Ethiopians in Helsinki served fresh perspective on the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)

20 Jun

By Keffyalew Gebremedhin – The Ethiopia Observatory (TEO)


Exemplary contribution

This June, the superstition behind the dalliance between Friday and its 13th day came with a rare special treat to Ethiopians in Helsinki, Finland. The members of the Ethiopian community were served fresh perspective engineering could offer regarding Ethiopia’s attempts to generate power from its Blue Nile River and extent of its possibilities.

The opportunity for a fresh and disinterested perspective on the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) was afforded the community, by none other than Asfaw Beyene, Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Director of the Center for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency at San Diego State University in the United States.

In this past year, Prof. Asfaw Beyene has emerged as one of the foremost engineering authorities on GERD. He comes across with expertise, positive disposition about what can and cannot be from purely an engineer’s viewpoint, genuine concerns and willingness to shed light and also help, if he could.

Besides teaching, Prof. Asfaw possesses diverse experiences, including in advising and consulting for governments/companies around the world on either their planned power sources, or when invited to help solve problems.

In the interest of transparency, it is important to disclose at the outset that Prof. Asfaw was found guilty of breaking the longstanding superstition of Friday the 13th. He jetted in that same day to Helsinki, where he was a guest of the Ethiopian Association in Finland, to whose members he availed his valuable insight on Ethiopia’s controversial dam.

Both the presentation and discussion focused on the hows, whys and also the not so much talked about but mysterious problem(s) the $4.6 billion costing dam –allegedly designed to generate 6,000MW of electricity – is facing, which the professor has identified. He says, in its present planning and arrangements, the dam will not do so above and beyond a third of that, as would be discussed in a moment. He presented this view first in an article a year ago.

Addis Abeba is surely aware of it, but the authorities seem to intriguingly choose to remain silent.

In Helsinki, the presentation brought together Ethiopians with differing viewpoints on GERD’s present and its future. Some of the participants were who from the get go have entertained doubts on political grounds, or transparency issues and accountability problems, or the whole approach of the regime, for instance, the state and degree of popular participation.

There are also those who view their support for GERD as their patriotic duty, as the case may be; others possibly do so to give political support for the regime they want to maintain in power as long, and have been contributing financing toward its construction.

The good thing about Helsinki is that both sides sat together – amicably as always. They attentively listened to the presenter. To the delight and satisfaction of his audience, Prof. Asfaw Beyene devoted time for the presentation, detailed explanations, discussions and responses to several questions, as well as reacting to comments.

To the best of my understanding, some of the views in his presentation were neither given prior thought by ordinary Ethiopians nor discussed in such a public forum before this time, with a knowledgeable person in our midst. Moreover, in my discussion with my compatriots, a sense of satisfaction and privilege was evident, which made me share that with others elsewhere in this piece.


Why is Prof. Asfaw redirecting discussion to engineering?

GERD’s importance for Ethiopia is in its promises for the future. Unfortunately, it has so far persisted in being cause for division within and outside the nation at different levels. In Ethiopian context, this situation has pushed GERD into entanglements in some unresolved issues, unknowns and unanswered problems and questions – politics and engineering losing their distinctness. This is something – if it were up to him – what the Helsinki guest speaker is striving to do away with.

Of late, it seems, the GERD debate among the elites in the diaspora is crystallizing along two major points of view – leaving aside a few strands on the margins. One side has given GERD a clean bill of health, I should add, in every sense. Its members may have tinkled champagne glasses and raised their banner high, scribbled on it: Let There Be Light!

Understandably, this has made the regime extremely happy. A weekly in Addis Abeba interpreted the impact of this ‘endorsement’ as a shot of confidence in the the regime’s arm – while preferring to attach it to “hawkish Ethiopia.”

The other side is still reasoning; crunching its numbers. It has begun collecting and assembling information and data, showing why in its present state GERD is a non-starter – a waste of efforts and resources. This, it claims, is because of all the possible crimes, flaws and inadequacy of the regime – political, governance, human rights, financial, accountability, structural, rule of law, corruption, etc.

Its concerns and charges are widely shared and real in many respects, although the way forward does not seem all too clear.

Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that Prof. Asfaw should start off his Helsinki presentation by making known the view he had held for sometime – already so noted in his June 2013 article. He said he did not have any problem with opposition to the politics, economics, lack of accountability, and most of all the heavy-handedness of the Ethiopian regime.

However, he comes strongly and repeatedly on his concern that the engineering aspects and related issues pertaining to this costly mega dam – built by scraping resources of a poor country and poor citizens – need not be ignored nor drowned out, as the construction work is progressing.

I am sympathetic to this view. There is merit in what he is saying, or trying to do to shift the debate to more substantive issues – given the importance of time for any corrective measures, especially since a dam is built to last, to serve, according to the professor, for over a century.

As one example, he briefly touched upon the debate among Ethiopians whether GERD should have been contemplated in the first instance, or a few smaller dams instead. While acknowledging this to be part of the idea toyed even amongst experts internationally in determining what and the approaches to a dam, nonetheless, he was not fully sold to the idea of small dams (aka distributed generation) logic for reasons stated below.

