Mar 9th, 2020, 04:37 PM

The Dam Problem of the Nile

By Caleb Lemke
Image Credit: Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images
The Fight over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

The ancient and powerful Nile River was one of the first seats of civilization thousands of years ago as Ancient Egypt rose along the banks of the life-giving Nile waters. Today, it remains an important resource, with some 430 million people across eleven different countries using it and its tributaries as it flows into the Mediterranean. Now, though, Egypt no longer has the sole control of the river it once enjoyed, as the construction of a dam thousands of miles upriver changes the dynamics of the Nile countries. The construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (the GERD), has become a source of contention in Northeastern Africa, as Ethiopia and Egypt argue over control of the Nile in what is one of the first large disputes over access to shared water resources, one which has the potential to spiral into a full-fledged war.

While the Ethiopian dream of a hydroelectric dam along the Blue Nile is nothing new, the GERD only began construction in 2011. Ethiopia capitalized on the domestic instability of Egypt, who in 2011 was in the midst of the Arab Spring, drawing the attention of the Egyptian establishment inward. Construction of the nearly $5 billion quickly began near the Ethiopian-Sudanese border to dam the Blue Nile, the single largest Nile tributary which is believed to constitute 60% of the Nile's overall flow. At its completion, the dam will be the largest on the African continent, and one of the largest infrastructure projects in the world, with a reservoir covering as much ground as the greater London area. It is expected to generate a colossal 6,000 megawatts of hydroelectric power, which could radically change life in the most populous nation in the Horn of Africa.

Egyptian kids playing in the Nile River. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Ahmed Emad Hamdy

The largest concern for Egypt has not just been cultural or a concern of power – the dam could pose an existential threat to the country. Life in Egypt, as thousands of years ago, is still largely reliant on the flow of the Nile, which brings the desert country an estimated 90% of its water, with 95% of the Egyptian populations living along the Nile. The river is not just integral to the farming and fishing sectors which feed Egypt and stimulate its economy - it provides most of the country's drinking water to one of the driest countries in the world. The slowing or halt of the flow of the Nile is a terrifying prospect to Egypt because the Nile is Egypt - without the river the ancient civilization as much as the modern would likely not exist. Egypt has attempted to invoke old colonial era treaties which give it supremacy over the Nile, and the right to veto Nile construction projects, but its influence over the Nile has waned as Ethiopia refutes the validity of those treaties. Egypt has now had to turn to other venues to try and protect their access to their most valuable resource.

Situating the Nile River and the GERD. Image Credit: Margaret Suter/ Atlantic Council.

Conversely, Ethiopia sees this as not only a project of national pride, but a massive boon to the economy and a modernization project which could launch Ethiopia to middle-income country status and change the national trajectory. The “Renaissance” from Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was not a word chosen lightly. A national ambition for decades, the promise of the modernizing project captured the nation's imagination and galvanized public support, to the point that the government has been able to sell bonds to help finance the project. In a nation with 65% of the population not connected to the power grid, the GERD could truly be revolutionary, providing a reliable (and sustainable) power grid to millions of Ethiopians. Neighboring countries even stand to benefit, as the expected excess energy will be sold off to Sudan and other countries throughout the Horn of Africa. 

Sudan lies between both Egypt and Ethiopia, with the Sudanese capital of Khartoum sitting on the site the Nile's actual start. Initially, their concerns were in line with Egypt’s, as they worried that the flow of water which they needed could be curbed and would be under another country’s control. Cajoling by the Ethiopian government has actually managed to bring Sudan closer to a pro-GERD stance, with promises of excess energy and the dam’s protection for the Sudanese against the annual flooding of the Nile. However the Sudanese have much less at stake from the flow of the Nile. They are far less dependent on it as a source of water, irrigation and economic opportunities, though these are still considerations, and Sudan will not benefit nearly as much as Ethiopia would from the GERD. Domestic political shifts have further caused Sudanese priorities to turn inward, with the GERD becoming less of a priority for Sudan.

The tentative hopes of the 2015 Declaration of Principles which pledged to find a fair and equitable agreement have come to naught. Similarly, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), a cooperative of the ten Nile riparian countries, has been unable to help in finding a political solution to the tensions. Illustrating the seriousness of the situation, the US and World Bank were recently mediators in a Washington-based series of negotiations. With the dam expected to be finished, or at least functional, within the next twelve months, the main point of contention has become the speed at which Ethiopia fills the reservoir of the GERD. Considering that the GERD reservoir will hold approximately a year and a half's worth of the Blue Nile's flow, the short term ramifications are of great concern to Egypt and Sudan. 

