The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam-GERD, built on Ethiopia’s Blue Nile River will be completed in 2025 with an installed capacity to generate 5,150 megawatts of electricity. This will not only provide increased access of electricity to the Ethiopian population, but supply much needed energy to the nations of the Horn of Africa as well.
On December 19, 2022, I was given a VIP tour of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, known as the GERD. It was an exciting and joyful experience for me to examine this massive infrastructure project constructed by an emerging sub-Saharan African nation. It is proof that humankind is capable, nay obliged, to intervene upon the physical universe for the betterment of the human race i.e., progress for our civilization. The GERD, when completed, will generate from its thirteen turbines a total of 5,150 megawatts (MW) of electricity for Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. The GERD is a dam for development. Already, with just 750 MW being produced from two of the GERD’s functioning turbines, Ethiopia is already exporting electricity to Djibouti, Kenya, and Sudan. Additionally, Ethiopia has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with South Sudan to sell electricity.
Upon completion, the GERD will be the largest hydro-electric dam on the African continent and the seventh largest in the world. For this accomplishment, the Ethiopian people and their leadership should be praised for initiating such a grand endeavor over a decade ago, that is today contributing to the transformation of the African continent.
A Source of Pride
The GERD is located at the Guba district in the Benishangul-Gumuz regional state of Ethiopia, 20 kilometers (km) (13 miles) upstream from the Sudan border, a driving distance of 729 km (453 miles) from Addis Ababa. Construction began in 2011 to capture the hydro-energy potential of the Blue Nile, a winding river of 1,450 km (910 miles) flowing down from Lake Tana, nestled in Ethiopia’s dense range of mountains. The Blue Nile, which joins the White Nile in Sudan under the bridge connecting Khartoum and Omdurman, provides over 80% of the volume of Nile waters that flow north through Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea. Ethiopians, refer to the Blue Nile, which contains 70% of the country’s river systems, as Abay River. “’Abay’ is derived from the Ge’ez word for ‘great’ to imply that it is ‘the river of rivers’.”*
The Ethiopian people self-financed the $5 billion cost of the GERD. No international loans were issued by Western financial institutions. Nor did China provide any financial assistance, contrary to those maligning China’s relationship with Ethiopia and with Africa. As a result, the GERD is sovereignly owned by the Ethiopian people. It is a well-deserved source of pride and national identity, much like the victory of Menelik II against the invading Italian army at Adwa, on March 1, 1896. Recognizing this accomplishment, I have suggested that upon completion of the GERD, Ethiopia should establish a new holiday that will be called, “GERD Day.”
The author standing in front of a painting of the completed GERD pointing to the Amharic words that mean “Our Pride.”
Humans Create Wealth
Standing at the top of the dam’s wall, the GERD, erected between two mountains, with its vast reservoir, is resplendent in its beauty. However, it is more than simple splendor. The GERD is a potent demonstration of the power of human creativity, and humankind’s harmony with the physical universe. All infrastructure is the product of human intervention. We human beings alter the physical universe by creating improvements. This noetic-creative process of the mind is actually transforming our planet, and implicitly the universe, for the advancement of humankind . It is the lack of infrastructure that is killing Africa and harming my United States as well.
The modern form of Lake Tana is estimated to be 5 million years old. Therefore, it is reasonable to estimate, that the Blue Nile, which emanates from Lake Tana’s waterfalls, is millions of years old as well. Thus, the Blue Nile has flowed into the White Nile, unexploited for millennium, before creative Ethiopians willfully decided to make this “lazy river” do some work i.e., produce energy for the progress of civilization.
Given the staggering paucity of energy in sub-Saharan Africa, this injection of 5,150 MW is essential to preserve human life, which depends on energy for all its productive activity. The GERD will significantly improve Ethiopians access to electricity, which is currently estimated at 50%. Energy from the GERD will contribute to powering the industrialization of Ethiopia and will also benefit the greater Horn of Africa.
It is all but impossible for any visitor to the GERD not to marvel at this engineering achievement, but for me, it has additional significance. As a physical economist, I understand the vital role that infrastructure performs in a successful economy. Unlike simple financial transactions, services, and even tourism, all of which macro economists include in computing the GDP of an economy, hard infrastructure is unique. It inserts value by enhancing the productive process, which results in the creation of additional wealth for society. Infrastructure, a physical input, increases productivity, enabling the economy to expand (produce more tangible wealth) at a faster rate during the ensuing production cycle. All economies function on and within a given integrated infrastructure platform. A more technologically advanced platform creates more wealth and profitability for the entire economy/society. An economy without energy, a density of paved roads, and railroads per area, is doomed to create misery and death for its population.