For a country such as Ethiopia whose rural areas are dotted with scattered and undeveloped villages, un-urbanized, he observed, this would make services too costly with transmission lines, stations and management of such dams with non-existent technically proficient manpower – an impossible proposition for Ethiopia.

To make his point, he indicated that there would be no difference in terms of qualification and expertise needed between those that manage humongous dams and those assigned to run the smaller power stations; those modern dams – big or small, are run from modern screens and buttons they must press, as the needed input and their expertise dictate.


Six-item PowerPoint presentation

The professor made his PowerPoint-based presentation, projecting six talking points, from which he addressed wide variety of issues. The explanatory note hereunder, gleaned from the presentation, summarizes his ideas is intended to provide readers gist of the points discussed:

    •   Justification for construction of GERD is not hard to come by – with the stark national needs in picture – especially if everything is going well with the engineering. Hopefully, GERD will become panacea to getting light and power to a nation wallowing in poverty and still in darkness. This does not mean that GERD does not have other problems.

    •   GERD is located 20km from the Sudanese border. The rationale is sound, the area being more favorable than the three other places, selected in the 1964 studies by the United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), which was carried out at the request of the Imperial Ethiopian government. The justification was that the bottom of the reservoir is hard rock and the area is known to be free of earthquakes. Therefore, the present GERD site is chosen because of relatively easy accessibility and potential for irrigation of a dam, which must serve, at least, for over a century.

    Prof. Asfaw Beyene during the presentation (Credit: Fasil Zewdu)

    Prof. Asfaw Beyene during the presentation (Credit: Fasil Zewdu)

    •   Prof. Asfaw did not hide his preference to dams free of complicated disputes and treaty problems between states. Regarding GERD, he indicated that it would have been better for Ethiopia and Egypt by now to find settlement.

    •   At the same time, he hinted the view that Egypt’s concerns are more due to loss of control of the flow of Nile, although if short filling duration for the dam is opted by Ethiopia, this could be a serious and immediate problem for Egypt. He suggested that Egypt’s concerns should and could have been addressed as a part of comprehensive environmental impact assessment.

    •   Nonetheless, he reminded his Ethiopian audience that all those dams known in the past to be targets of vehement opposition for environmental reasons are no longer under attacks or criticisms by anyone. For this, he cited a couple of examples – including China’s Three Gorge Dam. Therefore, he observed, hydro dams are good, so long they have behind them foresight, good planning and sound engineering that brings benefits to people, including concerned neighbors or nations.

    •   Regarding the final report of the International Panel of Experts (IPoE, see here), the professor picked and discussed selected issues, especially those pertaining to engineering, more particularly structure, dam height, saddle dam (45m high wall built at the edge of the reservoir to protect nearby lands from flooding), equipment such as turbines, etc.

    •   The Salini factor was troubling to the professor. He indicated that he had tried to contact the company regarding some of the anomalies that are being frequently raised. So far, the company has not responded, which he said is now being sold. The professor’s concern relates to an uncommon and unethical practice in which the construction company was granted the job with no-bid, then conducted the feasibility study, and then the design and construction without involving external reviewers (to his knowledge), which demonstrates an obvious conflict of interest. In other words, this conflict of interest is too obvious for anyone to see, when Salini has also been given GERD’s construction contract without any international competitive bidding. Therefore, the company’s role is partly responsible for demise of transparency in the construction of the great Ethiopian dam on the Nile River. This has left everyone’s reputation stained – including the government’s and anyone else associated with it.

    •   Finally, Prof. Asfaw wrapped up with one-word conclusion: OVERSIZED. This conclusion makes sense, when one realizes that the point of discussion is about the 6,000MW generating capacity dam. It is being built by a poor country at cost of euro 3,422 mil ($4,636 mil, according to IPoE report – of which euro 2,414 is for civil works and euro 1,007 mil for purchases of equipment from H/E&M). The fresh light the Ethiopian-American expert has put in public a year ago was reiterated in Helsinki; it is intriguing that the regime in Addis Abeba has not reacted either its admission of mistakes or oversight and correcting it, or rejecting altogether Prof. Asfaw’s calculation and providing its explanations and evidence(s). This dam is something the nation has paid for and owns it; it has full interest in it and, because of that Ethiopians deserve answer, as a matter of right!


Why less than 6,000 MW?

Prof. Asfaw Beyene has long concluded that Ethiopia would be getting neither all the electricity it planned to get from GERD, nor value for its money. This is to say, when all work on the dam is completed – the way things are today – under no circumstances would Ethiopia be able to generate more than a third of its planned 6,000 MW of electricity output, if it were to operate year round. He supports his case with the International Panel of Expert’s report itself, issued after his original paper – a report which states that the dam will have only 31% capacity factor, meaning it will not operate for the remaining 69% of the time. (For reference, consult the diagram he presented in June 2013 in Why is Ethiopia’s hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile sized for 6000 MW?.

Because of the importance of what the professor has unveiled in this area, it is necessary to look at it from different angles. In explaining this further, Asfaw Beyene pointed out in Helsinki that the 16 turbines ordered for GERD are in excess of the power that in reality could be generated.

