Large dams are major nation-building projects. They harness power to generate energy, provide water for large-scale irrigation and can help control flooding. And politicians often describe them as symbols of national power and technical prowess.
The early 20th century is known as the “golden age” of dam building in the United States. Between 1950 and 1979 over 40,000 dams were built across the country, mainly for hydropower and irrigation.
Today developing nations are investing heavily in large dam projects. Year over year, China creates more new hydropower capacity than the rest of the world combined. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is moving forward with plans for the US$100 billion Grand Inga Dam, which will span the Congo River and produce over 50,000 megawatts of power when complete. In Brazil, the newly constructed BeloMonte Dam will be the world’s fourth largest hydropower source when it becomes fully operational in 2019.
Ethiopia joined the ranks of large dam builders in 2011 when it launched construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, on the Blue Nile. The GERD will be the eighth largest dam in the world, measured by the capacity of its reservoir, and will create the second largest reservoir on the Nile.
The GERD is already reshaping political relationships between Ethiopia and its neighbors, Sudan and Egypt, and will have multigenerational impacts on the Nile and the people who depend on it. Ethiopia’s reluctance to engage in public review and critiques of operation and design plans, as well as Eygpt’s initial hyperbolic reaction to the project, make it hard to assess whether the GERD will have a positive or negative long-term impact in the region.
The power of the Nile
The GERD is located approximately 30 kilometers east of the border between Ethiopia and Sudan. It is currently 70 percent complete and is expected to enter operation in 2017.
The GERD promises many benefits for Ethiopia. Today 74 percent of Ethiopians do not have access to electricity, and more than 95 percent rely on wood for cooking and heating.