The Controversial Geopolitics of Ethiopia’s Dam Building

Construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
Construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Credit: Jacey Fortin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Riparian relationships are rarely straightforward; especially when the river in question is the regional lifeblood. The Nile is the perfect example of this. It upholds the history, culture, finance and way of life of the countries through which it flows. It has defined the rise and fall of civilisations along its banks for millenia, providing drinking water, fueling industrial advances and irrigation for agriculture. Now, electricity is generated through hydro-electric turbines in newly constructed dams.

This significance helps us to understand why the building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile (the section of the Nile that provides 85 percent of the Nile’s discharge) in Ethiopia has caused such political angst in the upstream countries Egypt and Sudan. The Egyptian government has led the opposition to the dam’s construction, but are they right to feel so concerned? And does Ethiopia need the GERD to secure its economic future? And what makes the GERD’s construction so geopolitically significant?

The Ethiopian Story

Construction for the GERD started in April 2011 and the final cost is set to be around $4.9Bn; completion will see it become the largest hydro-power plant in Africa with a potential to produce enough electricity to power 6 million homes. The motives for the GERD were simple, electricity consumption is a function of economic growth and 55 percent of Ethiopian citizens had no access to electricity, with little to no rural access at all.

If Ethiopia was to maintain its rapid GDP growth rates, with an increase of 12.55 percent in 2010, it was considered essential to increase nationwide access to electricity for both domestic and industrial usage, as well as enticing foreign direct investment (FDI) and fueling infrastructure development. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, there is $4 billion in potential economic gains from electrifying small farms in Ethiopia with electricity created at the GERD, which would add 5 percent to GDP, helping them to mechanise their agriculture, improve food security and boost rural living standards. It’s potential for poverty alleviation across Ethiopia must therefore not be underestimated.

Inspired by a foresight of a changing climate, the GERD would provide further resilience to both drought and flood events through control and distribution of the reservoir volume, securing water availability for Ethiopian farmers in prolonged dry periods. Agriculture makes up 83.9 percent of the export economy, and so providing durability from external shocks by creating a perennial stock of water is seen as a major asset, able to protect GDP and aggregate supply growth in the long run. This was exacerbated by (accurate) projections of 2.8 percent annual population growth throughout the 2010s which reminded the Ethiopian government of the necessity for new sources of cheap, reliable and environmentally sustainable energy sources. If Ethiopia wanted to grow, they needed electricity.

Why Does the Egyptian Government Oppose the GERD?

In a region where access to the Nile’s water underpins all facets of life, building a dam that could jeopardize Egypt’s access by handing over control of the flow to a foreign government is unsurprisingly contentious. With an annual per capita share of water at just 560 cubic metres, Egypt is well under the international water poverty line and is dependent on the Nile for up to 97 percent of its freshwater supply. Of this quantity 85 percent is used for agriculture which provides 46.3 percent of GDP. It is therefore unsurprising that the governments in Cairo have from 2011 tried to persuade the Ethiopians to reconsider the dam’s construction.

Speculation over the construction and improper filling of the GERD’s reservoir has led to growing tension between Cairo and Addis Ababa, which proliferated in May 2020 when the Ethiopian government announced it would not delay the filling of the GERD; in response Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah Al-sisi ordered the Egyptian armed forces to be on the “highest state of alert”, insinuating military action against the dam. Tension once again came to the fore in June 2020 when Egypt’s speech at the UN Security Council spoke of ‘crises and conflicts’ due to the perception of an Ethiopian disregard for the 1966 Helsinki Rules’ article 4 which proclaimed each basin state’s right to a ‘reasonable and equitable’ share of the waters of an international basin. Fearful of the threat posed to their water security and their agricultural output, Egypt employed hard and soft power strategies, with rumours of air strikes on the dam so substantial that Ethiopian anti-aircraft batteries are reported to be stationed close to the GERD.

