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Updates on the construction of the GERD

Updates on the construction of the GERD

By Bereket Gebru

11-26-15

Despite the huge social interest behind the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the media still has a little to offer on how far along the project has gone towards its completion. As a result, most Ethiopians do not have a clear mental picture of the tremendous changes the project is going through. The films aired by EBC, the largest television channel in Ethiopia, are viewed by many who visit the dam as falling short of showing the grandeur of the dam. One constant claim by visitors is that they did not get a feel of the huge progress on the construction from the televised pictures. Those who work on the dam say the pictures are old and thus do not correspond with the current stage of the construction.

Apparently, the one place the media seems to be doing better in relation with the construction of the dam is fund raising. There are constant reports of a group of people or companies that have contributed to the construction of the dam. Although there might be numerous ways the media could revamp its role in raising funds for the dam, at least the frequent reports give the people a clue of how everyone is chipping in tirelessly to make the project a reality.

The Ethiopian media should have provided the country's citizens with updated information on how the construction is picking up. A short clip of fast moving pictures depicting the progress of the construction from its onset all the way through the hard battle to locate the bedrocks up on which the foundation has restedto the considerable height the dam has gained would do a lot to make people think that it is accomplishable a feat after all. Written accounts of the progress are also extremely rare.

The result of lack of a clear idea of the progress on the dam is that some fall victims to negative propaganda spread from in and outside of the country. I have come across people who ask: "Do you see the dam being completed someday?" Now that is a query that should have been answered by the media a long time ago. The rhetoric and the slogans aside, people need to vividly witness the changes. As transporting all Ethiopians to the site is not plausible, the media should transport the great undertakings at Guba to the homes of these eager stakeholders.

Not carrying out these responsibilities would allow such questions to linger on. It would also make room for the ridiculous claims by foreign media sources to reproduce themselves or at least incite doubt in the minds of citizens. One such claim foreign media in recent weeks was that the dam is no longer being constructed round the clock as financial constraints have limited it to just the day time.

Although there might be times that issues need to be silenced to avoid unnecessary international spotlight on the project, the general lack of information from the media on the dam leaves Ethiopians wondering if such reports are true. Considering the physical developments on the site are there for everyone to see, it would be unwise to not report on those changes extensively and not use them to mobilize the people even further.

Accordingly, this article intends to give people an update on the major indicators of the dam's progress with the goal of bridging any lapses in information.

To kick things off, let's consider the foreign media reports raised earlier about the construction taking its feet of the gas with action halted during the night. In our recent trip to the project, we arrived there very late - 10:30 pm at night because of a couple of tyre troubles. Despite the late arrival, we were welcomed by none other than Engineer Semegnehu Bekele himself. He invited us dinner during which we started to talk about various issues. It was then that one of our colleagues raised the issue of no work during the night. When dinner was over at midnight, Engineer Semegnehu took us directly to the dam. The commotion of people and various construction vehicles along with the flood lights gave the night an extra edge of beauty. The workers were carrying on with their normal duties seemingly oblivious to the rumors in the world outside. After taking a few pictures and commenting on how sad it is that media reports can be that fictitious, we retired for the night.

When I first got the chance to visit the GERD nearly four years ago, the project site was nearly a barren land going through some serious digging and explosion with only a small block of concrete indicating intent. That small block of concrete was the sample for what was going to follow. Before the sample could be put in place though, there was extensive digging with samples of stones taken out from bore holes going down as deep as -130 meters. Locating the right kind of rocks to build the foundation upon and digging the soil out to start the foundation work was a daunting job. With the width of the foundation reaching 125-130 meters, reaching the bedrock throughout the length of the dam (1750meters) is a tough undertaking. As project experts say: ďthere are no unknowns on the foundation the dam rests on.Ē

Currently, all that activity has been buried beneath a huge dam that spans almost the entirety of the 1750 meter length between the two mountains in Guba and Sirbaba. When complete, the dam is expected to have a height of 145 meters. At present, the height of the dam has become equivalent to some of the tall buildings in Addis Ababa. It is considerably taller than the tallest right side of the Saddle dam that is 40m high. The width of the dam narrows down to just 8 meters at the top from 130 meters at the foundation. Accordingly, the width of the dam is narrowing down as it picks up height.

The GERD is a Roller Compacted Concrete (RCC) dam. That means it is made of pilings of batches of concrete held together by bidding mortar without the use of iron reinforcements. Understandably, the technique consumes a much shorter time. The dam would soak up 10.1 million cubic meter of concrete when complete. 4.5 million cubic meter of that concrete has already been filled up to now.

