The Blue Nile begins in Ethiopia’s Lake Tana and winds its way through a series of dramatic waterfalls and steep gorges carved into the country’s highlands. Finally it descends to the plains of Sudan, joining the White Nile in Khartoum to create the mighty river that feeds a third country, Egypt. It is the seasonal rainfall of Ethiopia’s highlands that have, for millennia, swelled the Nile with its life-giving floods. Unlike its downstream neighbors, Sudan and Egypt, Ethiopia has never attempted to monetize its share of the Nile through dams. Until now.
In an audacious undertaking, the Ethiopian government has begun constructing Africa’s biggest hydroelectric dam, a 1.1-mile-long behemoth that will, when completed in 2017, be able to generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity, more than tripling the country’s output. An adjacent dam, nearly three miles long, will help create a reservoir big enough to contain the Blue Nile’s entire annual flow.
Ethiopia’s former Emperor Haile Selassie first had the idea of building a dam on the Blue Nile in 1964, but regional bickering over water rights, followed by civil war, a Marxist coup and a devastating famine that killed nearly a million people in the 1980s, meant the plan was put on hold. It wasn’t until 2011 that then Prime Minister Meles Zenawi announced plans for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam as part of the country’s ambitious plan to leap from extreme poverty to middle-income status by 2025. In Ethiopia, where 4 of 5 residents have no electricity, power is seen as the key to economic progress.
But because of concerns over the project’s potential for intensifying old water conflicts–Egypt has threatened war over control of flows on which it already depends–Ethiopia has not been able to get outside financing for the project, which will cost $4.2 billion. Instead the government has asked the entire nation to pitch in, through all-but-mandatory treasury bonds worth up to several months of a civil servant’s salary, a national lottery and donations. “Ethiopia used to be one of the great civilizations, and then we found ourselves dependent on the rest of the world for aid,” says Zadig Abraha, the chief spokesman for the dam project. “The fact that we can, on our own, construct the largest dam in Africa is a symbol of how Ethiopia has divorced its poverty-stricken past.”
With 94 million people, Ethiopia produces only about as much electricity as the state of Indiana. That energy poverty keeps the entire country poor. But at full capacity, the dam will provide nearly a quarter of the country’s energy needs and even allow Ethiopia to sell power to its downstream neighbors. A recent report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates that once high-voltage transmission lines to Sudan and Egypt are completed, Ethiopia could generate $1 billion a year in energy sales.
The renaissance in the dam’s formal name, says project manager and chief engineer Simegnew Bekele, refers to a vision of African self-reliance and leadership in a world that has long seen the continent as little more than a place to plunder natural resources. By using energy to promote industry, Ethiopia has an opportunity to develop its best renewable resource–its people, who have been risking their lives in recent years to migrate to the West. And with hydroelectric power, Ethiopia can develop without contributing to climate change. “Our prosperity can’t come at the expense of what we owe the planet,” says Bekele. “You can imagine how many barrels of oil we would have to burn to generate 6,000 megawatts of energy.”
This appears in the June 13, 2016 issue of TIME.