Ethiopia on Sunday launched power generation from the largest dam on the continent, indicating intent to provide electricity to the unserved 60 percent of its population, a move that could also annoy downstream countries.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, fresh from a trip to Europe, inaugurated the electricity production just six months after the country filled the dam for the second time as Egypt protested.
“This is good news for our continent and the downstream countries with who we aspire to work together. As Ethiopia marks the birth of a new era, I congratulate all Ethiopians,” PM Abiy said.
Known as the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD), its construction since 2011 has been a subject of controversy as Ethiopia, the largest source of the Nile waters, bickered with Egypt, the largest consumer of the Nile waters. Sudan was also pulled in as it is a consumer of the Nile waters.
Ethiopian officials said the initial production will generate at least 375MW, according to state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting service.
Still under construction, the dam’s water levels will be filled gradually in future, reaching a capacity that can produce about 6,400MW of electricity. Officials have, however, recently given lower production figures.
“Exciting day to all Ethiopians and Africans at large. GERD started generating power today! Every Ethiopian has a mark on this grand project! Congratulations to all,” tweeted Eyob Tekalign Tolina, the Ethiopian State Minister for Finance.
Ethiopians raised all of the funds required to build the dam estimated to cost $4.5 billion.
The dam’s reservoir collected 4.5 billion cubic metres of water in the first filling and 13.9 cubic metres in the second phase, according to the Ethiopian Ministry for Water, Irrigation and Energy.
The dam, at 145 metres high and 1.78km long, could hold as much as 74 billion cubic metres of water.
But while Ethiopia hopes to expand electricity supply to its 110 million people where 60 percent of them have no access to power, downstream countries Egypt and Sudan have demanded assurances that the project will not harm their water needs or make it difficult to predict flooding.
Egypt and Sudan depend on Nile waters, for most of their water needs.
The dam lies on the Blue Nile River in the Benishangul-Gumuz region in western Ethiopia, near the border with Sudan. The region had recently seen violence from a local militia group so the launch of the project is also likely to boost security in the area.
While the three countries say they are ready to negotiate, the bone of contention has been the lack of compromise.
Previous talks brokered by the African Union failed to lead to a deal and Egypt asked for involvement of the United Nations, which Ethiopia rejected.
The two sides have failed to agree on safety measures in operations as well as the filling rates and times for the dam, two issues that Cairo thinks will assure it of water supply.
In July, the UN Security Council discussed the issue. But an African group of members in the council, A3, which then included Kenya, Tunisia and Niger, said the AU was capable of mediating the issue.
Egypt has banked on old treaties to claim large chunks of the Nile.
A 1959 treaty gave Cairo 66 percent and Sudan 22 percent claim. But the treaty was not signed by Ethiopia, the largest source of the Nile.
In fact, other signatories were still colonies and their consent was issued by their colonial masters. South Sudan, only independent from 2011, was still part of Sudan.