Africa’s largest hydroelectric power station is slated to go online next year in Ethiopia. But the project along the Blue Nile River is also the source of conflict: Neighboring Egyptians fear it will affect their access to water and local residents don’t want to relocate.
Millions of tons of cement rest beneath Anteneh Mesfin’s feet. The 29-year-old engineer is standing in the sunshine on the 155-meter-high (509-foot-high) retaining wall of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). He’s smiling.
Far below Anteneh, the Blue Nile glistens. It’s a broad, powerful river — at least for now. Soon, Anteneh and his colleagues will cut off the brown current. That’s their plan.
The young engineer stretches out his arms and points to the 10-kilometer-wide (6-mile-wide) Nile Valley, where a shepherd is leading his goats. The man looks minuscule from above. “All this,” Anteneh says and pauses. “All this will be flooded by the Abay.”
Anteneh is working on what is perhaps the most thrilling construction site in Africa. Once the reservoir is full, it will be three times as big as Germany’s Lake Constance and, in some places, over 100 meters deep. Its water pressure is meant to power 16 turbines that will, in ideal conditions, generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity. No power plant in Europe can match that.
In one fell swoop, the entire electrical needs of the country’s 105 million inhabitants would be satisfied, and there would even be enough electricity left for export.
Critics of the GERD project argue that solar cells could generate as much electricity and would require far less space. But while South Africa continues to burn coal, Kenya dreams of atomic energy and Nigeria wheezes in the haze of diesel generators, GERD will supply Ethiopia with energy that is 100-percent renewable.
The view from space shows where Africa’s economic development has failed to gain traction. Aside from a handful of cities, the continent remains dark. It’s true that asphalt streets, railways and skyscrapers are being built, thanks largely to Chinese money. But without electricity, no notable industry, whether digital or manufacturing, can get going. There isn’t enough, and without it, no country can become one of the oft-mentioned African tiger economies. Hence, the dam.
The concerns of the country’s rural population seem puny compared to such lofty goals. From the steep retaining wall, Anteneh points down to the man and his goats: “The shepherds will no longer be here. They will need a boat.”