As Ethiopia fills its Nile dam, regional rivalries overflow

NASA/METI/AIST/Japan Space Systems, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team/Reuters
The Blue Nile River is seen as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam reservoir fills near the Ethiopia-Sudan border, in this broad spectral image taken Nov. 6, 2020.

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The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project is so important for the Horn of Africa country that it decided to finance the building of it by itself, after international lenders refused. The hydropower the Blue Nile dam will produce is critical in a country where more than half of the population is without access to electricity. But it’s not just about power of the electrical kind.

When talks about the dam broke down last month between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, it wasn’t about sharing water resources. It was a case of regional rivalries trumping understandings about science and cooperation.

Why We Wrote This

Damming a major river is always consequential, more so if it crosses borders. Mediators have pointed three Nile nations toward agreement on important issues around Ethiopia’s dam, but power politics is acting as a spoiler.

The project is “a statement that Ethiopia is a significant, powerful country that can go at it alone and assert itself on the regional stage,” says Awol Allo, an Ethiopian analyst.

Egypt, 1,000 miles downstream and dependent on the Nile for fresh and irrigation water, views the dam as a national security threat. Sudan, which stands to benefit, is sandwiched between Egypt and Ethiopia and reluctant to anger either.

“For 50 or 60 years, Egypt was the biggest geopolitical actor” in the region, says analyst Rashid Abdi. Today, new governments “are becoming more assertive ... and acting independently,” he says. “It is a natural progression that Egypt is finding uncomfortable.”

When African Union-mediated talks between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan over a Nile River dam broke down yet again last month, it didn’t mark a new disagreement over sharing vital water resources.

Rather, it was a case of regional rivalries trumping understandings about science and cooperation that have been laid out by African and Western mediators in multiple draft agreements.  

Since then, Egypt’s media have sounded war drums, and a border territory dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia has erupted into violence.

Why We Wrote This

Damming a major river is always consequential, more so if it crosses borders. Mediators have pointed three Nile nations toward agreement on important issues around Ethiopia’s dam, but power politics is acting as a spoiler.

At the center of the dispute is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), built by successive governments in Addis Ababa with the goal of pulling millions out of poverty.

The turbines of the dam, located near the source of the Blue Nile in northwest Ethiopia, are to generate 6,000 megawatts of hydropower – critical in a country where more than half of the population, some 50 million people, are without access to electricity, and demand for power is increasing by 30% annually.

The solution to Egypt and Sudan’s resulting water-security concerns, observers say, is simple: coordination and data-sharing.

Yet even amid indications that the revival of traditional American diplomacy could help resolve the dam dispute, observers say mediators must also confront currents stronger than the Nile itself: nationalism, territorial disputes, and a struggle over supremacy in the Horn of Africa.

Regional supremacy

For Ethiopia, the dam project promises to fuel the country’s ascendance as a geopolitical player. Even amid the struggle over the future of the country that last November erupted into war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, the dam remains a cause that unites the diverse nation.

“There has been among the government and broadly the Ethiopian people a sense of unfairness, that as a poor country we have not been able to utilize a natural resource that springs out of Ethiopia,” says Awol Allo, an Ethiopian analyst and lecturer at Britain’s Keele University.

“This dam project signals the revival of the Ethiopian state after the decades of shame, poverty, and famine it has been identified with.”

A sense of personal investment and national unity around the dam solidified after the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and other lenders refused to fund the GERD. Ethiopia in 2010 decided to go it alone, paying for it with government funds and bonds purchased by private citizens, and broke ground on the project in 2011.

“Every Ethiopian sees themselves as a stakeholder in a project that is not just about energy needs, but a statement that Ethiopia is a significant, powerful country that can go at it alone and assert itself on the regional stage,” Mr. Allo says.

Downstream drama

The draft agreements notwithstanding, the water-sharing disputes between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia have only deepened since construction completed on the GERD in 2020 and Addis Ababa began filling the reservoirs in July.

Downstream countries long used to the unrestricted flow of the Nile for their farming and fresh water are alarmed by the dam’s potential impact on their water and food security.

Egypt, 1,000 miles downstream from the dam, has laid a historic claim on a lion’s share of water from the Nile and views GERD as a national security threat. Egypt currently depends on the Nile for 90% of its fresh water and the vast majority of irrigation water for crops to feed its 105 million citizens. It is also concerned with potential flooding and drought. 

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Egypt and Sudan decry the lack of technical studies and assessments of the dam’s environmental and social impact downstream.

