The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: significance and consequences

Published in North Africa

By Afro Middle-East Centre

Announced in 2010 to aid Ethiopia’s economic development, and to realise its aspirations to be an energy exporter, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has resulted in friction between the Nile basin’s three strongest military states. The country’s decision to construct the dam and divert the Nile’s flow to aid in its construction was met by strong rhetoric from the former Egyptian administrations of Hosni Mubarak and Mohammed Morsi, including threats of force. However, the status quo is unlikely to be sustainable. Egypt’s dominance over the river is untenable both morally from an international norms perspective, and practically from economic and military perspectives, as discussed in Part one of this two-part series.
Specifications and reasons for the heightened concern
The GERD constitutes a 4.8 billion dollar project that, Ethiopia argues, will provide it with approximately 6 000 megawatts of electricity generation capacity when it is completed in 2017. Constructed in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia, 40 kilometres from the Sudanese border, the 74 billion cubic metre reservoir will reduce the Nile’s discharge to Egypt by 8 to 20 billion cubic meters during the filling stage. This will lead to a reduction of available water for irrigation, and will negatively impact the hydroelectricity generation capacity of Egypt’s Aswan dam by between 25 and 40 per cent. If the dam were to collapse, it could flood a 20 kilometre region reaching Khartoum, and the excess water flowing into the 160 billion cubic metre Lake Nasser risks engulfing many parts of Egypt, possibly even threatening Cairo. Further, if Ethiopia uses the dam for irrigation purposes, as had been hinted by the administration of former president, Meles Zenawi, it could irrigate over 500 000 hectares of agricultural land, and would perpetually decrease water discharge to Egypt.
In order to address these concerns, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia had set up a tripartite committee of ten water experts (two from each country and four international experts) to study the GERD’s implications. The committee has issued its report, but the findings have not been made public. Judging from the summaries released by Egypt and Ethiopia, the committee most likely concluded that:
  • The GERD is being built according to international standards;
  • From the documentation provided by Ethiopia on the dam’s construction, the impact on downstream countries will not be too severe, but more assessments are needed to be undertaken. While the Ethiopian summary mentioned the need for more assessments as per the committee’s recommendations, the Egyptian summary claimed that the Ethiopian reports were outdated and insufficient.
  • No proper impact analyses had been commissioned on the regional impact of a dam collapse, and safety features of the secondary Saddle Dam were not fully compliant.
  • The GERD project should not be cancelled yet.
Current situation
After much inflamed rhetoric from both Egypt and Ethiopia over the GERD’s construction and Ethiopia’s diversion of Nile waters, which some analysts saw as the first signs of an impending ‘water war’, the situation calmed. On 18 June 2013, foreign ministers from the two countries issued conciliatory statements saying that further studies would be carried out to assess the GERD’s impact; that Egypt had been assured of due consideration for its water security needs during construction; and that the statements signalled the beginning of an era of ‘mutual cooperation’. This mood continued after Morsi’s ouster on 3 July.  The new military-backed interim government stressed the importance of cooperation and joint activities to avoid conflict over the GERD. Egypt’s current prime minister, Hazem Beblawi, even went as far as stating that the dam would benefit Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, and the early November Khartoum meeting between water ministers of the three countries was organised mainly at Egypt’s initiative. Further, Egypt has offered its services in the construction, operation, and management of the GERD, agreeing to assist in seeking financing for the project.
The Egyptian strategy seems to be to tone down its rhetoric, and, instead, use the language of compromise and cooperation, thus maintaining the status quo, which means its approval would be required for further flow diversions. Thus, Egypt’s water minister, Mohamed Abdel Motteleb, asserted that the offer of assistance was contingent on agreements over how the dam would operate, the size of its storage lake, and how it would be utilised during floods and droughts. Further, Egypt believes that were it to successfully negotiate an agreement with Ethiopia, the country’s post-coup suspension from the African Union might be reversed. However, the latest meeting held 09 and 10 December ended with little success, with only a tentative agreement on the constitution of the body that would oversee the GERD’s construction being thrashed out. Here again conflictual statements were issued by both countries with Ethiopia stating that agreement had been reached that the committee would be staffed only by  national deligates, while Egypt’s water minister stated  that an international component to the committee will be discussed at the next meeting scheduled for the 04 and 05 January 2014.
Preceding this conciliatory approach, both countries had raised the stakes, with Cairo asserting that all options – including military force – were available in confronting the GERD’s construction, and Addis Ababa responding that the threat of force was a ‘day dream’ and that construction would not be halted. Further, Ethiopia increased its defence budget in the days after the July military coup in Egypt.
GERD’s significance for Egypt
The GERD’s significance is important for two additional reasons. First, with Egypt’s population expected to double to 150 million by 2050, the salience of the Nile to Egyptian water security will increase. Hence, any Egyptian leader will attempt to ensure that Egypt is able to access as much of the Nile’s discharge as possible. Some Egyptian politicians have even suggested that, as a final option, the dam should be bombed. However, most sectors of Egyptian society – including the military and intelligentsia – believe that the military option is unlikely to have a significant impact in light of the current balance of power. Most advocate dealing with the conflict through institutions such as the international court of justice, pleading with the USA to dissuade the Ethiopians from continuing dam construction, and, as a last resort, getting Egypt’s Coptic Church to persuade Ethiopia.
Second, and more importantly, the dam project represents the first real direct threat to Egypt’s hydro hegemony over the river. Therefore, even if the dam inhibited Nile flow only in the short term, failure to halt its construction could result in other riparian states undertaking similar initiatives. China is already involved in the construction of dam projects in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda, and South Sudan and Tanzania reportedly also have projects in the pipeline.
