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CommentaryThe Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and its discontents

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and its discontents

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile River in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia has created tensions between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, which are downstream and rely on the Nile’s water.

A brief history of water disputes on the Nile

In 1902, the Aswan Dam opened in Egypt. It enabled the country to store excess water for irrigation. In 1920, the Nile Projects Commission was formed to examine water-related matters in the region.  In 1929, Egypt and Sudan signed an agreement on the usage of the Nile’s water. The 1929 agreement benefitted Egypt, which was guaranteed it water flow of 48 billion cubic meters (BCM) every year and granted a veto over construction works on the Nile River. Sudan was granted four BCM which also allowed 32 BCM of flood waters to flow into the sea. Three decades later, in 1959, the 1929 agreement was revised under which Egypt and Sudan received additional waters.

The upstream countries such as Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia argue that they were never a party to the agreement and are therefore not bound by its provisions. In 1999, the Nile Basin states (except Eritrea) signed the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). The NBI provides an all-inclusive and regional platform to the member countries to discuss the beneficial use of the Nile River water.

Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Burundi have signed the Cooperative Framework Agreement drafted by the NBI. Egypt and Sudan objected to it because of Article 14b which reads: “not to significantly affect the water security of any other Nile Basin States”. Egypt proposed that the wording should be replaced by “not to adversely affect the water security and current uses and rights of any other Nile Basin State”. Egypt mainly want to not disturb the current flow and uses of waters which deems to secure its interests.

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Egypt has the least favorable position on the Nile, as the last country the river flows through before it enters the Mediterranean Sea.

Yet, for decades, the country was the hydro-hegemon because of its military, economic and technological superiority over its riparian neighbors. This hydro-hegemony has declined in last few years because domestic economic and political instability, and long-term shifts in the regional balance of power.

Trilateral, continental, and international engagements on GERD

In the 1950s, US Bureau of Reclamation conducted a feasibility survey for the GERD. No follow up work was conducted because of political turmoil in Ethiopia, until 2011 when the Ethiopian government began work on the GERD.

In March 2015, leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan met in Khartoum and signed “Declaration of Principles” under which they agreed to promote cooperation and regional integration by generating clean and sustainable energy from GERD. The three countries expressed commitment towards negotiations to address their disputes.

Nevertheless, problems remained, which the disputing parties tried to resolve through mediation. In November 2019, the US stepped in to host talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. After rounds of negotiations in Washington DC, Ethiopia refused to sign a proposal.

Ethiopia argued that the text of proposal was not an outcome of negotiation between the three disputing countries rather initiated by Egypt and the USA. It also contended that Ethiopia has addressed all dam safety related issues. As the deadlock over GERD remained, on 19 June 2020, Egypt referred the matter to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The 63-page letter asked the UNSC to intervene in the GERD issue.

Three days later, Ethiopia sent a 79-page letter to the UNSC. And on 24 June 2020, Sudan wrote to the UNSC. After discussion, on 15 September 2021, UNSC issued a statement that encouraged the disputing parties to resume negotiations under the AU.

In the Arab World, Saudi Arabia has supported Egypt’s position on the GERD, while the UAE has a balanced position. In March 2022, the UAE also mediated secret talks among Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia to find a solution. Oman and the Kingdom of Bahrain have also supported Egypt’s and Sudanese position over GERD.

To gain support from the other basin countries, Ethiopia has entered into agreements to sell electricity generated from GERD to Kenya, Tanzania, and South Sudan. Addis Ababa also plans to supply power to Rwanda, Somalia and Burundi. In 2023, even Sudan’s de facto leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan said he was “aligned and in agreement” with Ethiopia on the GERD issue, but the ongoing violence in the country has put that commitment on hold.

The GERD is expected to double Ethiopia’s electricity generation allowing it to pursue its other development agendas. After completion of GERD, Sudan can increase its hydropower potential and the country will be able to expand its irrigation area, which could help increase its GDP by up to GBP 66 billion by 2060. However, during the construction of GERD, Sudan is expected to have to deal with a decrease in hydropower generation and the reliability of irrigation supplies. Egypt will lose its annual allocation of water from Blue Nile, which could cause electricity shortage and crop failure leading to economic distress in Egypt.

However, as some studies show, Egypt could also benefit from GERD if it cooperates with Ethiopia and adapt its irrigation pattern. The politics of the dam are fraught and wide ranging and will play out long after the dam is finally completed.

(Amit Ranjan is Research Fellow at Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, Singapore.)

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