A combination of the narrowing width of the dam as it picks up height with the short time it takes to hold together layers of concrete using bidding mortar means the construction of the dam gains momentum as it progresses. In relative terms, therefore, the most daunting parts of physically erecting the concrete wall are over.

Capacity Building

Another notable point that needs to be raised is the capacity being built through project undertakings. From the simple operation and assembly of huge construction machines like Clamp shells to the sophisticated work processes needed to manage and procure high tech products, the project has boosted the countryís capacity tremendously. With the damís generation capacity previously projected to be 5,250mw, it was the design optimization by METEC that led to the surge in that figure to the present 6,000mw.

METECís capacity building activities have been complemented by the establishment of a workshop at the project site. The vastly and rapidly improving conqueror of technology in our country is almost done with fitting the four box culverts on the left side of the dam. These box culverts are gateways fitted at the front end of tunnels running across the width of the damís left side. The end of construction of these structures would kick start re-diversion of the Blue Nile to acquire a passage through them. That would, in turn, make room for construction activities that would connect the two sides of the dam which are presently separated by the riverís adopted artificial course.

METECís workshop is working on the production of the huge 8m in diameter penstocks to be used to run stored water by the dam to the turbines that generate electricity. These penstocks are mammoth tunnel like structures made of metal. Therefore, it is quite a feat for a country like ours to have the technology to make 8m in diameter penstocks that are very lengthy as well.

The management, follow up and maintenance work involved in the procurement and running of the 2,300 machines, 10,000 local work force and 500 expats in the project also pushes the frontier of various work procedures in the country further. Work procedures that enable better coordination, recording techniques, effectiveness and efficiency have all been put in place to live up to the enormity of the task at hand.††

The 400kv electric transmission line that runs from Beles to the project site has replaced the diesel generators that, until recently, served as sources of energy. With the transmission line already in operation, it is serving as an experience gathering platform for Ethiopians who operate and control the system.

Although not part of the GERD project, installation of the 500kv transmission line from Sululta to the dam is almost complete as the line is visible from the project site. The nearly 600km transmission line will be used to transmit the power generated by the GERD to various parts of the country and other neighboring countries. METEC is installing the control stations for this 500kv transmission line. The 400 and 500kv power transmission lines mark the tremendous capacity Ethiopia is building in transmitting electricity over long distance with no loss. Considering the countryís plan to export electricity as far as Asia and Europe, the move is a bold stride towards that end.

It is in the face of challenges that capacities are built. The quest to overcome challenges leads to solutions that end up building capacity. From the very first decision to take on a project of this magnitude upon its shoulders to the involvement of METEC, the Ethiopian government has been daring enough to rise above the problems that come its way. Salini contracted dam construction projects in Ethiopia solely. It then sub-contracted some activities to other companies. The introduction of another contractor in the form of METEC was a major decision that has to be admired. The reward is increased capacity to take on even more complicated undertakings and a lesson that things are as impossible as what you make of them.

changes not covered before

Although I have touched upon various progresses made on the dam, I feel like it would be appropriate to assign a section of this article to things I did not raise in my last accounts of my visit to the project. Accordingly, I have tried to deal with a few hereafter.

Yet another one of the numerous sizeable projects within the GERD project is the construction of the 108km Mankush-Asosa road. With the current road from the project site to Asosa passing on the future water reservoir in front of the dam, a permanent substitute road to Asosa is imperative. The Mankush-Asosa road is this futuristic substitute under construction. The construction of the dam has been progressing so well with over two-thirds of it complete. In addition to serving as a gateway to and from the project site, the road is expected to ease the communication, trade and other social activities between communities living nearby.

The other new thing is that two of the ten turbines to be fitted on the right side of the dam have already arrived on site. Scheduled to be fitted shortly, they are expected to produce 108mw of electricity. Their presence on the project site is, in itself, an indication of how far along the project has come in these few years.

Saddle dam

Another one of the structures in the project to be included in my observational accounts is the Saddle dam Ė a 5.2 km long, 50m high and 17.2 million m≥ volume rock filled dam being built to close the only route of escape for water to be accumulated by the GERD. Last year, the dam was gaining height over the surrounding land especially at its right end. Currently, the height at that end has reached 40m - just 10m shy of completion. A total of 4.5 million m≥ of rock has already been filled on the saddle dam.

