Capital Ethiopia Newspaper

One year on, Ethiopians still dazzled by Project X

The next leader in waiting, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hailemariam Desalegn says the support for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam needs to be sustained if the nation is to reap from what would be Africa’s largest hydro power plant.
Speaking before a crowd that filled the Addis Ababa Stadium on April 1, Hailemariam who chairs the National Coordination Council for the Renaissance Dam says the work has only just started.
The city residents like many others across the nation last Sunday marked the first anniversary of the launch of the audacious project with various events including a team of artists taking on governmental officials in a football match, and defeating them three to nil, much to the  amusement of the public.
The first year anniversary did not pass without its own headline.
The government says some 13 percent of the construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam is expected to be completed at the end of this Ethiopian fiscal year which ends by July, 8. However, most importantly, revisions on the project studies reveal that the Dam being constructed will have the capacity to generate 6,000 MW of electrical power; significantly above the 5,250 first announced.
Project X
Project X was its code name at inception. Some got wind of it despite senior cabinet ministers and leading experts maintaining sealed lips.
During a press conference in the early days of 2011, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi was confronted with a question probing details regarding ‘a major project about to be launched’ on the Abay (Nile) River.
Meles shelved out a confirmation or denial. But he said a public announcement was soon coming.
A few days later Meles unveiled what his diehard fans are now saying would be his greatest legacy: the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
The Millennium Dam
On 30 March 2011, Alemayehu Tegenu, then Minister of Water and Energy, for the first time provided details about the project.
The project, dubbed as the Millennium Dam marking the Ethiopian third millennia braced in 2007 as per Ethiopian calendar, will produce 5, 250 mega watts on completion, the minister told journalists.
The dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in the continent, the seventh globally.
A day after the project was made public; a 4.8 billion dollar contract was awarded to Salini Costruttori. The contractor has long ties with the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo) which also awarded the Italian firm the currently under construction, Gilgel Gibe III hydro power project. The firm recently completed Gilgel Gibe I, Gilgel Gibe II, and the country’s largest power plant Tana Beles dam.
The dam, a reservoir at 63 billion cubic meters, or simply put twice as big as Lake Tana, would be located on the Blue Nile River about 25Km east of Sudan in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region of Ethiopia.
Anxiety arose as to why the dam is ‘too close to the border’ and how the neighboring Sudan, and even more worryingly the country’s old foe Egypt might take the news that caught them by surprise.
The Grand Renaissance Dam
The dawn of April saw a flock of ministers, ruling party leaders, the nation’s elites and senior members of the diplomatic corps all in Guba Woreda in Benishangul Gumuz state.
Broadcasted live on all state run transmissions, the Millennium Dam’s foundation stone was laid by no other than PM Meles, now dubbed as ‘the leader who dared the Nile’.
But soon the Millennium Dam would change its name.
Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, while announcing his party’s choice for the Prime Minister post in 2010 before the parliament floor, described Meles as an initiator of the country’s renaissance.
The country’s 3,000 year old history would do nothing but create rage for the new generation as to how we ended up being a recipient of food aid and a definition of famine, Meles once told his party colleagues.
After releasing the opposition leaders who had shaken his party’s dominance for the first time,  Meles danced off the third Ethiopian millennium in September 2007.
Ever since then talk came about realizing the country’s renaissance, a route back to prosperity. Government pardons to the opposition, which later proved more controversial than first perceived, were even praised by the popular pop star Teddy Afro who raised the country’s spirits with the popular ‘Abebayoshe….We started in reconciliation’ hit single.
Two years in a making, a five year economic Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP), surfaced right before the ruling party assumed another five year term in power in September, 2010. The plan was officially announced as phase to the renaissance. Thus it was inevitable the much hyped project in the GTP also followed suit; the Millennium Dam became the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Sons of Renaissance
Bereket Simon, a senior cabinet minister, distinguishes his party leader and followers from the likes of Siye Abraha, as children of the Renaissance, in his book said edited by Meles, twice.
The Addis Ababa city also wanted to brace “lucky” new borns with the name Hidase; about 26 children born last Sunday, the first anniversary of the project launch, are all named Hidase, Amharic for renaissance.
Financing ambition
From the early day’s announcements along came a call to the public to help the government finance the dam’s estimated cost of 4.8 billion dollars. This is reportedly being reduced with some inputs undertaken by local resources.
“Using its standing in multilateral financial institutions and the donor community, Egyptian leadership constantly campaigns to block any provision of loans and grants to Ethiopia intended to development projects centered on the Nile,” Alemayehu Tegenu said announcing the project, also indicating why the self financing route is the only way to go.
Later, bond sales were well received by the public aimed at raising funds to cover the dam’s cost. In a rather tacit approval from most state employees, including Meles, they gave their one month salary to the dam which later dramatically were transferred as purchase of bonds.
While locally people are being drawn to buy bonds in birr, the Ethiopian Diaspora are also being enticed to purchase bonds in USD, Euro and Pound Sterling.  Some are doing fine; Ambassador Girma Birru’s office, the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington DC, sold half a million dollars worth of forex bonds in just two months after launching the initiative.
Diplomatic concerns
Egypt is still wary of the project. But Sudan came on board with Sudanese President Omar Hassan Ahmad Al-Bashir even vowing his country will provide the necessary support towards the successful construction of the dam.
To address Cairo’s concerns, a tripartite committee – made of up Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan’s senior ministers aided by experts was initiated and is now studying the dam’s overall construction and impact.
The committee, which consists of two experts from each country and four foreign professionals, convened its first meeting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The second meeting will be held in Sudan.
The committee was established on the basis of the pact signed by Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt to form a team that reviews the benefit and impact of the dam.