An artist's rendition of the location where the Millennium Dam is being built between Lebeyat and Neqor mountains on a one-kilometre stretch of land in Benishangul-gumuz Regional State. Of the total 15 turbines the completed hydropower project is to contain, two are to be operational in 44 months to generate 700MW of electricity.
The laying of the foundation stone of Ethiopia's newest hydropower project resulted in a rare show of solidarity between the ruling and opposition parties as they joined hands in support of the construction, on Saturday, April 2, 2011.
The project, which was initially dubbed "Project X," has been named the "Great Millennium Dam" and will be constructed somewhere between 20km and 40km from the Sudan border.
The move was welcomed by Forum for Justice and Democratic Dialogue.
The development of the nation's hydroelectric power production is long overdue, according to Beyene Petros (Prof), chairman of the opposition coalition.
"It is right that Ethiopia uses its natural resources and we have no opposition to the government's intention to build the dam," Beyene said. "Our concerns are the after-effects of the move and whether stakeholders, such as other riparian countries, were consulted. Such moves need strong diplomatic support."
The announcement comes amidst a battle among riparian countries over harnessing the 6,650km Nile River. A 1929 treaty brokered by the former colonial power, Britain, granted Egypt veto rights over projects that may alter the flow of the Nile. A 1959 pact between Egypt and Sudan claimed 90pc of the Nile's waters for the two countries.
However, a spring located upstream from Lake Tana in Ethiopia is the source of about 85pc of the water flowing through Sudan and Egypt.
A Comprehensive Framework Agreement (CFA), signed thus far by Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, and Kenya established a commission to oversee dam building and irrigation development, effectively stripping Egypt of its veto rights.
The construction of the dam should facilitate regional cooperation rather than competition, Alemayehu Tegenu, minister of Water and Energy (MoWE), said in the first official statement about the dam following months of speculation, at the Sheraton Addis on Wednesday, March 30, 2011.
"Ethiopia will use the water mostly for generating hydroelectric power while the lower riparian countries of Sudan and Egypt can still use the water for irrigation," the minister said. "They can also import electricity from Ethiopia. If anything, the dam will help prevent flooding as well as siltation."
The river's average discharge is estimated to be about 300 million cubic metres per day, according to the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI).
The dam will have the capacity to hold 62 billion cubic metres of water, double that of Lake Tana, according to Alemayehu.
However, Forum recommended a cautious approach.
"Plans need to be put in place in the event of other stakeholders objecting to the plan," Beyene said. "We have not been informed if there are any contingencies in place. The announcement was bold and we believe the plan requires one to tread softly."
Yet, the minister was adamant in forging ahead.
"If we are not going to get along with our neighbours, our biggest concern is for the safety of the people," Alemayehu said. "All precautions will be taken and I am not saying that there are no concerns, but, as with other [dam] projects, we have taken precautions. "However, it is a well-known fact that the project would ultimately benefit both Sudan and Egypt."
The hydro construction component of the project has been awarded to Salini Costruttori, Italy's third largest general contractor that constructs an average of around 52pc of its projects in Africa.
The water will be stored in narrow gorges, which would prevent evaporation and retain 7.5 billion cubic metres, according to Alemayehu. This would bolster Egypt's move to prevent the evaporation of 80 billion cubic metres of water further downstream, he said.
If the 17MW Jebel Awolia hydroelectric dam in Sudan closed and the country started sourcing water from the Millennium Dam, it would prevent even more evaporation, the minister suggested.
At the opening of the Hydropower for Sustainable Development Conference 2011, held at the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) last week, the administration's move towards expanding its hydropower projects was also defended by Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.
"We are so convinced of the justice of our cause, so sure of the strength of our arguments, so convinced of the role of our hydropower projects in eliminating poverty in our country, that we will use every ounce of our strength and every dime of money that we can save to complete our programme," he said.
"The average Ethiopian would be excused if he or she were to conclude that everyone in the world supported our ambitious plans for the sustainable development of our hydropower resources," he said. "Most informed parties are supportive of our plan. There are only two small, but important, constituencies that are the exception."
Egypt is waiting for the Ethiopian government's reply to its request for technical and environmental studies on the Millennium Dam, Hussein Al-Atfy, minister of Water Resources and Irrigation for Egypt, told Al Masry Al Youm on Thursday, March 31.
"Egypt will examine the studies to determine the adverse repercussions on Egypt's Nile water quota," Al-Atfy said.
It would resort to requesting intervention from the international community if Ethiopia failed to reply, the minister said.
Yet, Ethiopia has discharged its duties towards all other riparian countries for the past 13 years, according to the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA).
"Any questions they have about the development of water have to come through the CFA," Dina Mufti, spokesperson for the MoFA, told Fortune. "This is the spirit and purpose of the CFA. We will not deal with them unless it is through the CFA."
The country's right to the water was also defended by Alemayehu.
"We have to develop our resources and country to the last centimetre," he said. "Partly as a ploy to divert attention from its internal problems, the Egyptian leadership creates confusion whenever the issue of water resources development is raised. We have found it difficult to source financing from multilateral financial institutions and donors because of the Egyptian leadership's continued campaigns to block any provision of loans and grants to Ethiopia intended for development projects centred on the Nile."
As a consequence, the Ethiopian government will bear the cost of the Nile hydroelectric project alone. The construction of the Tana, Beles, and partially that of the Gilgel Gibe II dam projects was financed by the country.
The estimated cost of the dam is about 80 billion Br, four billion Birr short of the Federal government's budget for this fiscal year.
Citizens can also help to finance the project by buying bonds from the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo), Alemayehu pointed out.
The Millennium Dam is an important part of the government's plan to meet the 10,000MW power generation target set in its GTP.
The Millennium Dam will have 15 units, each generating 350MW, and will generate 5,250MW once becoming fully operational, according to Semignew Bekele, project head of the Millennium Dam.
"Within 44 months, two of the units would be online and will allow for the generation of 700MW of electricity," he told Fortune.
Ethiopia has the capacity to produce around 2,000MW from hydroelectricity, geothermal energy, and diesel. The Gilgel Gibe and Beles hydropower projects supply 47pc of the country's electricity.
"The stakes are extremely high as Ethiopia's biggest enemy is poverty," Beyene said. "One way of fighting poverty is to nurture our energy sector so that it can fuel development projects. If anyone tries to prevent us from achieving this task, we will not be forgiving."