President al-Sisi. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons  / Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

Ethiopia hopes to fill the reservoir as quickly as possible to begin generating power and profits, estimating that they can fill the reservoir with in six years. Egypt has been distressed by this timeline, fearful of what this will do to the downriver flows it relies on, and has insisted that the reservoir be filled slower, proposing a twelve to twenty year timeline. Egypt's own dam on the Nile, the Aswan Dam, is not believed to be enough to sustain the nation's thirst. While talks may continue, a rapprochement in the near future seems unlikely. Egypt remains motivated by fear of an existential threat and as an authoritarian, military government, the regime is especially sensitive to national security threats for fear of the own domestic legitimacy. While Egyptian leader al-Sisi will continue searching for a diplomatic solution, rallying who he can in the region and internationally to his cause, it will have to be enough to assuage the serious fears of the military and the potential for a violence to break out. Given Egypt's population of over 100 million people, serious halts in the flow could become an international issue, as a diminished Nile threatens Egyptians' access to water and necessities, threatens the economy, and threatens to cause migration issues.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Aron Simineh

Ethiopia, however, seems to be holding out against any kind of agreement which would restrict their control of the waters or electricity from the Nile. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy sees the dam as an opportunity to not just modernize his country and grow the economy, but to turn Ethiopia into a regional power in the Horn of Africa, and potentially even grow its role across the continent. Abiy himself has staked a lot of his political legitimacy on his ability to modernize Ethiopia through policies and projects such as the GERD, and he seems unlikely to back away. Given that the country is also scheduled to undergo its first democratic elections in some time later this year, it seems Abiy has plenty of incentive to press on with the dam. Recent issues with rising ethnic tensions have also position the GERD as one of the few national issues which has maintained most of its popular support.

The President during Washington negotiations. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / The White House

With Ethiopia's withdrawal from the most recent round of Washington-based talks, though, the situation remains unresolved as the completion of the dam draws ever closer. Ethiopia recently has requested additional mediation from the ascendant AU chair, South African President Ramaphosa, hoping a continental mediation may help. Upon its withdraw, Ethiopia cited concerns about the impartiality of the American facilitators, claiming that their preferences for a solution which would benefit Egypt were clear. Considering at points that the American President has referred to al-Sisi as his "favorite dictator" and it was the Treasury Secratry running the talks and not the State Department, there is merit to Ethiopian claims. 

As recently as the April 8, Ethiopia still promised to complete the GERD on schedule as the country began prioritizing anti-corona measures. Both sides have used worrying rhetoric of war to protect their access to the life-giving waters of the Nile, and the specter of a conflict hangs over the dispute. If the nearly ten years of opportunity to negotiate pass by without an agreement, the risk of real conflict grows. The Ethiopian military continues to assert their ability and willingness to protect the dam, even broadcasting images of personnel and equipment near the dam recently, and in October Prime Minister Abiy affirmed to Parliament his ability and willingness to protect the GERD. Egypt, for their part, has continued to state their willingness to protect their access to the Nile, though any military action would be exorbitantly expensive and untenable in the longer term.

Who owns the Nile?

Solutions do not seem easily forthcoming. Many have been proposed, from cooperative agreements that simply coordinate the flows between the Aswan Dam and the GERD, to potential compensation schemes to pay Ethiopia for slowing down the filling of the dam. One particularly promising proposal entails bringing in multilateral organization as well as friends of both countries together on a larger, more coordinated scale to provide temporary electricity to Ethiopia and water desalination facilities to Egypt to help ease tensions while allowing for breathing room to establish an equitable and long lasting treaty to govern the Nile, long term. Fighting for control of the Nile is a step in the wrong direction – it should not be seen as a zero-sum game. The key to all of these plans that have been put forward has been buy-in from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, accepting some sort of long-term agreement which does not simply dictate the terms of the GERD, but lays out a method by which they can coordinate and govern the Nile moving forward. The oscillating extremes of climate change will necessitate this cooperation, as droughts and flooding are expected to grow in frequency.