The reasons are two: on one hand the dam’s height is 145m, net height 133m. On the other hand, the Nile may be the world’s longest river; but it is also its shallowest for most of the year – for nine months. This creates inadequate level of water during the non-rainy seasons.

Therefore, Prof. Beyene underlined that a design made for “near peak or peak flow rate makes no economic sense.” This, he said, is needlessly costing Ethiopia its scarce resources – to be specific among others – on the expensive extra turbines it cannot put to use.

He showed this using some rough calculations he chalked during the presentation to the Helsinki Ethiopian community to make that very point. What the numbers drive home is that Ethiopia has paid more for less electricity with the dam’s 16 turbines, when it could have gotten the same level of generation of power for less and with few of those equipments.

Why this happens, to reiterate, is because of inadequacy of the water level. It cannot rise relative to the dam’s net height of 133m to keep the turbines operational.

Based on the numbers he could put together – even before the official IPoE report was out – with the average river flow throughout the year and the dam’s height, he informed the Helsinki gathering his conclusion returned that Ethiopia’s power generation cannot be much in excess of about 2,000 MW on annual basis.

Surely, this has not been treated in the IPoE report; this possibly could be because whether Ethiopia gains or loses is not their assignment. Moreover, how much power is generated is neither the point of controversy with Egypt nor is it within the expert’s mandate. For all we now know, their mandate has been “to review the design documents of the GERD and provide transparent information sharing and to solicit understanding of the benefits and costs accrued to the three countries and impacts if any of the GERD on the two downstream countries …”

Therefore, what Prof. Asfaw has been saying is that the dam cannot produce the peak flow rate, since the water is low for the turbines to be fully engaged.

The solution for this problem may perhaps sound drastic in every sense. Prof. Asfaw did not want to elaborate nor push them in a formal manner by way of recommendations, as an expert – save implying it would require foresight and political courage.

His oft-reiterated problem is lack of all the essential information on GERD.


What now is the solution?

In fact, Dr. Asfaw was asked at the end of the presentation what could be done to ensure that this national dream would not stop or close down someday, so to say, like exhausted mine that has run out of its minerals.

The professor’s response is to appeal to every Ethiopian to engage in campaign for transparency and openness in the management of the nation’s affairs. In countries where there is the rule of law, he underlined, politicians cannot do whatever they like and get away with even when their actions involve serious matters with impacts lasting for decades. His refrain was that the regime must be held accountable for its actions and misdeeds.

In this case, he shared the view that the way out is to push for political reforms in our country. The end result must be transparency, accountability and openness in governance, as the way forward for Ethiopia’s development, the wellbeing of its citizens, and a much better future for all.

To my understanding, Prof. Asfaw Beyene meant that, had those restraints were in place on government in our country, today’s shortcomings, mistakes and problems we are constantly discussing could have been cited early on. They would have been discussed openly at the dawn of the project, were it not for the excessive secrecy that has surrounded this dam. Those who did not care focused on what they benefitted; those who cared were kept mum in fear, because of the fear of imprisonment or persecution.

Without united efforts and pressure, it is not possible to get the regime to open up for examination of all the technical details of GERD, secret arrangements it has made, if any, cover-ups of errors and miscalculations and its future management, especially aiming to serve the underserved.

Unfortunately, the authorities in Addis Abeba would not like to declare there be light on all of Ethiopia. For them, it appears that the primary and immediate purpose of GERD is to serve as source of foreign exchange through export of electricity.

The country’s foreign exchange problems are understandable. However, GERD is also being viewed as source of prestige and control. The preoccupation for the authorities now seem engaging in fierce campaigns around Africa, under the guise of African Integration, to create demand for Ethiopia’s electricity, an apparent neglect of the interests of the Ethiopian people. It has so far brought on board Djibouti, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan and Yemen – two of them Djibouti and Sudan – already service recipients having paid for 2013 about $32 million; possibly there may be some others on the pipeline, including Egypt at some point.

Presently, this transaction in electricity is happening when over 70 percent of the Ethiopian population is in darkness – of late including many parts of Addis Abeba. A World Bank document May 2014 on grant for five-year project for Ethiopia Electricity Access Rural Expansion Project, Phase II, indicates that the country’s electricity reach in 2008 was 17 percent. In the earlier, grants and loans the project was supposed to get electricity access up in five years to 50 percent, i.e., in 2013 – a goal which has not materialized.



Notwithstanding what has happened thus far, united efforts of Ethiopians must focus on getting the wrongs right. In fact, if successful, GERD could become Ethiopia’s title deed – the certificate of its long denied benefits – confirming its share in the much-coveted ‘real estate’ – on the River Nile.

There is no question about it that Ethiopia needs the dam and the light and power – a point everyone understands and agrees with – so long as its purpose is the country’s development and betterment of the lives of our people. The problem has been raised and we have also seen it in action that the government cannot be held accountable.

In life as in dams, the fear of the unknown is usually driven by ignorance, miscalculations, misfortunes, or the lust for success of the few in society manipulating the national agenda for given political ends. These find their roots in deep secrecy, ‘mythologizing’ something or someone.

This now must be broken.

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