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Ethiopia to start electricity production at controversial Nile mega dam

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed on Sunday inaugurated power generation from the Blue Nile megadam, a milestone in the controversial multi-billion dollar project.

Abiy, accompanied by senior officials, toured the power plant and pressed a series of buttons on an electronic screen, a move officials say kicked off production.

“This amazing dam was built by Ethiopians, but not just for Ethiopians, but for all our African brothers and sisters to benefit from,” said an official who chaired the launch ceremony.

“The day when every Ethiopian has sacrificed, hoped and prayed is finally here.”

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will be the largest hydroelectric power station in Africa, but has been at the center of a regional dispute since it started operations in 2011.

Ethiopia’s downstream neighbors Egypt and Sudan view it as a threat due to their reliance on the Nile waters, while Addis Ababa considers it essential for its electrification and development.

The $4.2 billion (3.7 billion euros) project is expected to eventually produce more than 5,000 megawatts of electricity, more than doubling Ethiopia’s electricity production.

State media reported that the dam had started generating 375 megawatts of electricity from one of its turbines on Sunday.

– Project delays –

The 145-meter-high dam is located on the Blue Nile in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of western Ethiopia, not far from the border with Sudan.

Egypt, which depends on the Nile for about 97 percent of its irrigation and drinking water, sees the dam as an existential threat.

Sudan hopes the project will manage annual flooding but fears its own dams could be damaged without an agreement on the GERD’s operation.

Both countries have pushed Ethiopia for a binding deal on the stuffing and operation of the huge damn, but talks under the auspices of the African Union (AU) have failed to reach a breakthrough.

The dam was initiated under former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the Tigrayan leader who ruled Ethiopia for more than two decades until his death in 2012.

Officials contributed a monthly salary to the project in the year of the project’s inception, and the government has since issued dam bonds for Ethiopians at home and abroad.

But officials on Sunday credited Abiy with reinvigorating the dam after what they believe was mismanagement slowed its progress.

“Our country has lost so much because the dam was delayed, especially financially,” project manager Kifle Horo said in his comments.

Among those in attendance at Sunday’s ceremony were First Lady Zinash Tayachew, the heads of the House of Representatives and the Supreme Court, regional presidents and ministers.

The process of filling the GERD’s massive reservoir began in 2020, when Ethiopia announced in July of that year that it had reached its goal of 4.9 billion cubic meters.

The total capacity of the reservoir is 74 billion cubic meters and the goal for 2021 was to add 13.5 billion.

Last July, Ethiopia said it had achieved that goal, meaning there was enough water to start producing energy, although some experts have questioned the claims.

by Robbie Corey Boulet

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