The Nile's Ancient Politics are Resurfacing on a Mega-Project Ethiopian Dam Deal

Published June 18th, 2020 - 10:55 GMT
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam /AFP
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam /AFP

The construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is nearing completion. The $4.5bn project will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant and provide cheap and sustainable energy to Ethiopia, which current has 65% of its population not connected to the electricity grid.

However, diplomatic disputes have been raging since the project was announced in 2011. Egypt relies on the Nile for 90% of its water, and the Blue Nile tributary on which the dam is built is the largest water source for the river.

The center of the disagreements is over the speed at which the dam should be filled. There are fears that if the dam is filled too quickly, for instance over six years as Ethiopia has suggested, it could lead to water shortages further down the river.


Last September, Ethiopia's Water Minister Seleshi Bekele said the country has “a plan to start filling on the next rainy season, and we will start generating power with two turbines in December 2020."

Talks were resumed earlier this year in Washington DC. The US and the World Bank were there to act as observers but there have been instances of Washington working beyond their brief in order to push a deal through. Issues of national sovereignty, the dam is funded by Ethiopia and private investors, together with fears over water security have led to frequent stalls in the process.

Some of the problems have their roots in colonial-era legislation which saw a disproportionate amount of water-control given to Egypt, over Sudan or Ethiopia. In 1929 the British – representing Uganda, Kenya, Tanganyika (now Tanzania), and Sudan - signed a treaty with Egypt which allowed Cairo to veto any project that could affect its water share.

Some of the problems have their roots in colonial-era legislation which saw a disproportionate amount of water-control given to Egypt, over Sudan or Ethiopia.

In 1959 a further agreement was signed, this time between Egypt and Sudan, that gave Egypt the right to 55.5bn cubic meters of Nile water per year. Sudan, however, was given 18.5bn cubic meters per year.

Dr Reem Abou-El-Fadl is a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics of the Middle East at SOAS, University of London. She told Al Bawaba that the way colonial-era laws are invoked or revoked is complicated. “Ethiopia refuses to recognize the 1929 treaty on the grounds that it was concluded during the times of British influence and occupation, and that Ethiopia did not sign it. However it does accept some of the outcomes of the 1902 treaty, in terms of its borders with neighbours, but not in terms of consideration of other Nile states in its dam construction plans," she says.

Most water rights were then placed in Egypt’s hands. But things are complicated further as 85% of the water promised to Egypt originates in Ethiopia. In July 1993 Egypt and Ethiopia signed the Cairo Cooperation Framework which said that any projects which threatened water security in either country had to be bilaterally agreed upon.

Though signed in 1959, Egypt refused to sign up to the Nile Initiative Framework Convention 50 years later because it didn’t want to jeopardize its 55.5bn cubic meter share. Egypt was also keen to retain its veto rights gained in 1993.

But things are complicated further as 85% of the water promised to Egypt originates in Ethiopia

Nevertheless, Ethiopia went ahead with its plan to start building the dam during the 2011 Arab Uprising, without consulting Egypt. Cairo fears that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam could disrupt water supplies from the Nile, on which most Egyptians rely on for their water. There is also fears that the new dam could affect the Aswan dam that supplies electricity to the country.

Dr Abou-El-Fadl thinks the dam could be disastrous for Egypt. “GERD would have very detrimental impacts on the Egyptian economy and on Egyptians' livelihoods. Some estimates are that the filling of the dam in three years would turn half Egypt's cultivated land into barren land. If Ethiopia continues with its plans to build more dams on the Blue Nile in the future, this threatens to dry Egypt's water supply further and will only be more detrimental," she says.

“GERD would have very detrimental impacts on the Egyptian economy and on Egyptians' livelihoods. Some estimates are that the filling of the dam in three years would turn half Egypt's cultivated land into barren land.

Egypt’s pre-existing relations with its African neighbors could be making negotiations difficult. “Egypt has not cultivated strong African relations in recent decades. During the 1950s and 1960s, Gamal Adel Nasser developed a dynamic African policy, which complemented and cushioned the construction of the Aswan High Dam. These relations were neglected from the 1970s onwards,” Dr Abou-El-Fadl argues. 


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