Written by Annette Bross
As the world’s population increases, so does the demand for resources. Water scarcity is becoming a greater danger and with global rivers drying, water security poses a unique and difficult dilemma for global governance. In North-East Africa, the Nile represents both a precious resource and a point of contestation. On Sunday the 20th of February, the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD), a 4 million dollar hydropower project, started operating in Ethiopia’s border with Sudan. Although currently only using one-third of its turbines, the activation has been enough to elevate the already rising tensions in the region. The GERD had been almost a decade in the making and it is said to be a key piece in ‘Ethiopia’s transformation.’ The dam is located on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile river that flows downstream to Sudan and Egypt. The two countries have openly raised concerns regarding the GERD, repeatedly claiming it is a potential threat to their water supplies. Due to competing interests, the negotiations over the dam have been extremely difficult and no consensus has been reached. Whether this represents a potential threat of international conflict remains to be seen.
National pride regarding the Nile
The GERD project has rekindled a long-running controversy about who ‘owns’ the Nile. In 1906, a Tripartite Agreement was signed between Great Britain, France and Italy, ensuring the former that no work that considerably changed the water flow would be undertaken upstream. Ethiopia opposed the agreement and notified the Italian and British governments of its disagreement. Later, the Nile Waters Agreement, signed in 1929 when Britain was still a colonial power in the region, gave Cairo the ability to veto projects farther up the Nile that would damage its water allocation.
In 1959, without involving Ethiopia,the Sudan-Egypt agreement was signed, allocating Egypt 55 billion cubic meters of Nile water per year and Sudan 18.5 billion cubic meters. This decision, in combination with past agreements signed between colonial powers, exacerbated Ethiopia’s sense of historical injustice which clashes with Egypt’s rooted cultural ties to the Nile.
The Nile has held an important position in Egypt’s history and national identity. Ancient Egyptians referred to it as ‘a gift from the Gods’ by the ancient Egyptians and it is interwoven in Egyptian history and identity, despite only 23% of the river is within its borders. Today, Egypt tends to claim sole cultural identity on the waterbody. On the other hand, the Nile’s main tributary holds a prevalent role in Ethiopian history and culture. The country is likely to consider the GERD as redressing the historic exclusion from Nile’s water exploitation for development, as past treaties had outlined Egyptian hegemony over them.
Competing parties mean competing interests
The GERD project brings many opportunities to Ethiopia. The East African country sees the dam as an opportunity to grow its economy since it will offer enough power for future investments. Specifically, Ethiopia has been keen to expand in manufacturing due to its low labor and power costs; even so that the Dam is owned and partly built by local Ethiopian companies. The GERD holds 74 million cubic meters of water with a surface of 1680 km2 - for some perspective, the Greater London Area is 1,569 km2. The project is owned by the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCO) which is working closely with Alstom, a French manufacturer, and the Metals & Engineering Corporation (METEC), an Ethiopian arms and machinery company that supplies the turbines, generators and all electromechanical equipment.
This project will be a game changer for Ethiopia since nearly 65% of the country’s population is not linked to the electrical grid. The country currently produces roughly 4000 megawatts of energy, but with the activation of the GERD it is expected to increase to around 6000 megawatts, allowing it to meet its needs while also potentially becoming an exporter. The initiation of electricity generation, according to Sudan and Egypt, is a violation of the Declaration of Principles agreed by the three countries in 2015, which prevents the signatories from adopting unilateral actions regarding the Nile River’s water use.
Egypt has a population of about 100 million people, 90% of whom rely on the Nile for their freshwater supply. Their greatest fear is that during droughts, Ethiopia will hold too much water in its reservoirs, jeopardizing the flow downstream. This would leave Egypt’s farmers unable to irrigate their crops, resulting in significant food losses. All of this comes while Egypt’s agriculture is already being squeezed by the consequences of climate change. “Each drop of 2% water protects a million people.” warns UNDP's Randa Aboul Hosn regarding Egypt’s crucial relationship to the waterbody.
Sudan is stuck in the middle. It initially was in favor of the dam but since Egypt opposed it, the Sudanese government raised concerns as well. The impact on Sudan appears to be mixed, as the GERD’s operations may imperil Sudan’s own Nile dams. The country, however, sees Ethiopia as a source of inexpensive energy and as a possible regulator of water flows that have caused severe flooding in the past.
Why is it so hard to settle the dispute?
Ethiopia justifies the construction of the dam as it was not consulted on the 1929 veto agreement between Sudan and Egypt. However, in 2015, a new deal was established to settle the Nile issue, since GERD fears were on the rise. By joining a multilateral treaty, all countries have the same right and control over what is spoken, yet Ethiopia continued to build the dam under the flag of it being beneficial for the entire region.
The importance of the world’s longest river can hardly be overstated since it is essential for over 280 million people’s livelihoods living along its banks. The Blue Nile’s waters flow from Lake Tana towards Sudan and joins the river’s other tributary at Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, before heading to Egypt. As stated before, the GERD gives Ethiopia considerable control on how much water flows downstream, making the stakes really high for all parties involved. Even the African Union had been involved in the negotiation process, but since no consensus was reached, Ethiopia took action by continuing with the dam’s construction.
The talks have been stuck in a stalemate defined by mistrust. In a televised conference between then-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and political advisors in 2013. One of the advisors, Ayman Nour, suggested fomenting domestic unrest to divert Ethiopia's attention away from the dam project. “We should engage in their internal issues, we should influence Ethiopian decision-making,” Nour said. “To a considerable extent, their civilization is worn out.” Ethiopia accused Egypt in June 2020 of supporting cyberattacks to derail the project, prompting Ethiopia to take unilateral steps to treat GERD.
For years, negotiations over the dam’s operations have dragged on. Egypt and Ethiopia have hinted at probable military action over the project, with Sudan trapped in the middle. Efforts to establish a final comprehensive agreement have come to a halt. Egypt and Sudan seek a legally binding pact, whereas Ethiopia is against it. Despite this, the issue has been raised before the United Nations Security Council. Here, Egypt and Sudan expressed their concerns about the effects of a drought, while Ethiopia rejected third-party arbitration in the event of a drought fueling the other parties' unsettlement regarding the dam, leaving the issue still unresolved.
The dispute arising from the Grand Ethiopia Reinassance Dam activation comes as the ripple effect of the conflict against Tigrayian forces in the north of Ethiopia is having a devastating impact on human security. Researchers from Ghent University estimate that the conflict and its subsequent famine have killed as many as 500,000 people. The Ethiopian government is therefore in need of an effective and productive win to counterbalance the situation. The GERD project has clear benefits for the country but its opening has raised tensions with its northern neighbors. Despite a more inclusive agreement since 2015, Egypt and Sudan clearly feel threatened and to some extent, strong-armed by the GERD’s implementation. The longer the impasse remains unresolved, the more confrontational and polarizing the countries appear to be getting along the length of the Nile.
About the author: Annette Bross
Annette holds a bachelor's degree in History from Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City. She has now moved to the Netherlands to pursue a master’s at Leiden University in International Relations and Diplomacy. She is passionate about development, climate action, public policy and security challenges with a strong commitment to social justice. She has experience in researching topics like the influence of Soft Power in Latin America and the Middle East.
The article was edited by Alessia Cappelletti.