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For several years, political tensions between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt have been escalating in a conflict over the near-complete Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd). The Gerdis Africa's largest hydropower plant. It dams the Blue Nile river coming from Ethiopia's highlands just before it crosses into Sudan where, after merging with the White Nile, it continues northwards to Egypt.
Ethiopian protestors march down 42nd Street in New York during a “It’s my Dam” protest on March 11, 2021. Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images
Why the contention? The Gerd’s reservoir will be large enough to store the full annual Blue Nile flow, allowing Gerd to produce year-round hydroelectricity. However, such an operational scheme would overhaul the natural timing of the highly seasonal river. Behind many disagreements around Gerd hides the question of who, if anyone, should be allowed to exert such control over the Nile.
My colleagues and I have published new research which shows that there are ways out of this controversy and that a win-win situation can be found for Gerd’s long-term operation.
We propose that Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt and their neighbours deploy large-scale solar and wind farms and establish a regionally integrated power grid. Ethiopia would subsequently need to agree to operate Gerd in synergy with solar and wind power.
Although this would entail substantial initial investment, we argue that it would provide tangible benefits to all countries involved and the long-term benefits will outweigh the costs.
Gerd and the Nile
Large hydropower plants, like Gerd, fill up in the wet season and empty in the dry season, releasing water in a regulated manner throughout the year to ensure year-round electricity generation. This largely suppresses a river’s natural flow.
In Gerd’s case, next to ecological concerns surrounding river health, this flow alteration would have implications for the operation of Egypt’s High Aswan Dam (HAD), which Egypt uses to regulate its own Nile flow. Contentious periods may arise in which both dams compete to be filled.
If Gerd were operated to back up solar and wind power, this would mean producing less hydropower during the dry season, and more during the wet season, without affecting Gerd’s annual average power output. Such an operation would resemble the natural situation.
An electricity-based, not water-based, tripartite agreement could be conceived. Ethiopia would have all the benefits expected from a big dam and would not have to make explicit promises on downstream releases. For Sudan and Egypt, it would look as if Gerd were a relatively small dam, reassuring them that it does no harm – there are already many such smaller dams on the Nile, which are uncontested. These appear to be the prerequisites for an agreement on Gerd.
The proposed solutions will work better if the solar and wind power is deployed on a common, regional grid, such as advocated for by the Eastern African Power Pool – a specialised institution, founded in 2005, to foster power system interconnectivity for East African states.
Our proposal requires substantial investment shifts towards solar and wind power.
A combined solar and wind power capacity of at least six gigawatt, comparable to Gerd’s turbine capacity, will be needed across Ethiopia and its neighbours. Luckily, the region’s resource potential is more than enough for this.
Getting to the required scale will take years. However, Gerd is not yet finished either, with construction works expected to continue until 2023. What’s more, the filling of its reservoir, which started in 2020, is foreseen to take between five and seven years.
Our study shows that the investment needs would be comparable to what Gerd has already cost, close to $5bn. But this does not mean the plan is financially unattractive.
First, these investments do not need to represent additional costs, but rather reallocations of investments, prioritising solar and wind power before other electricity sources for meeting the region’s ever-rising demand – for which even Gerdwon’t be enough.
The Conversation Africa The Conversation Africa is an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community. Its aim is to promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues, and allow for a better quality of public discourse and conversation. Go to: https://theconversation.com/africa
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