Cady Herring

One of the 12 largest dams in the world is under construction in Ethiopia, on the Blue Nile near the border with Sudan.  The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will produce about 6,000 megawatts of electricity — the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa — and is expected to cost $4.8 billion.

“What makes this dam so important is that it has been in the planning for maybe several decades, but the country was not able to undertake it because of a conflict (with bordering countries),” said Bikila Teklu, dean of the School of  Civil and Environmental Engineering at Addis Ababa University’s Institute of Technology. “Now, this construction is being funded by local financing. All of the other dams have been constructed through international donors, but every citizen is actually contributing (to build the new dam).”

Some Ethiopians are giving a month of their income or more for construction of the dam.

Geremew Sahilu, chair of water supply and environmental engineering at the institute, said Ethiopa’s water problems can be summed up in two words: quantity and quality.

“From place to place, Ethiopia’s water quality differs,” Sahilu said. “Water is also the source of agriculture, it is also power, hydropower, so the dam addresses energy issues and agricultural issues.”

Improving the supply and usage of water is part of Ethiopia’s Millennium Development Goals.  Many residents still do not have access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

“In the U.S., you have basically completed constructing all dams so that is not really an issue, but for us, we are now starting to build dams for hydropower and for irrigation,” said Agizew Nigussie, an assistant professor at the institute. “Management of these dams is a critical issue for Ethiopia.”

Leah Gibson contributed to this article.