The ongoing tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam have raised concerns about the future of the Nile River and its vital water supply.
Egypt, heavily dependent on the Nile for its water needs, accuses Ethiopia of jeopardising its water security by filling the dam reservoir without reaching a comprehensive agreement.
The GERD, located on the Blue Nile tributary in the northern highlands of Ethiopia, is Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam project. Spanning over 19 miles long and standing at a height of 145 metres, the dam has been under construction for 12 years. Recently, Ethiopia announced the completion of the reservoir filling, despite the absence of a formal agreement with downstream countries.
The primary concern for Egypt lies in the potential impact of the GERD on the Nile’s water flow. The Blue Nile is the major source of water for the Nile River, supplying about 85% of its waters. With the completion of the dam, Ethiopia, as the upstream country, would have greater control over the water flow, potentially disrupting the annual floods that Egypt relies on for agriculture and drinking water.
Egypt is worried that the reduction of water flow due to the dam’s operations could have dire consequences for its economy and livelihoods of millions of Egyptians. As one of the world’s most water-stressed countries, any disruption in the Nile’s water supply could lead to a decrease in agricultural productivity, food shortages, and economic instability.
Egypt has consistently called for a legally binding agreement that ensures a fair and equitable distribution of the Nile’s waters among all riparian countries. However, negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan have been ongoing for years and have yet to yield a satisfactory resolution.
Ethiopia, on the other hand, sees the GERD as a crucial resource for its economic development and poverty alleviation. With over 60% of its population currently without access to electricity, the dam’s primary objective is to generate clean and affordable energy for domestic consumption. Ethiopia also envisions exporting electricity to neighbouring countries, such as Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Djibouti, and Eritrea, in a bid to enhance regional energy cooperation and economic integration.
While Ethiopia maintains that the filling of the GERD reservoir follows a natural process and intends no harm to downstream countries, Egypt remains sceptical. Egypt fears that the lack of a binding agreement could lead to unilateral decisions by Ethiopia regarding the dam’s operations and water release, potentially causing severe disruptions downstream.
Efforts to resolve the dispute have involved international mediation, with the United States and the African Union playing significant roles in facilitating negotiations between the three countries. However, progress has been slow, with disagreements persisting over issues such as the pace of filling the reservoir, the dam’s safety, and its future management.
Why Egypt and Sudan Are Furious About the GERD Dam
The construction of the GERD has sparked fury in Egypt and Sudan. Both countries heavily rely on the River Nile for their freshwater needs, and they have serious concerns about the impact the dam will have on their water supply.
Egypt, with a population of approximately 107 million people, depends on the River Nile for nearly all of its fresh water. This water supply is crucial for households and agriculture, particularly for growing cotton, which requires a significant amount of water. Additionally, Nile water is used to fill Lake Nasser, the reservoir for Egypt’s own hydro-electric power plant, the Aswan High Dam.
Similarly, Sudan, with a population of 48 million people, heavily relies on water from the Nile. The river is essential for both domestic and agricultural purposes in Sudan. However, both countries are now questioning whether Ethiopia, the nation behind the GERD project, will allow enough water to flow downstream to Egypt and Sudan in the future.
According to Egypt’s foreign ministry, Ethiopia’s unilateral measures are seen as a disregard for the interests and rights of the downstream countries and their water security. Egypt argues that even a modest 2% reduction in water flow from the Nile could result in the loss of 200,000 acres of irrigated land. Furthermore, low river levels brought about by the construction of the GERD could negatively impact transportation on the Nile.
One of the primary concerns for Egypt is the long-term operation of the GERD, especially following the initial filling phase. There is currently no agreement on how the dam should be managed during and after periods of drought. Ethiopia may adopt an approach that prioritises maximising electricity generation following droughts, which could be detrimental to Egypt’s water supply.
The GERD project has led to significant tensions between the three countries, with numerous rounds of negotiations failing to reach a satisfactory agreement. Egypt and Sudan have repeatedly called for a legally binding agreement that addresses their concerns about water distribution and the long-term operation of the dam. However, Ethiopia has resisted such calls, asserting its right to develop and use the Nile’s water resources for its own development.
The GERD has also become a matter of national pride for Ethiopia, as it regards it as a symbol of its quest for development and self-sufficiency. The dam is expected to generate much-needed electricity for Ethiopia, which currently faces crippling power shortages. Ethiopia believes that the GERD will provide a lifeline for its economic growth and poverty alleviation efforts.
Ethiopia has completed the filling of the dam over a period of three years, despite Egypt’s concerns that the process should take between 12 to 21 years. While Sudan is also affected by the water levels on the Nile, its response to the dam has been limited due to ongoing conflicts in the country. It is important to find a mutually beneficial agreement regarding the future of the dam.
The construction of the dam has been a point of contention between the countries since 2011. The 1929 and 1959 treaties granted Egypt and Sudan the majority of the Nile’s water and the right to veto projects by upstream countries, such as Ethiopia.
However, Ethiopia has argued that it should not be bound by these outdated treaties. Despite the signing of a new treaty in 2015, negotiations over the use of Nile water to fill the dam have repeatedly stalled.
The International Crisis Group has warned of the possibility of armed conflict, and the US has attempted to mediate without success. Talks only resumed three weeks prior to Ethiopia’s announcement of the completion of the dam’s filling.