The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) could well end up as a template for water conflict in the 21st century.
The dam is currently under construction in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia on the Blue Nile. Once completed, the dam will be the largest of its kind in Africa, producing an expected 6,000 MW of electricity.
The Renaissance Dam will bring some obvious economic and development benefits for Ethiopia in the form of electricity production, employment, and drought protection. These, along with the sheer size of the endeavor, have helped the government present the Renaissance Dam as a patriotic cause célèbre for Ethiopians, who have been lining up to buy GERD bonds and demonstrate their love of country.
Downriver the mood is more somber. The Renaissance Dam could be a game-changer for Egypt’s water supply, restricting agricultural output, impacting livelihoods, and incurring new costs as the Egyptian government looks to more capital-intensive options to deal with its coming water shortfall. All the while Cairo must face up to a grim geopolitical reality: it is at the mercy of Addis Ababa’s decisions on the Renaissance Dam’s initial fill rate (currently 5-7 years; the longer it is, the more staggered the impact), and any future decision concerning reservoir levels.
A lack of technical details is further clouding matters. No one knows just how much of an impact the Renaissance Dam will have, and reports assessing the hydrological and social impacts of the dam are expected to be published after construction is complete.
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The Eastern Nile Basin comprises Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. The crucial leverage regarding Egypt’s water security lies with the Blue Nile countries Ethiopia and Sudan, as the Blue Nile is the main contributor to the Nile River’s flow downstream. In fact, about 85 % of the overall Nile flow originates on Ethiopian territory (Swain, 2011). Ethiopia's determination to build a major new dam, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), for hydropower purposes has been the flashpoint of current conflicts in the Eastern Nile Basin (Gebreluel, 2014).
The Eastern Nile Basin is of critical geopolitical importance to the Nile’s overall hydro-political regime. The Blue Nile is Ethiopia’s largest river, with high potential for hydropower and irrigation. Ethiopia argues that developing this resource is crucial to its economic development, and to overcoming poverty and famine, that have plagued the country in the past. Ethiopia has the basin’s most suitable locations for hydropower production, and its damming of the Blue Nile would significantly increase Sudan's potential for irrigated agriculture. Ethiopia has never 'consumed' significant shares of the Nile’s water so far, as its previous political and economic fragility in combination with a lack of external financial support, due to persistent Egyptian opposition to projects upstream, prevented it from implementing large-scale projects. This has now changed due to political consolidation over the past two decades and the advent of alternative sources of external finance (to the traditional multilateral development banks), not least from China (IDS, 2013; Gebreluel, 2014).
Non-cooperative parallel developments
Ethiopia and Sudan are currently developing and implementing water infrastructure developments unilaterally - as Egypt has done in the past and continues to do. These parallel developments appear to be elements of a bigger hydro-political strategy wherein the riparian countries aim to increase their water utilization to put facts on the ground (and underpin legal claims based on those uses) and increase their bargaining position for renegotiations of volumetric water allocations. However, this threatens the basin's long-term sustainability (as water use expands beyond what is environmentally feasible) and suboptimal in terms of capital allocation (as higher water use upstream may make downstream projects uneconomical (Swain, 2011).
The 1959 Agreement: an asymmetrical water-sharing arrangement
As stipulated by an Agreement of 1959 (see: Nile Main Conflict), Egypt and Sudan presented for several decades a common position vis-à-vis other riparians regarding the utilization and management of Nile waters. Despite the fact that newly independent Sudan in the late 1950s was literally forced by a dominant Egypt into a highly asymmetrical water-sharing arrangement, Sudan has rarely challenged this arrangement. However, Sudan’s future water requirements will likely exceed its water quota as defined in the 1959 Agreement. This represents a new challenge to the basin’s current hydro-political regime and status quo, as it may drive Sudan’s interest in renegotiating its current quota (Link et al., 2012; Whittington et al., 2014).
Ethiopia's challenge to the 1959 Agreement
The unilateral decision taken by Ethiopia - which never recognized the 1959 agreement but had previously not been able to challenge it in fact - to build the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in 2011 represents a major political challenge to the 1959 Agreement. It signifies that Egypt’s de facto veto power on major upstream dams has been broken, and it clearly demonstrates the political will of Ethiopia to develop its water infrastructure even in the absence of a comprehensive basin agreement. Political instability in Egypt played an important role as the announcement of the project coincided with the resignation of President Mubarak during the Arab Spring. Ethiopia’s interests in developing its water resources are driven by its growing population and high demand for socio-economic development (Gebreluel, 2014).
The GERD potential benefits and disadvantages
The GERD has the potential to act both as driver for conflict, but also for cooperation. It provides clear benefits to all three riparian, such as flood control, reduced flood damages and sediment control. Moreover, with GERD, Ethiopia opts for a “hydropower” expansion strategy on the Blue Nile, and not an “irrigation strategy”. This is good news for Egypt and Sudan as hydropower means little actual water withdrawal. However, it also entails potential negative effects on Egypt, if not carefully managed (see also Security implications of growing water scarcity in Egypt). The filling regime and operational methods of GERD will affect Egypt, in particular through its impact on the operation of its Aswan High Dam (AHD) which aims at mitigating the high variability of the Nile River flow. The filling time is estimated to take about 10 years, during which the Blue Nile water flows would be reduced. The 10 year filling time of GERD will likely contribute to fastened salinization in Egypt. If it were to take place during a sequence of years in which the Blue Nile flow and the AHD reservoir itself was low, Egypt might not be able to withdraw sufficient water supplies to meet all of its agricultural needs. Moreover, after the completion of the GERD, Egypt could run short of water if the operation of the GERD was not carefully coordinated with that of the AHD. Lastly, over-year storage facilities upstream in Ethiopia will allow Sudan to increase its water use. While this means new opportunities to develop extended irrigation-based agriculture for the Sudanese, it represents also a new threat for Egypt’s’ current Nile water utilization (Whittington et al., 2014).
Resolutions efforts have recently led to encouraging results in terms of cooperation.