The Implications of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam for Egypt and Sudan

The completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) by Ethiopia has raised concerns for Egypt and Sudan regarding their water supply from the River Nile. Located on the Blue Nile tributary in the northern Ethiopia highlands, GERD is the largest hydroelectric dam project in Africa, spanning over a mile long and 145m high. While the dam is yet to be fully operational, its construction spanning 12 years and the filling of the reservoir with a surface area equivalent to that of Greater London have caused anxiety among downstream countries.

For Ethiopia, the dam represents an opportunity to significantly boost its electricity production and provide reliable power supply to 60% of its population who currently lack access. It is expected to double Ethiopia’s electricity output, foster economic development, and even provide electricity to neighboring countries such as Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Djibouti, and Eritrea.

However, Egypt, with its population of approximately 107 million people, heavily relies on the Nile for its freshwater supply. Water from the Nile is essential for households and agricultural activities, particularly for cotton cultivation which requires significant water resources. Furthermore, the Nile’s waters are used to fill Lake Nasser, a crucial reservoir for Egypt’s own hydroelectric power plant, the Aswan High Dam.

Sudan, with a population of 48 million people, also heavily depends on the Nile’s water resources. Both Egypt and Sudan are concerned that Ethiopia’s control over water flow through the dam could affect their access to water. Egypt is worried whether Ethiopia will ensure a sufficient downstream flow during periods of low rainfall or whether they will prioritize power generation by damming water.

The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has accused Ethiopia of disregarding the rights and interests of downstream countries, threatening their water security. Even a minor 2% reduction in water flow from the Nile could lead to the loss of 200,000 acres of valuable irrigated land in Egypt. Additionally, lower river levels can impact transportation along the Nile.

Ethiopia’s rapid filling of the dam over three years, a considerably shorter timeframe than suggested by Egypt, has further escalated tensions. This issue gained prominence against the backdrop of historical treaties from 1929 and 1959, which granted Egypt and Sudan exclusive rights to the majority of the Nile’s water while allowing them to reject water projects by upstream countries, like Ethiopia. In response, Ethiopia argues that it should not be bound by these old agreements and initiated the dam’s construction during the political turmoil of the Arab Spring.

Efforts to reach an agreement between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia have been fraught with difficulties. Talks broke down multiple times, and in 2019, the International Crisis Group warned of the potential for armed conflict. The United States intervened to mediate between the conflicting parties but made little progress. Talks resumed only a few weeks before Ethiopia declared the completion of the dam’s filling.

The completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has significant implications for the political and societal landscape of the region. It has heightened tensions between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia while testing the efficacy of international mediation. The ongoing dispute revolves around the fair distribution of the Nile’s waters, with livelihoods, agriculture, and electricity generation at stake for all parties involved. The diplomatic, economic, and environmental consequences of this standoff will shape the future dynamics of the region and the livelihoods of millions of people reliant on the Nile’s precious resources.