MS Risk Blog

The Contentious Issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

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The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), as its name suggests, would herald in a new era for Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa region. The GERD, which is expected to be formed of 10 metric tonnes of concrete and reaching 175 metres, with a volume of 79 km3, is an outstanding achievement of engineering. When completed later this decade, the $5 billion dam will be Africa’s greatest hydroelectric-power project. Apart from the Congo River project of the Democratic Republic of Congo (once completed), the GERD will be unrivalled in the continent. Located on the Blue Nile, the dam would create 6,000 megawatts of energy, double as much as all of Ethiopia’s present output. Dams in general have several purposes, including to prevent floods, generating energy and storing water for irrigation. However, they create conflict and misery for many, due to environmental damage or the displacement of individuals whose dwellings will be lost underneath dammed waters. This dam has also been the cause of strife between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. For years, the three countries have been locked in ineffective talks over the GERD, and despite severe objections, Ethiopia continues to build the dam, claiming that the hydropower project will considerably enhance livelihoods throughout the region.

Some of the points of contention are the rate at which a planned reservoir behind the dam would be filled, the manner of annual replenishment, and the amount of water Ethiopia will release downstream if a multiyear drought develops. To date, approximately 80% of the dam’s construction has been completed. Ethiopia is aiming for a seven-year filling schedule in order to begin producing power as soon as possible, but Egypt is expecting a lengthier period of 12 to 20 years. Egypt is concerned that the project will suffocate the Nile’s waters. Ethiopia’s timeline implies a reduction in the Nile’s flow in Egypt, which depends on 59% from the Blue Nile. The Nile provides 95 percent of the water used by the country’s 115 million people. According to some experts, the GERD might cut the river’s yearly flow by a quatre and prevent fertile silt from reaching the Nile Delta. Sudan shares a sense of dependency and concern. The Blue Nile River also produces the majority of the silt that contributes to the richness of the soils along the river’s path. Crop production in both countries may be harmed as a result of the dam.

The unbalanced use of the river is a major stumbling block for Ethiopia. The Blue Nile is a major tributary of the Nile River, with Ethiopia accounting for up to 85% of its flows. Despite this, Ethiopia only uses 1% of the river’s capacity. The history of asymmetric river allocation dates back nearly a century, to the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian agreements, which granted Egypt and Sudan nearly all of the Nile’s waters. This agreement, as well as subsequent negotiations in 1959, defined consumption rights that excluded the eight other states that the Nile runs through. Egypt was allocated 55.5 billion cubic metres and 18.5 billion cubic metres was allocated to Sudan – nearly 90% of the Nile’s 84 billion cubic metres total flow. Upstream countries, irrespective of origination point or internal demand, were left without any formalised rights to the river’s waters as a result of these accords.

Rounds after rounds of talks between Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt have failed  to overcome the impasse over the contentious project. This is preceded by years of failed negotiation between the riparian countries. The negotiations over the Blue Nile’s use have been marked by a complex process of trilateral negotiation and international mediation, with Ethiopia frequently withdrawing before any real deal could be reached.

Ethiopia considers past restrictions on its capacity to consume even a small portion of the waters that originate within its borders to be a violation of its sovereignty. Ethiopia’s upstream position, along with the GERD’s development, gives them the potential to substantially regulate the flow of the river’s waters, bolstering their claims to production-based river use. As a matter of fact, Ethiopia has utilised practically every step of dam construction and negotiation as a means of reclaiming self-reliance in the region, assuming that neither Egypt nor Sudan will explore military alternatives to return the region to a state of stagnation that favours them unevenly. The GERD has become a source of pride and a symbol of the country’s future, and it is seen as a method to reinforce the country’s dominance in the area. Completion of the $5 billion (USD) dam, which is entirely self-financed, is expected to be the lynchpin in Ethiopia’s economic turnaround.

However, for the Egyptians, the GERD is a threat to their hydro-hegemony in the region, as well as its capability to provide for its people, who are nearly totally reliant on the river for freshwater. Only 4 billion cubic metres of the Egypt’s 55.5 billion cubic metres allotment are emptied into the Mediterranean Sea each year, meaning Egypt uses 93% of its yearly allocation. With plans to develop the agricultural sector, even fully utilising the river’s water allocation will not be enough to fulfil Egypt’s rising demand. To complicate matters, Egypt has a record of openly hostile responses to any threats to its hegemony over the river, frequently backed by military intervention threats. While it is imprudent to rule out the possibility of conflict between the nations, full-out war between the states is improbable. Thus, Egypt’s intervention through proxies in Ethiopia’s current and increasing intra-state crisis is a real likelihood.

Sudan’s GERD stance is comparable to that of Egypt. Sudan’s Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources, Yasser Abbas, has indicated that the dam’s next filling, which has reportedly started (5th July 2021), could represent a direct threat to Sudan’s security. Egypt announced Ethiopia had informed them that the second phase of filling at the GERD had begun, but it denounced the move as a threat to regional stability. Sudan confirmed that it had received the same notification. According to Egypt, the second filling of the dam, which went ahead without having reached an agreement with the downstream riparian countries, will intensify the region’s crisis and tension, resulting in the formation of a situation that jeopardises regional and international security and peace.

To avoid conflict in the Horn of Africa, a stalemate in negotiations between the three countries over the GERD must be resolved quickly and peacefully. However, Ethiopia has repeatedly rejected and opposed calls for outside mediators, stating that the country “believes in resolving African problems by Africans.” In the wake of the second filling, and with it the potential rise in tensions, the United Nations has urged all parties involved to recommit to dialogue and to refrain from taking unilateral measures. The African Union’s involvement in mediating between the countries is supported by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Similarly, the United States has said all parties must commit to a negotiated settlement that is agreeable to all parties.

However, it seems that despite rising international pressure on Ethiopia – whether over the GERD or the conflict in Tigray – the Ethiopians appear unwilling to make any meaningful compromises. Ethiopia maintains that the GERD is within its sovereign domain. Thus, it will not be restricted by external restraints that reduce the GERD’s benefits because it needs the dam for the country’s development. A compromise between those two opposing viewpoints may appear difficult to achieve, yet it is necessary to handle this lingering issue that has the potential to generate conflict.