mr. Semegnew said those displaced would be fairly compensated.

On a regional level, experts say the dam’s overall environmental effect could be positive. Though rainfall may increase in East Africa as a result of global warming, it could also become less predictable, said Matthew McCartney, a principal researcher at the International Water Management Institute. The Renaissance Dam could mitigate this problem by regulating the flow of the Blue Nile and potentially increasing it during dry periods, he said.

Building the vast reservoir needed to generate maximum power, on the other hand, poses some risks to Egypt and Sudan, as it will temporarily lessen the flow downstream.

“Because it is such a large volume of storage, to mitigate downstream impacts, the dam will have to be filled over a period of several years,” Dr. McCartney said. “The rate of filling will need to vary depending on inflows, which will in turn depend on the rainfall.”

Two vital studies on downstream effects will be carried out over the next six months, and Egypt will be keeping a critical eye on the results. But for many Ethiopians, the dam is a testament to the abilities of a country determined to go it alone.

“It’s hope, it’s hope,” Ms. Wossene said. “When I see the dam on TV, I say: ‘Ah, very soon. We’re getting there!’ That’s the feeling I get.”

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