When complete, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam could transform Ethiopia’s economy, but for Egypt it poses a threat. Charlie Mitchell reports on the dispute.
On 6 November, ministers from Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt met in Washington DC as the Trump administration used its diplomatic clout to push for a breakthrough in one of Africa’s most intractable disputes.
Egypt had invited the US as an external mediator in its row with Ethiopia over Africa’s biggest hydropower project, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), whose reservoir alone will cover an area substantially larger than Lagos or Johannesburg. The dam is almost 70% complete, after half a decade of delay, and is due to be finished by 2023.
When completed, the dam could transform Ethiopia, making it Africa’s largest energy exporter, and sending a lightning bolt of growth through the region. But Egypt, which claims historical rights over the Nile dating back to treaties concluded during the colonial era, fears that the dam will deprive it of its lifeblood.
In response, the $5bn project has been framed by Ethiopia’s government as a national security matter. Addressing parliament in October, Abiy Ahmed, the reformist Ethiopian prime minister who recently won the Nobel Peace Prize for his landmark peace deal with neighbouring Eritrea, told MPs: “If there is a need to go to war, we could get millions readied.” That aggressive stance is based on Ethiopia’s historical claims on the river.
“Ethiopia is proud of being the source of the bulk of the Nile waters and considers that historically it has been prevented from benefiting from those waters because of Egypt’s relative control of the Nile basin and colonial dynamics,” says William Davison, senior analyst on Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group.
Meanwhile, Cairo has been using its more muscular diplomatic network to win over nations along the river’s path and sources, including Uganda, Burundi and South Sudan, in order to ensure the project does not jeopardise its water supply.
The Nile contributes 90% of Egypt’s fresh water and underpins irrigation and power generation, causing pro-government media to cast the GERD as a national security threat. If the project goes ahead as Addis Ababa plans, Egypt fears not just water shortages but additional hydropower projects upstream. The river traverses 11 countries, with the Blue and White Niles converging in Sudan.
Ethiopia’s goal, Egypt’s concern
To become a middle-income nation, Ethiopia needs power – and plenty of it. When completed, the 6,000 MW dam will increase Ethiopia’s electricity supply by an estimated 150%, supplying power to millions of homes and allowing Addis Ababa to export energy to neighbouring Kenya – via an underground transmission line under construction – as well as Tanzania, Sudan and even the Gulf states.
“Foreign investors will welcome increased power generation, especially in Ethiopia’s growing manufacturing sector,” says Ed Hobey-Hamsher, senior Africa analyst at risk advisory firm Verisk Maplecroft. “It will allow Ethiopia to maintain low energy prices and regional exports of electricity will become the source of more readily available hard currency – a significant bottleneck to doing business in the country.”
For Sudan, too, the dam will bring power and simplify irrigation projects, but Khartoum is currently in the throes of a political transition, following the overthrow of President Omar Al-Bashir in April.
Lawyers and experts in a trilateral scientific group between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan had neared an agreement last year on how fast Ethiopia would fill the dam’s reservoir – the key sticking point – but discussions broke down. The speed with which Ethiopia fills the reservoir will affect the flow of the river into Egypt, whose Aswan dam must retain a healthy volume to offset potentially catastrophic droughts.
Egypt wants guarantees that at least 40bn cubic meters of water will be released annually, and for the reservoir to be filled over a decade. Ethiopia – keen to reap the economic rewards of the project – hopes to do so in four to seven years. Keen to keep an eye on the flow, Egypt asked for an office at the site, which was rejected as an alleged violation of Ethiopia’s sovereignty.
The impact of the dispute on regional security has seen international powers wade in, including the US, which enjoys close ties with both Egypt and Ethiopia. In October, at the landmark Russia-Africa summit in Sochi, President Vladimir Putin encouraged discussion between Egypt and Ethiopia and offered his assistance. Still, November’s meeting chaired by the US treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, yielded little.
Although President Trump insisted the Washington DC talks had gone well, no significant breakthrough was achieved. Such talks are used by the parties simply to restate their positions, while the scientific group deals with technical details. Abiy has been clear that political discussions will not interfere with the work of the scientific group.
Observers expressed surprise at the location, since Washington had not actively sought a mediation role, while the choice of Mnuchin to broker the talks, rather than the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, also raised eyebrows. Nevertheless, Trump seems keen to find a resolution, perhaps because of his friendship with President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi of Egypt, and will hold two further ministerial meetings in December and January.
“The ministers reaffirmed their joint commitment to reach a comprehensive, cooperative, adaptive, sustainable, and mutually beneficial agreement,” said a Treasury Department statement.
Could there be conflict?
For now, conflict appears remote. Abiy remains preoccupied with domestic political matters, including a resumption of regional violence, while any conflict would leave Egypt’s hydropower infrastructure and farmland vulnerable.
“President Al-Sisi is likely using the GERD as a distraction from his domestic problems,” says Hobey-Hamsher, referring to recent anti-government protests. “In Sudan, the priority of the military is to inaugurate the institutions necessary for its new political functions, rather than engage in foreign adventures.”
Indeed, the dispute between two of Africa’s most influential nations is just part of a much wider conversation over the continent’s future access to water supplies as climate change accelerates. Against this backdrop, some analysts say that a workable agreement over the GERD represents a huge opportunity to safeguard the Nile basin.
“There isn’t a legal framework governing the Nile that everyone agrees on, there isn’t a water sharing agreement between Nile riparians [countries through which the river flows] and there isn’t a functional, co-operative arrangement for countries to share information about water usage, electricity demand, dam levels and electricity generation,” says Davison.
The first step, though, is a deal on filling the reservoir and avoiding the world’s first water war.
“As we approach a crisis point, hopefully that will provide extra incentive for the parties to compromise and therefore cooperate,” says Davison.