2 min read
Why People Need to Give a Dam About the GERD

Sako Bakr

Political tensions have been escalating between Ethiopia and Egypt in a conflict over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the largest hydropower plant on the continent. Egyptian dependence on water from the Nile has caused it to view recent actions with the dam taken by Ethiopia, as an existential threat. Since the Nile runs through Ethiopia, downstream into Egypt, the Egyptian government won't tolerate any Ethiopian moves which affect the Egyptian share of the river’s water. For millennia, the Nile River has been the main source of water for various purposes including drinking, household uses, agriculture and fishing. Even today, more than 96% of Egypt's freshwater resources come from the Nile. The GERD project is very important for Ethiopia's economy, because the dam will provide huge amounts of electric power to its population of 115 million people (two-thirds of whom are without electric power) and will even allow it to export power to neighboring countries. Ethiopia has responded to Egypt’s complaints by insisting it will not affect the Egyptian share of the Nile's waters.

Although Ethiopia began construction of the GERD project in 2011, tensions over the Nile originated long before then. The 1959 bilateral agreement between Egypt and Sudan essentially gave Egypt veto power over any projects affecting its share of the Nile (55.5 billion cubic meters) further upstream. Ethiopia has tried to change this treaty for a while, because 85% of the Nile’s water is derived from Ethiopia’s highlands. When Ethiopia was laying the groundwork for the dam's construction, leaked diplomatic correspondence showed Mubarak considered military action against Ethiopia. Later, in 2013, Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi told a crowd, “If it (the Nile) loses one drop, our blood is the alternative ''. The reaction of these Egyptian leaders shows the importance of this issue for Egypt’s economy. In 2015, the three countries signed an ambiguous deal to end a long-running dispute over sharing of the Nile’s waters, which attempted to placate Egyptian concerns over the potential impact of the Dam on the Nile's water within Egypt, pledging that Ethiopia wouldn't make any unilateral moves to affect the river’s water without an agreement with Egypt. Now that about 80 percent of the dam has been completed and Ethiopia has begun filling its reservoir, Egypt has experienced a dramatic change in its share of the Nile, and is on pace to only be able to extract roughly half of its usual share (27.9 billion cubic meters). 

This dispute has led to a situation where both sides are caught between a rock and a hard place. Ethiopia is still in the midst of an ongoing conflict (that it is currently losing) with Tigaray separatists and Egypt is also uninterested in a large-scale conflict, however both countries have strong interest in not backing down. Ethiopia will need to invest about 4 billion dollars in the GERD and, as mentioned earlier, will see tremendous economic benefit from this project, while Egypt’s economy can’t afford to tolerate any dramatic reduction in their share of the Nile. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has assured the population that millions of troops could be mobilized to defend the dam, if necessary, while Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has warned that Egypt’s water is “a red line” and that, if the dispute is not resolved, “all options are on the table”. Currently the African Union has been working to mediate the crisis and talks are ongoing. The US has warned Ethiopia that it will withhold aid to Ethiopia (1 billion US dollars, the largest recipient of US aid in Africa), until this crisis is resolved. The Ethiopian minister Seleshi Bekele has created a catchy slogan (“It’s My Dam”) to galvanize the Ethiopian population to support the project, and this could be an indication that Ethiopia has no plans to back down anytime soon. The eyes of Ethiopian and Egyptian citizens now turn to the mediation efforts underway in the African Union, to prevent a war that nobody really wants but will not hesitate to engage in, should these efforts fail.

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