The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: Controversy in the Nile Basin

“How the Ethiopian water structure can change the political, economic and diplomatic dynamic in the region.”

By Ahmed Elwakil

     The Nile River in Africa is not only the longest river in the world, but is also the spinal cord that facilitated the launch of several civilizations. Up to this day, the economies of several countries in the African continent depend heavily on the irrigation and water levels that the Nile provides. Passing through the eleven countries of Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo-Kinshasa, Kenya, Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania, Rwanda and Eritrea, the Nile’s multinational nature has made it the subject of much controversy in the past. Currently, there is a new controversy brewing among countries dependent on the Nile, with the focal point of the argument being The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

     Before one understands the impact this dam is will have on the different countries on the international level, one must understand what it actually is.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a gravity dam under construction in Ethiopia in the Benishangul-Gumuz region. Being constructed by Italian construction giant Salini Impregilo, the structure is expected to become the largest hydroelectric power plant and dam in Africa. Stretching 1,780 meters in length and 55 meters in height with a volume of 10.2 million meters cubed, the structure is truly colossal. The question then becomes, why is there such a big fuss about this dam? Because the Nile flows North.

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     The flow of the Nile river means that the Ethiopian dam is going to affect both Sudan and Egypt, which begs the question, what will these effects be? The effects of the dam are not limited to whether it will increase or decrease water flow and levels in Egypt, rather they extend to changes in the diplomatic nature of the region, economics impacts, as well as developmental changes.

 

A Diplomatic Shift

     The bilateral alliance between Egypt and Sudan deteriorated when Khartoum decided to withdraw its opposition to the dam and allow Ethiopia to go through with the project, putting Egypt on the spot and forcing it to be the sole opposition to the superstructure. Egypt, though, was not able to handle this situation diplomatically back before its 2013 coup d’etat, when Ex-President Mohamed Morsi presided over a secret session discussing the dam that was accidentally broadcasted live to the world. Morsi as well as many of his high-ranking officials recommended funding Ethiopian opposition to hinder the construction of the dam as well as directly bombing the dam.

     Furthermore, the tensions between Egypt and downstream nations such as Kenya and Uganda, and especially Ethiopia, are becoming more tense as the dam is being worked on. Ethiopia rejected Egypt’s proposition to halt construction of the dam as a prerequisite to negotiations, further straining the relationship between the African nations.

     Adding to the considerable amount of problems surrounding the dam, The Nile Basin Initiative, a partnership between the Nile riparian states, is seemingly becoming a powerless entity, with the partnership not able to facilitate constructive talks between downstream and upstream nations or being able to halt construction of the dam.

 

Economic Importance of Water

     On one hand, the Egyptian government and the Sudanese government are worried that the dam will manage to drain the water levels in the Nile by the time the river reaches both countries. On the other hand, the Ethiopian government is claiming that the dam will reduce evaporation on Lake Nasser in Egypt, as well as increase the general waterflow of the largest body of water in Africa. Recently however, Sudan has rescinded its opposition to the dam, leaving Egypt to lead the effort to halt the construction of the dam on its own.

     Egypt has been utilizing the Nile as its primary source of water for agriculture, one of Egypt’s biggest industries, for the past several thousand years. Thus, it is no surprise that Egypt is rallying to stop a project which might potentially lower the Nile’s water levels within its borders. However, not all nations surrounding the Nile are looking to use the water for irrigation, with some, most notably Ethiopia, looking to use the river to provide electricity. Ethiopia has upwards of 90% of its population that remain dependent on wood and fire for cooking and heating water, therefore the dam seems a good avenue to begin to modernize the country and provide basic services for its population.

 

Looking Ahead

     As construction on the dam continues and as Egypt is struggling with its own domestic issues as a result of several political shifts since the Arab Spring, it seems the dam will ultimately be completed. Only a swift diplomatic move on behalf of the Egyptians, a change of heart in terms of opposition on behalf of the Sudanese, or a willingness to hold negotiations on behalf of the Ethiopians can either stop or alter plans to build the dam. Truth be told, it seems to be that what Hassan Hussein of Al Jazeera said about the dam is true, “The dam’s long-term effect on the ecosystem upon which hundreds of millions depend for their livelihood is the greatest unknown.”

 

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