Thus, the GERD, a human intrusion into nature, not only produces desperately needed energy, but raises Ethiopia’s infrastructure platform to a more advanced level that will permeate the entire productive process of the economy.
A Scientific-Engineering Wonder
The height of the dam is 145 meters and is 645 meters above sea level. Its length is 1,780 meters. The reservoir surface area is 1,874 km squared, and will hold 74 billion cubic meters of water. When the water level in the reservoir reaches a height of 640 meters above sea level, it will start flowing into the power generation structure of the dam. There will be 13 independent waterways supplying water to the turbines below through installed pipes, 8.5 meters wide. This directed water flow will rotate the turbines, producing a maximum of 400 MW of electricity per turbine. The water from the reservoir will descend by gravity 123 meters from the head (where the water enters) to the turbines below, at a flow rate of 330 cubic meters per second. These two parameters determine the potential electrical power that can be generated through rotating the turbines 125 times per minute across a magnetic field. U.S. based General Electric (GE) is supplying 5 of the 13 turbines. Presently there are two GE made turbines producing 375 MW each, which has added 500 MW of electricity to Ethiopia’s national grid. This has enabled Ethiopia to export 275 MW of electricity to its neighbors; 75 MW to Djibouti, 100 MW to Sudan, and 100 MW to Kenya. Both these turbines went into operation in 2022. The additional 11 turbines will produce 400 MW each, yielding a total output of 5,150 MW, with average annual energy production about 16,692 gigawatt hours, generated from the GERD.
The GERD Is For Africa
The GERD will insert over 5,000 MW of renewable electricity into an African sub-continent starved for power. With its already existing sources of energy, the GERD will make Ethiopia second to South Africa in generation of electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. While this amount of additional electricity is desperately needed, my calculations are that to transform African nations into modern industrialized economies, a minimum of 1,000 gigawatts of power has to be added to national grids. It would be wise for more African nations to emulate Ethiopia’s bold visionary initiative. This is the pathway for poverty and hunger to be finally eliminated on the continent.
There is no danger to downstream nations from the GERD. Ethiopia has extended the time it will take to fill the GERD’s reservoir beyond the original plan of 3 to 4 years, in order to mitigate any substantial reduction in the flow of the Nile River. Annual fillings will continue until achieving completion. Ethiopia is making every effort to maintain the flow of the Blue Nile while this huge reservoir is being filled yearly during the June and July months of the rainy season. After 3 fillings (2020-2022), the reservoir now holds 22 billion cubic meters of water. Sudanese officials report no noticeable decrease in the water levels of the Nile traveling through their nation.
The GERD will regulate the flow of the Nile, preventing both deadly flooding in Sudan, and the dwindling of the Nile during drier seasons. The GERD will have three spillways with a discharge capacity of 19,000 cubic meters per second to prevent flooding of the Nile. At the higher altitude of the GERD’s reservoir, evaporation, which can account for 10% of the Nile’s total volume of 84 billion cubic meters, will be reduced. Due to the size and depth of the GERD’s reservoir, there will also be a reduction in the transfer of sediments from the Blue Nile.
The drainage area of the Nile Basin includes 11 African nations whose total population is over 400 million and growing, with Egypt and Ethiopia accounting for over half of the people. A long term development plan that provides for the well-being of the people residing in the nations of the Nile Basin, should be established. However, we must be cognizant that the waters of the Nile River are not sufficient to provide for the expanding population of the region. Other alternatives must be sought.
For future generations of the Nile Basin nations to prosper, we should create the equivalent of a second Nile River through nuclear powered desalination. Nuclear power plants can be built along the Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts. This would deliver millions of tons of fresh water and provide thousands of megawatts of electricity to the Nile Basin nations. Application of nuclear energy, would also crucially upgrade the infrastructure platform of a large section of the African continent by introducing advanced nuclear technologies. Many pessimists will complain that this is impractical and will never happen. In response to these naysayers, I say: let us aspire to the same audacious optimism of Ethiopia when they conceived of creating the GERD where only mountains and the Blue Nile existed.
* Lawrence Freeman is a Political-Economic Analyst for Africa, who has been involved in economic development policies for Africa for over 30 years. He is a teacher, writer, public speaker, and consultant on Africa. He is also the creator of the blog: lawrencefreemanafricaandtheworld.com. Mr. Freeman’s stated personal mission is; to eliminate poverty and hunger in Africa by applying the scientific economic principles of Alexander Hamilton