A HORSE-drawn carriage festooned with balloons and Ethiopian flags stops in front of a crowd at a ramshackle football stadium.
Two women in traditional white dresses pluck a gold
trophy from the cart and place it on a stage inside a garland of red and white
roses. Beneath is a computer-generated image of the $3.8 billion dam Ethiopia
is building across the main tributary of the Nile River.
The trophy celebrating what will be the world’s
seventh- biggest hydropower plant, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, has
arrived at Debre Birhan town.
It’s the latest stop in the African nation of
almost 100 million people in an Olympic torch-style promotional tour.
The rally featuring circus performers in Ethiopia’s
red, yellow and green colours is part of a four-year drive to raise funds for
the GERD project that Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who died in 2012, said
Ethiopia had to pay for on its own.
An engraving on the trophy’s base dedicates it to
the dam’s owners, the Ethiopian people.
Public events maintain momentum for a
unifying project that offers hope, said Zadig Abraha, deputy head of the dam’s
fund-raising council, on May 5
“We have starved and experienced famine for so long
while having this immense resource,” he said about the Blue Nile. “When the
government decided to build the dam the people have enormously welcomed it as
they know they will benefit.”
In tents outside the festivities 130 kilometers (81
miles) northeast of the capital, Addis Ababa, dam bonds denominated as low as
25 Ethiopian birr ($1.22) are sold.
Assefa Yeshitla, a farmer at the pageant, bought a
500-birr bond with an interest rate below inflation. “I really want to
contribute with what I have,” he said.
A text-message lottery featuring prizes of cars and
houses is regularly held to help pay for works scheduled for completion in
Ethiopia’s government says the project will end
poverty and make it a regional electricity hub. GERD is designed to produce
6,000 megawatts, almost triple the country’s current generating capacity.
Downstream, Egypt worries the dam may leave its
citizens short of the water they get from the Nile for crops and industry.
Analysts including Harry Verhoeven, a professor of government at Georgetown
University in Washington, caution a lot needs to be done before the benefits of
the dam are realised.
At the pageant, cardboard placards scrawled with
slogans handed out to school kids, farmers and civil servants proclaim a
determination to harness the river that begins in Ethiopia’s highlands. Seven
weeks before parliamentary elections, the ruling coalition’s worker-bee logo is
prominent. Concerts, sports days and a bond-buying week in April mark the
project’s fourth anniversary.
“Meles, we will fulfill your word,” says a sign
that Assefa, wearing a green wooly hat, is holding. “The Nile dam will become
reality with the help of our people.”
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa when completed. (Photo/Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images).
Meles, a former rebel leader who took power in
1991, announced the GERD plan near the Sudan border in 2011, saying foreign
financing for Blue Nile projects had been blocked by Egypt. The location was
first identified in 1964 during the rule of Ethiopia’s last emperor, Haile
Selassie, after Egypt and Sudan signed a treaty in 1959 dividing Nile waters
Cairo’s government has said it’s concerned about
losing control of the world’s longest river to Ethiopia and receiving less
water during the filling of a reservoir whose capacity is more than 1.5 times
the Blue Nile’s annual flow. The spat reflects centuries of mistrust over the
waterway, though that may be changing.
In March, the countries, along with the other
downstream nation, Sudan, agreed in principle to cooperate on the GERD and said
that Sudan and Egypt will be first in line to buy its electricity.
“We have collectively decided to turn this project
from a potential regional conflict project into a regional cooperation
project,” Mohamed A.F. Ghoneim, Egypt’s deputy ambassador to Ethiopia, told
reporters in Addis Ababa on Tuesday. “When this electricity is being generated,
Ethiopia needs to sell it, Egypt needs to buy it.”
When studies on the GERD’s impact are completed in
about a year, the countries will try and agree on implementing the conclusions.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia forges ahead with its most ambitious project to date.
The mobilisation has raised 7.1 billion birr from
the public out of an expenditure of 40.4 billion birr so far on a project
The confidence to self-fund the biggest dam
possible in Ethiopia stems from a surging economy. Ethiopia grew quicker than
any other African nation, an average of 10.9%, over the past decade,
International Monetary Fund data show.
The lender warned in October that infrastructure
investments led by GERD risk “further crowding out” lending to private
companies in Ethiopia.
For the dam to pay off, the three nations have to
take concrete steps toward cooperation, especially as power-hungry Egypt will
be a key buyer of its electricity, said Verhoeven.
Ethiopia wants to export 1,200 megawatts to Sudan
and 2,000 megawatts to Egypt along two high-voltage transmission lines.
Exporting all of GERD’s power could earn about $1 billion a year, according to
a group of scientists convened by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
One of the most critical issues is to have the
links built and contracts signed as soon as possible, said Marc Jeuland, an
assistant professor at Duke University’s Global Health Institute in Durham,
North Carolina, who has studied the Blue Nile basin.
“If this project gets built and there are no deals,
Ethiopia could get stuck getting a really low rate for power and not being able
to pay off this large capital investment,” he said.
For the Ethiopians mobilised in Debre Birhan, the
concerns are less about electricity flows and more about ensuring the river
doesn’t continue to slip away from them.
“What did the brave person say?” chant a group of
young men. “I will not give the Nile to other people.”