- Experts project only 6 percent chance of low Blue Nile flow
- Ethiopia’s latest plan was to start filling reservoir this year
- Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan still discussing how to mitigate risk
International experts have projected an above average flow in the Blue Nile river this year when the government may start filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Africa’s largest hydropower project.
That is potentially important for the scheme known as GERD, which alarms Nile-dependent Egypt, as it could allow Ethiopia to start impounding water at a reasonable rate without causing downstream shortages.
“The relative consistency of the 2018 prediction across models of different origin and structure provides some confidence that there is a high probability of average to above average flow in the coming season,” said the Ad hoc Blue Nile Forecast Group, a collection of eight scientists, who calculated that there was only a six percent chance of a below normal flow after this year’s rainy season.
Ethiopia’s latest plan is to start electricity generation this year, but it has not announced that it has started collecting water that will amount to around 1.5 times the river’s average annual flow at GERD.
The two nations and Sudan are locked in slow-moving talks over impact assessments and how to mitigate risks stemming from the damming of the Nile’s main tributary. While Egypt wants the filling strategy to be agreed collaboratively, Ethiopia looks set to press ahead even if there’s no consensus.
GERD’s effect on water availability and energy production in Sudan and Egypt will depend on the levels of their own dams at the start of the filling period and the extent of cooperation, as well as the impoundment rate, according to a 2016 study led by Kevin Wheeler from the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University.
“Assured protection of Egypt’s needs across all hydrologic conditions is only feasible with cooperative management of the upstream infrastructure in Ethiopia and Sudan,” the study said. If each year Ethiopia releases around half of the Blue Nile’s average annual flow then it will probably take five years to fill the reservoir, it said.
The 6,450-megawatt capacity hydropower plant is domestically funded and is valued at 3.4 billion Euros by its main contractor. Initial generation from two turbines was slated to begin as early as 2015 for the scheme that’s been accompanied by a concerted fundraising campaign.
Italy’s Salini Impregilo began building the dam in 2010 with the electro-mechanical works handled by the Metals and Engineering Corporation (MetEC), which was run by military officers. That state-owned conglomerate has had leadership changes recently after it mismanaged sugar and fertilizer projects. MetEC sub-contracted turbine construction to France’s Alstom and Germany’s Voith Hydro.
Egypt, which consumes the bulk of the Nile’s water, objected to GERD from its inception and has engaged in saber-rattling. The dam will be mutually beneficial as it will smooth the river’s annual flow and power the region by pumping out 15,000 gigawatt hours of electricity a year, according to officials from Ethiopia, which is the source of around 60 percent of the Nile.
The governments need to focus on water management, as it’s too late to alter GERD, which is almost two-thirds completed, said the University of Wisconsin’s Paul Block, a member of the forecast group. “We are way too far down the path to make those changes. But filling policy and subsequent operational policy are really critical,” he said.
A fundraising pageant for GERD in Debre Birhan, Amhara region in 2014 (William Davison)