GERD’s significance for Ethiopia
The agricultural sector accounts for over 40 per cent of Ethiopia’s GDP, and is credited with gaining 90 per cent of the country’s foreign currency. About 85 per cent of the population is employed in the sector. Further, since Ethiopia has suffered famine twice in the past thirty years, food security is an important national concern and necessary for regime survival. Nevertheless, only 90 000 hectares out of a possible 2.2 million are currently irrigated. This means that the irrigation possibilities provided by the 74 billion cubic metre GERD reservoir is viewed with much optimism. The GERD could enable an additional 500 000 hectares to be cultivated by the reservoir.
In addition, the predicted 5 280 megawatt energy generation capacity of the GERD will provide the country with a plurality of other benefits. Energy security will be aided, and the country will have the capacity to increase its electricity exports to Kenya, Djibouti, Sudan and South Sudan, all of which are currently connected to its electricity grid. The dam will make it possible for 50 per cent of Ethiopians to have access to electricity; it will generate 27 million dollars a day in revenue; and, in general, it will enable Ethiopia to increase its influence within the subregion. Ethiopia’s electricity export to Khartoum is the main reason that Sudan has supported the GERD. If the country’s waters were fully utilised, Ethiopia will have the capacity to generate 45 000 megawatts of electricity, making it the second highest generator of power in Africa after the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Sudan’s response
The response of Sudan, the other downstream country, can either provide legitimacy to the project or emphasise and affirm the project’s negative impact on downstream riparians. Historically, both Sudan and Egypt have sought to protect their ‘historical rights’ to the river, and often formulated common stances against upstream states. However, Sudan has supported the dam project, going as far as rebuking Egypt for the uproar there and making available its technical knowledge on dam construction to Ethiopia. Further, Sudanese officials have correctly argued that the flow diversion will not impact the water level in Sudan in the medium to long term, citing the lack of impact that the constructions of the Merowe and Upper Atbara dams had had on the river flow. As mentioned, Sudan also receives electricity from Ethiopia, and believes that the increased electricity generated by the GERD will benefit both countries. Further, some experts argue that the dam will decrease sediment flow to Sudan, saving the country around 20 million dollars annually in operational and repair costs. Additionally, the White Nile (which comprises 14 per cent of the Nile’s flow) flows through Sudan, further reducing the effect of Ethiopia’s water diversion. Significantly, however, Khartoum has not yet displayed any inclination towards signing the Entebbe agreement.
Possible Solutions
The conflict over the Nile has the potential to erupt into a water war. Egypt refuses to renegotiate the outdated and ethically flawed 1959 Nile Waters Agreement. Moreover, climate change, which is likely to dramatically impact the African continent, and population growth, which will see the Nile basin’s population doubling from 400 million to 860 million by 2050, will intensify the conflict. The imperative, then, is to find solutions that will allow the maintenance of historic water rights while increasing the equity of the basin’s water usage. Two key proposals have been made in this regard: water sharing and benefit sharing.
Water sharing
Water sharing refers to a direct redistribution of the water quotas between riparian states, and the promotion of increased cooperation between them. Most states and international organisations agree with this solution, which will replace the 1959 treaty with a new water sharing agreement. One proposal for this to be workable to the disparate countries involved, specifically Ethiopia, is that Egypt should be allowed a maximum use of 52 billion cubic metres, and Ethiopia and Sudan 14 billion cubic metres each, with water being stored in Ethiopian reservoirs, thus decreasing evaporation by 6 billion cubic metres. Some experts have argued that this could add a further 21 billion cubic metres of usable discharge. Others propose that the 1959 treaty need not be directly renegotiated, and that by working with South Sudan, Egypt can offset a 9 billion cubic metre loss by preventing water evaporation through the completion of the Jonglei canal and projects on the Bahr el Ghazal River in South Sudan.
Benefit sharing
Because water sharing is only concerned with Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia (the three most populous and economically powerful Nile states), many conflict management strategists have proposed a broader, less obstructive solution. Through sharing the benefits rather than the water itself, a more efficient solution with less resistance might be arrived at. This method is more optimal specifically since technical calculations of population sizes, possession of other resources, rainfall calculations, and historical usage need to be considered when renegotiating water sharing treaties. Thus a shift to rather conceptualizing and implementing policies aimed at sharing the water’s benefits would be a less intrusive, less confrontational and less antagonistic method of re-working water usage norms. For instance, some have argued that instead of inefficiently and inequitably using around 80 per cent of its share of the Nile’s discharge, Egypt can be granted permission and afforded the right to obtain part of this from Ethiopia as a condition for the country allowing water to be used more equitably amongst Nile Basin states. Termed ‘virtual water’, this approach is a cosmopolitan, rights-based one, which has not been widely used in water sharing agreements. Some experts subscribing to this view have argued that Egypt can offer to provide electricity to Ethiopia in exchange for its historic share of Nile waters. Though seeming both flexible and easily calculable, this benefit does have its problems. It is, for example, highly unlikely that Egypt, a country that imports over 40 per cent of its food requirements and is the largest importer of wheat, would agree to decrease its agricultural production and food security in exchange for the preferential rights to parts of Ethiopian produce. On the other hand, Ethiopia seeks hydroelectricity generation capacity, not only for its energy needs, but also to generate revenue, and as a means to increase its regional influence. Benefit sharing might thus not fully address the reasons it wants to construct the GERD.
The GERD’s construction may herald a new era in the economic development of Nile Basin states. Further, were an agreement to be reached between Egypt and Ethiopia, and the Entebbe agreement enforced, this would result in the development and successful implementation of a new model of water sharing which could be applied to other areas where similar conflicts exist. The status quo is, however, unlikely to remain; Egypt’s dominance over the river is untenable.
Last modified on Thursday, 19 February 2015 14:03

Follow Us On Twitter

Find Us on Facebook