The Egyptian government also fears a shake-up of the balance of power in the region, with worries among Egyptian leaders that Ethiopia’s new dam could be another step towards them achieving geopolitical dominance in the region, redirecting FDI to new Ethiopian infrastructure projects away from Egypt and locating multinational organisations in Addis Ababa over Cairo. Their new electrified industry could feasibly outperform Egypt’s in the near future with their economy supplemented by the exportation of surplus electricity generated at the GERD and their ability to fuel new capital investments with cheap and sustainable energy.

The Controversial Filling Period

However, while the GERD should allow unrestricted flow of the Blue Nile after the project is completed, the speed at which they fill the reservoir behind the dam could still have significant impacts downstream. Results of scientific modelling for the potential results of different filling strategies underlines the benefits of cooperation for all three countries involved. It was found that the trade-off between the increase in electricity production and decrease in returns from irrigation in the wider basin area would be minimised with a cooperative management strategy, which would include the release of water from the reservoir in accordance with downstream water availability and climatic conditions. A cooperative strategy would mean an increase in hydro-power production of $260 million/year only causing a decrease in returns from irrigation of $1 million/year. However, a non-cooperative management strategy would mean a $155 million/year reduction of irrigation returns in the two downstream countries and an 11% reduction in hydro-power production in Egypt.

The worry in Egypt and Sudan is that without an agreement requiring cooperation and management, Ethiopia would continue filling the reservoir even in prolonged dry periods instead of reducing the rate of filling in accordance with water requirements downstream. The necessity of astute water management is further emphasised in recent research, stating that concerns need to be primarily focused on future drought management and planning.

It is this debate over the filling period that has ignited such political dispute, with officials from Addis Ababa refusing to accept a US-drafted agreement regulating the filling time of the dam, instead desiring to fill it at their own pace. Egypt had been calling for filling to take place over 12-21 years, managed carefully on water availability, however this was rebuked by Ethiopia who seem set on 6 years or less, hoping to reap the reward of increased electricity production as soon as possible.

Both sides recognise a precedent being set: Egypt is unwilling to allow the project to go ahead in fear of setting a precedent for Ethiopia or other riparian states to unilaterally build major infrastructure projects that will adversely affect Egypt in the future. At the same time, Ethiopia is unwilling to back down, fearing that in doing so they will be compromising sovereignty of their section of the river to historically more powerful nations.

Is Egypt Right to Worry?

Ethiopian leaders have attempted to invalidate the idea that the GERD would cause dire consequences for Egypt. They often cite the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer system which is estimated to contain around 55 trillion cubic metres of water underneath Egypt, claiming that instead of relying on the Nile so heavily they should diversify their water sources by tapping into the Aquifer, making the GERD less of a threat to their water security.

However, there are major environmental problems associated with Egypt ramping-up it’s groundwater abstraction schemes. Replacing the renewable flow of the Nile with non-renewable groundwater abstraction is unsustainable and with Egypt’s proximity to the Meditteranean and Red Seas, a phenomenon called saltwater intrusion will ensue, whereby surrounding saltwater seeps into the aquifer system to replace the volume of freshwater previously removed, contaminating the aquifer. This is already happening in Egypt as the interface between saltwater and the freshwater of the Nubian Aquifer shifts further and further south. This will only be exacerbated by increased Egyptian groundwater usage, who already abstract groundwater in the Nile valley.

And Is There a Solution?

A deal will require concessions from both sides, an agreement from Ethiopia to slow down the filling of the reservoir and to manage the rate of filling in times of water stress and prolonged drought would certainly help to get Egypt to accept the project.

An agreement applicable to the Nile scenario is already in place on the Senegal river, where the Senegal River Basin Development Authority has implemented a framework to execute the equitable sharing of infrastructure ownership in the basin among member-states. Prioritising joint development and cooperation between members over new infrastructure projects, maybe an organisation like this one could be the answer to the Nile dilemma.

But it is the rare degree of historical and cultural attachment, cemented with modern day economic dependency on the Nile for both sides that makes this issue so hard to resolve. And with climate change and a higher likelihood of drought rendering Africa’s economic future uncertain, dams like the GERD are only going to become more valuable assets to provide water resilience for countries like Ethiopia. It is also unlikely that the deep-rooted Egyptian bond between society and Nile is going to go away, meaning concessions are highly unlikely to materialise.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.