Tensions are now high as Addis Ababa is set to fill the dam’s reservoir with an additional 11 billion cubic meters this year after the initial 4.9 BCM it filled in July 2020. The dam has a total capacity of 74 BCM. “The biggest problem is not knowing how Ethiopia intends to use and operate the dam, what times of year, what quantities, and what will be the impact,” says Amal Kandeel, an environmental and policy consultant and former director of the Climate Change, Environment and Security Program at the Middle East Institute. “Downstream countries can’t plan without knowing; they need clarity.

“Egypt will not benefit from the dam,” she says. “But if there is coordination, facts, evidence, and data shared transparently at the minimum, any potential harm will be reduced.”

For Egypt, a “humiliation”

Egypt’s inability to stop or influence the project has become a symbol of the government’s inward-looking focus the past decade and its withdrawal from the Arab and African stage, which domestic critics say has dramatically reduced Egypt’s geopolitical significance.

Egyptian insiders privately say the prospect of Ethiopian control over the most populous Arab country’s water and food security is viewed as “a humiliation,” driving Cairo’s hard line.

“For 50 or 60 years, Egypt was the biggest geopolitical actor, not only in the Middle East, but the northeast Horn of Africa as well,” says Horn of Africa analyst Rashid Abdi.  

“Times have changed, you have new governments that are becoming more assertive on the regional and world stage and acting independently,” he says. “It is a natural progression that Egypt is finding uncomfortable.”

Egypt has pushed for intervention by the United States, its Arab allies, and the U.N. Security Council. In June, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry warned of conflict should the United Nations fail to intervene.

After the talks’ breakdown last month, Egyptian state-influenced media clamored for the use of “force” against Ethiopia, advocating surgical strikes on the GERD’s electricity infrastructure.  

For Sudan, it’s good, but ....

Meanwhile, regional alliances and a century-old border dispute have transformed Ethiopia’s northwest neighbor from a quiet supporter of the dam to a spoiler.

Observers and experts agree: The GERD’s benefits for Sudan are many.

The dam, 20 miles from the Sudan-Ethiopia border, will reduce flooding that has devastated Sudan in the past. Blue Nile flooding destroyed one-third of cultivated farming land in the country last year, destroying 100,000 homes and killing 100 people, deepening Sudan’s economic crisis.

The reduction in flooding and sharing of irrigation water would help Sudan cultivate more than 50 million hectares of arable land abandoned due to flooding and mismanagement, a critical boost to an agricultural sector that is Sudan’s largest employer and accounts for 30% of the country’s gross domestic product.

Ethiopia has also vowed to export cheap electricity to Sudan.

Tiksa Negeri/Reuters/File
Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam undergoes construction in Guba Woreda, Benishangul Gumuz Region, Ethiopia, Sept. 26, 2019.

“Honest people in Khartoum will tell you that the dam is a net positive from all logical, logistical, and economic perspectives. Objectively, Sudan would benefit from the dam,” says Jonas Horner, Sudan analyst and deputy director for the Horn of Africa at the International Crisis Group.

“But it is not quite as simple as that,” he says, pointing to Sudan’s need to balance regional alliances.

Khartoum – militarily close to Egypt, diplomatically indebted to Ethiopia, and financially and politically dependent on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who are allied with Egypt – is reluctant both to appear to support the dam, on the one hand, or come down hard on Addis Ababa, on the other.

This complicated balancing act was disrupted in December by the violent reignition of a century-old Sudan-Ethiopia border dispute.

Sudanese patrols have come under shelling allegedly at the hands of Ethiopian militias, and the Sudanese army and Ethiopian federal forces have clashed multiple times this month.

Ethiopian officials blame Cairo for stoking the tensions, alleging an Egyptian plot to prolong conflict and derail the GERD’s completion.

Traditional American diplomacy

Observers agree the dispute provides an opportunity for the Biden administration to demonstrate its vowed return to traditional American diplomacy.

The Trump administration’s few forays into the GERD dispute favored Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a Trump ally. Last July the Trump administration partially suspended American assistance to Ethiopia after Addis Ababa rejected a draft agreement compiled by Washington that it saw as heavily favoring Cairo. President Donald Trump publicly warned that Cairo would “blow up that dam” should talks fail.  

In contrast, President Joe Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, vowed in his confirmation hearing last month to conduct “active engagement” to address a rise in tensions that “has the potential to be destabilizing throughout the Horn of Africa,” indicating that he is considering appointing a special U.S. envoy for the Horn of Africa.

But observers caution that the Biden administration must untangle the web of regional politics, nationalist fervor, and power plays in order to get the three states back to the basics: water.

“The war in Tigray has created instability in the Ethiopian state, and now you have the border issue with Sudan that is clearly linked to the GERD issue. You have domestic actors in each of these countries lobbying external actors to advance their interests,” says Mr. Allo.

“It will be difficult for any U.S. administration with all the goodwill in the world to mend things.”

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