Rising Waters: Ethiopia’s New Mega-Dam Creates Tensions in The Horn of Africa

David Figueira Bourton discusses the impacts of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on Egyptian and Ethiopian water disputes and assesses the possibility of a military resolution.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam courtesy of Yana Marchuk

Since 2011 the $4.8bn Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has been under construction on the Blue Nile River. The dam is located in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia, and is set to become the largest hydropower project in Africa, generating 6,000 megawatts of electricity. This would double the generating capacity of Ethiopia and bring much-needed electricity to millions of people. In Addis Ababa, the dam acts as a symbol of national pride with the country’s ambition set on becoming a power-exporter to the region. However the dam has also been a catalyst for much political tension in the Horn of Africa, as downstream nations like Egypt and Sudan have raised fears about future shortages as a result of the dam’s construction.

Sudan, which is geographically situated between Egypt and Ethiopia, has raised concerns that the GERD will impact both the government’s ability to manage development projects, and the functioning of dams within its borders. Yet Egypt has been the most prominent voice in dispute with Ethiopia over the dam, and views its construction as an existential threat. In recent history, Egypt has been able to benefit from colonial agreements such as the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty which allowed the government to impose natural historical water rights to the Nile River. Likewise, the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement between Egypt and Sudan was also important as it outlined complete use of the Nile River to their exclusive nations, with 10 billion cubic metres left for evaporation and seepage – no other upstream nation including Ethiopia was included in the agreement. The agreement also allowed Egypt to have veto power over the construction of infrastructure projects along the Nile River. Nevertheless, the government in Ethiopia was able to construct the GERD through support domestically and abroad – rejecting the 1959 agreement as the precedent for water use along the Nile River. 

The United Nations predicts Egypt to suffer from water scarcity by 2025 as the country already uses 127% of its water resources; the dam therefore raises uncertainty about future water supplies even further. Hence, the government in Egypt has been ardent in trying to secure a deal with Ethiopia prior to the dam being filled, as well as a clear outline of how the flow of the Blue Nile will be controlled, especially during periods of drought. The government in Egypt has been diligent in attempting to voice concerns through various political organisations about the dam’s potential impact on their population of nearly 100 million people – all of which are reliant on the Nile for 90% of the country’s freshwater. Egypt views the dam as an existential threat when put in context that 86% of the freshwater that flows through the country comes from the Blue Nile in the highlands of Ethiopia. 

Location of GERD courtesy of Yana Marchuk

However, the government in Ethiopia has not been as sympathetic in trying to resolve these concerns and come to an accord. In February 2020, the government of Ethiopia refused to adhere to a deal set out by the World Bank in Washington on the filling and operation of the dam as officials argued that it was inclined to favour Egypt. Similarly, later on in June, Egypt called on the United Nations Security Council to hold a meeting with Ethiopia and Sudan to discuss the potential threats of the dam to 150 million people in downstream communities which could aggravate conflict. Instead of reaching a resolution, Ethiopia remained consistent in their discourse that the dam is an existential necessity to the progress of the country from poverty to middle-class status – continuing nearly a decade of talks that still raise uncertainty about when the dam will be filled and how much will be released. The government in Ethiopia believes that the dam will cause no significant harm, and to the indignation of Egypt, will be filled with or without a deal.

In July 2020, tensions escalated as the government in Ethiopia initiated the process of filling the dam despite no legally binding agreement being made with Egypt or Sudan. The GERD has now hit the first-year target of holding back 4.9 billion cubic metres of water from the Blue Nile according to Seleshi Bekele, the Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy in Ethiopia. The reservoir will take approximately four to six years until it hits its maximum capacity of 74 billion cubic metres of water.

Although the current rhetoric suggests that military action is not likely, the political future of the region appears increasingly strained, and if the fears predicted of the dam begin to impact Egypt and Sudan, both nations may venture towards more aggressive channels of negotiation. Thus a trilateral agreement is increasingly necessary in order to bring stability to the region, as well as clarity to the remaining questions of filling and releasing water from the reservoir. This is especially important to mitigate potential conflicts that may arise as factors such as increasing population growth and droughts put stress on local water resources. In August 2020, the three riparian nations began talks led by the African Union to discuss draft proposals from water and foreign ministers on the management of the dam – although no definitive details have been released, the tone is said to be optimistic. Nonetheless, if tensions continue to rise and the effects of water scarcity are exacerbated as a result of the dam, the possibility of armed conflict would be a devastating outlook for the future of the region.

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