The construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has sparked numerous controversies and tensions between Ethiopia and its downstream neighbours, Egypt and Sudan.
This $5 billion mega-dam, located on the Nile River’s largest tributary, has been a major source of contention in the region.
September marked a significant milestone in the GERD project, as the fourth phase of filling a massive 74 billion cubic-metre reservoir was completed. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed emphasised that this process was carried out despite external pressure, highlighting the determination of Ethiopia to push forward with the dam’s construction.
However, despite the progress made and the dam’s near completion, tensions are likely to persist due to the significant influence that Ethiopia now holds over the flows of water in a crucial regional waterway. The control over the Nile River’s water resources has become a contentious issue, particularly for Egypt, which heavily relies on the river for its water supply.
Egypt has raised concerns about the dam’s potential impact on its water security, fearing that it could lead to a significant reduction in the amount of water flowing downstream. The country heavily depends on the Nile for agriculture, drinking water, and electricity generation. The possibility of a diminished water supply poses a significant threat to Egypt’s economy and its population’s livelihoods.
Sudan, although not as directly affected as Egypt, also has concerns about the dam’s impact on its water resources. The country relies on the Nile for irrigation and maintaining water levels in the Sudd wetlands. Sudan has called for a binding agreement that addresses its concerns and ensures ongoing water allocations.
The controversies surrounding the GERD dam extend beyond the potential impact on downstream countries’ water resources. There are also concerns about the dam’s environmental impact and its potential displacement of communities living in the dam’s vicinity. Additionally, there have been disagreements over the dam’s filling and operation procedures, with Egypt and Sudan fearing that Ethiopia could exercise excessive control over the river’s water flow.
Efforts to resolve the GERD disputes have been ongoing for years, with negotiations facilitated by the African Union and involving multiple parties. However, reaching a mutually acceptable agreement has proven challenging. Talks have revolved around issues such as water allocation, the dam’s operation, and the mitigation of potential adverse effects.
International mediation has also been sought to find a resolution to the conflicts. The United States, along with the World Bank, has been involved in facilitating talks between the three countries. However, these mediation efforts have faced setbacks and have not yet yielded a final agreement.
1. Why is the dam so significant?
The dam holds significant importance due to several factors. Firstly, the Nile serves as a vital source of fresh water in an arid region that is highly susceptible to drought and climate change. In this context, the dam plays a crucial role in ensuring a sustainable supply of water for Egypt and eastern Sudan. Egypt relies heavily on the river, with up to 97% of its water supply coming from it. Similarly, many people in eastern Sudan depend on the Nile for their survival.
Moreover, Ethiopia sees the construction of a 5,150-megawatt hydropower plant on the dam as an opportunity to address its electricity shortage. Currently, approximately 60% of Ethiopia’s population lacks access to electricity, making it crucial for economic growth and improving living conditions. The hydropower plant aims to generate electricity not only for domestic use but also for sustaining manufacturing industries.
Furthermore, beginning its power generation in 2022, the dam plans to export some of its generated energy to neighbouring countries. This demonstrates Ethiopia’s ambition and commitment towards regional cooperation and development.
2. What’s the issue with filling the reservoir?
There have been ongoing issues regarding the filling of the reservoir in question. In July 2020, Ethiopia closed the dam’s gates and collected a significant amount of water within a week during the rainy season. This led to a drought in Sudan, followed by flooding that could potentially have been avoided with a more cautious approach to filling the dam. Over the next three years, Ethiopia continued to accumulate more water.
Egypt had concerns about this rapid filling process and advocated for a longer timeframe to ensure sufficient downstream water flow. While reaching an agreement on a timetable would have been beneficial for all three countries involved, various mediation efforts involving the US and African Union were unsuccessful in finding a compromise.
3. How does Ethiopia justify building the dam?
Ethiopia has justified the construction of the dam based on its sovereign right to utilise water within its territory. It firmly asserts that it is not obligated to engage in negotiations with any other parties and has accused Egypt of monopolising rights over the Nile River.
Furthermore, Ethiopia has rejected the terms outlined in a 1959 treaty between Egypt and Sudan which allocated a majority of the water resources solely to themselves. This hydropower project, initiated in 2011, is a crucial component of Ethiopia’s development plans spearheaded by Abiy. Giving in to external pressure to postpone its commission would have potentially undermined his domestic support
4. What do Egypt and Sudan say?
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has emphasised the utmost importance of water access as a matter of national security for Egypt. He has made it clear that this is a “red line” that cannot be crossed. During his address at the United Nations General Assembly in September, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry stated that Ethiopia’s ongoing filling of the dam is an attempt to unilaterally impose a new reality.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has accused Ethiopia of violating a 2015 agreement that mandated reaching an agreement with Egypt and Sudan before filling the dam could commence. Additionally, Ethiopia has been accused of disregarding its neighbours’ interests and rights to water security, which are protected under international law.
While Sudan initially accepted Ethiopia’s assurances regarding flood control and power generation benefits, it eventually aligned itself with Egypt’s stance on the issue. Unfortunately, Sudan is currently dealing with internal conflicts between its army and a rival paramilitary group since April 2023, deflecting attention away from the dam project.
5. What’s the potential for conflict?
The potential for conflict in this situation is a pressing concern. Egypt has taken a diplomatic approach and emphasised the importance of negotiations in resolving the standoff. Despite a recent round of talks in Ethiopia, no significant progress has been made.
Ethiopian officials have expressed their commitment to finding a solution through dialogue and have exchanged “constructive ideas.” It is worth noting that destruction of the dam would result in devastating floods downstream, making an airstrike highly unlikely. The Arab League has shown support for Egypt and Sudan, aligning with their stance on protecting water flows.
The controversies surrounding Ethiopia’s $5 billion Nile dam highlight the complexities and challenges in managing shared water resources in a region with competing interests. The construction of such a mega-dam brings immense benefits to Ethiopia in terms of electricity generation and economic development. However, it also poses significant risks and concerns for downstream countries.