Egypt and Ethiopia: War of the Dam-ed

(Photo: Middle East Monitor)

By Holly Mottram – Regular Contributor

In 2011, Ethiopia built a dam on the River Nile. Great, right? Well, yes and no. The project, named the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has the potential to provide a stabilising backbone to the Ethiopian national grid, providing electricity to rural and urban areas. It would have a significant impact on development projects and would undoubtedly help struggling rural villages. However, there are some potentially catastrophic effects of building the dam, most notably on Sudan and Egypt, the two countries downstream to Ethiopia and therefore would see a noticeable change in their water access. Egypt relies almost entirely on the Nile for its fresh water, sustaining millions of Egyptians and giving a livelihood to thousands. In years of drought, the Nile’s waters provide a source of hydration for crops and allows Egyptians to live in otherwise inhospitable parts of the Sahara Desert. Ethiopia’s dam has the potential to prevent water running upstream, and could reduce water flow by up to 80%, seriously endangering the lives of the Egyptian and Sudanese populations. This conflict is ongoing, and even today talks are deadlocked between Ethiopian and Egyptian governments. Many fear that military action could be taken by Egypt if a compromise is not reached in the next few months. 

Localised Impact

For Ethiopia, the GERD will revolutionise and modernise urban settings, particularly in the capital Addis Ababa. The dam is hydroelectric and works through accumulating mass amounts of the Nile’s water, and then releasing it slowly to rotate generators, producing electricity. The dam is located 15km south of the Sudanese border, and the lake, which has already been built, is the size of Greater London. The water will flow up Ethiopia and accumulate in this huge basin. Once a sufficient amount of water is collected, Ethiopia will start to slowly release it downstream, generating energy which will be used on the national grid. An additional benefit to the dam is that Ethiopia will sell any surplus energy to Sudan and possibly Egypt. This will fuel Ethiopia’s economy and aid relations with Sudan. 

Sudan supports the GERD on account of it reducing flooding in the rainy season. Both Sudan and Ethiopia have struggled with their crop yield at certain times of the year when flooding occurs. This has caused high tensions between farmers and local governments, but also has contributed to famine in rural areas. The dam has the potential to slow down the release of the Nile’s waters, making flooding significantly less likely, therefore helping to boost farming in both countries. 

The Adverse Effect on Egypt

Although there are many significant upsides to the dam being built, Egypt is faced with potential famine and loss of livelihood for thousands. The first area of conflict lies with how fast Ethiopia will fill up the huge basin with the Nile’s water. This is one of the most immediate causes of concern as Ethiopia has begun filling the basin already, with no agreement reached about a guaranteed minimum water flow towards Egypt. Sudanese officials have claimed that the water levels on the Nile had declined by 90 million cubic metres per day since Ethiopia started filling the reservoir in early July. Ethiopia has not yet released a statement to say they have begun filling the GERD, however they acknowledge that there is a water build-up in the reservoir but claim it is a part of the construction process. The lack of transparency from the Ethiopian government has been a concern since construction of the dam began. In 2011, when the first steps toward the GERD were taken, neither Sudan nor Egypt were informed that a dam was being built. This alone caused tension between Egypt and Ethiopia which has continued well into this year and in their talks, aided by the USA. How fast Ethiopia fills the basin is a high point of conflict, as if it is filled too fast, Sudan and Egypt will face disastrously low levels of the Nile’s water flow. In talks between the two governments, Egypt said they would like the reservoir to be filled in the next 12 to 21 years, meaning there will continue to be a steady flow of water through Egypt. However, Ethiopia said they will fill it in 6 years, an action that may have potentially catastrophic consequences for Egyptian farming, food and jobs. 

A secondary long-term problem: the question of what would happen in a drought? Africa is well known for having years where waterfall is low, and therefore reliance on the Nile’s water supply is increased. The GERD gives Ethiopia the potential power to hoard the Nile’s water, turning off the tap that allows water to flow through Sudan and Egypt. If there is no conflict resolution reached, and enacted into law, there is nothing to legally prevent Ethiopia from doing just that. Ethiopia would fare very well in drought years, as they have a reservoir full of water, however, Egypt and Sudan may be dangerously close to mass famine without access to the Nile’s water. 

Another long-term, but equally pressing issue is Egypt’s reliance on their Aswan High Dam in southern Egypt. This too is built to harness the Nile’s waters for hydroelectric power, as well as helping irrigation for its crops. A key point in discussions between the two nations is the guarantee of a minimum water flow, and a way to check Ethiopia’s compliance with this. If a solution were reached on this issue, it would ensure Egypt still had enough water to hydrate the crops and people, as well as allowing the Aswan High Dam to function relatively normally. However, a solution to this conflict has not been reached, and therefore tensions are high that not only could Ethiopia’s dam cause mass famine through lack of hydration, but it may also prevent Egypt’s dam from producing hydroelectric power that accounts for approximately 5% of their energy. 

International Aid

Since initial tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia in 2011, there have been various organisations who have attempted to find shared solutions to the many problems the GERD throws up. However, Ethiopia has been cautious of the USA or UN involvement, preferring instead to go through the African Union (AU). Egypt, in contrast, is in favour of international aid. When talks led by the US Treasury Department began in early 2020, both Egypt and Ethiopia engaged, and some progress was made. However, Ethiopia pulled out of the talks, refusing to sign an agreement with Egypt. It later emerged that this had led to much concern in the United States with officials believing the Trump Administration favoured Egypt, threatening to pull US aid from Ethiopia if they didn’t comply. 

In June, Egypt sent a letter to the United Nations Security Council, urging them to host discussions between the countries in order to advance negotiations and reach a final agreement. The African Union has been the primary organisation to lead talks between the two nations, with the UN offering support if necessary. However, despite the years and months of possible agreements, talks and negotiations, next to nothing has been done. 

With Ethiopia filling the dam already, Egypt faces potentially catastrophic impacts of reduced access to Nile waters. Even with its unstable government, Egypt cannot face mass famine and thirst of its people and is something they are prepared to go to war over. 

The GERD is seen as a power play by the Ethiopian government to reduce Egypt’s dominance in the continent. Egypt is prepared to defend its people from hunger and thirst, and protect its influential position in Africa, therefore the possibility of war is high. But for the time being, war is looming over the continent and for Egypt and Ethiopia the need for a resolution has never been more important. 

27 June 2020. Ethiopia to fill controversial Blue Nile dam despite protests from Egypt & Sudan. 24 France.

22 July 2020, Robbie Gramer. Trump Mulls withholding Aid To Ethiopia Over Controversial Dam. Foreign Policy News.

29 June 2020. Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Agreement within Reach, Under-Secretary-General Tells Security Council, as Trilateral Talks Proceed to Settle Remaining Differences. United Nations.

10 March 2020, Ahmed Aboudouh. Blood on the Nile is what’s coming if Egypt and Ethiopia continue their war of words over water. Independent.

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