Going to the left, the height of the dam slowly decreases. On the extreme left, a modern approach was being implemented. The curtail grouting on this end is still pending. The technique also used at Gilgel Gibe I in Ethiopia as applied at the GERD involves 80cm wide dig to the bed rock that would be filled with a plastic diaphragm wall to prevent water from penetrating through. The Saddle dam is also fitted with emergency spill ways. The saddle dam has impressively gained height and volume within the past year.

Permanent Housing

With the lowland vicinities of Guba characterized by suffocating heat and threats of malaria infection for most of the year, activities to identify and develop alternative settlement spots for those who would take the responsibility of running the dam once its construction is over had been underway a year ago.

Accordingly, ten kilometers away from the construction site of the dam at Guba, a site on the adjoining mountains has been identified and numerous housing and service provision units have already been built with more along the way. Situated at the top of a huge mountain overlooking the project site and the future dam along with a section of the lake to be formed in front of it, the permanent housing site is immensely picturesque. Rising up to 1,500m above sea level, according to experts working on the project, the mountainous permanent housing curbs the suffocating heat and malaria threats of the Guba valley which is located just 500m above sea level.

With more houses and a staggeringly beautiful canteen along with some amenities such as a basketball court and a recreational area for kids built, the permanent housing promises to be a deserved escape from the harsh realities of the project site. Medical centers and schools are also expected to be built up there for the families of those working permanently on the dam after its completion. With these facilities in place, those who would operate the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam once it starts functioning fully would live under better conditions.

Resettlement

Engineer Semegnew Bekele last year stated that the environmental and social impact assessment researches have indicated a sparsely populated settlement in what would become the reservoir in front of the dam. He further explained that the Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) of the GERD project was discussed with local authorities and local residents.

The resettlement activities would settle people into villages and provide them with various social services they have been deprived of. Accordingly, settlers would be provided with electricity, schools, health facilities, clean water and other social services. The result of discussions with local authorities and residents, according to Engineer Semegnew, were positive as they have understood the developmental package the resettlement is accompanied by.

This time around, we were able to understand that people have been resettled according to cultural background. The affinity people feel with neighboring ethnic groups is an important factor in how peaceful and amicable the settlements prove to be. Therefore, it has been granted utmost attention. The resettlement office of the construction of the dam has also been working with local authorities to make sure that resettlers save or start up some businesses with the compensation they have received.

Social services

The project site has improved tremendously in terms of the social services available. There have been new additions to the old standings postal and banking services at the project site. The most notable of these additions is the neatly furnished hospital with ambulance services. With quite a handful of beds and standardized medical services, the hospital provides a much needed relief not only for the workers of the project but the local population living nearby. ††

A fire department with firefighting vehicles has also been established in the meantime. If the dry and arid climatic conditions in the 500m above sea level project site could potentially aid the start of fire, the fire department is the modern remedy put in place by the carefully thought out and intricate GERD project.

The banking service in the form of a Commercial Bank of Ethiopia branch at the project site is now complemented by an ATM service. Workers have expressed their delight at the continuous addition of banking services at the bank.

The weak mobile network signals that had always been a characteristic feature of the site have now become history with the introduction of a 3G service. The project site has also become a beneficiary of the internet. With the introduction of such services, communication at the project site and with the external world have become easier. Video conferencing has become a possibility for project personnel sparing them over 800km of travel to attend meetings in Addis Ababa. From press briefings to high level meetings can now be carried out from the project site.

The Ethiopian Custom's Authority has also set up an imported goods' transit center at the project site. All sorts of imports to the project do not have to spend unnecessary time on various transit centers on route to the project site, they can just be brought directly into the site and transited there. That is a considerable step as the safe arrival of monumental and delicate imports would have been jeopardized by transits.

Conclusion

For anyone who has been to the GERD project site within the first two years, the progress made so far would be incredibly mind-blowing. The once flat land going under some serious digging and explosion has now been graced by a tall wall spanning the entire distance between the two mountains on the left and right sides.

The completion of the box culverts and the impending re-diversion of the blue Nile through them along with the fitting of the turbines make up the short term future undertakings at the project site. Those things alone are indicative of the assumption of another stage of progress by the project. With the momentum the construction has picked up, it definitely is not if but when the dam will be completed.

As Engineer Semegnew, the project manager, said: "We are spending our hard earned money. Nobody else cares more about how to spend it wisely that us." We have committed a huge amount of resources to the dam and we should be very vigilant of the negative rumors emerging elsewhere.


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