Denial On The Nile: Egyptian Resistance to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Background

If you hope to get a good look at the world’s largest man-made lake, the observation deck of the seventy meter lotus-shaped monument to Russian and Egyptian friendship is hard to beat. Situated near the west end of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam, the monument gives commanding views of Lake Nasser’s vast expanse to the south and of the subdued Nile’s meandering course to the north.  The monument’s construction finished in 1971 to mark the completion of one of modern Egypt’s most essential pieces of infrastructure. At its peak, the dam produced over half of Egypt’s electricity, but today the massive 3.6 kilometer dam accounts for roughly 15% of the country’s electrical capacity.

More important than the electricity provided by the Aswan Dam, however, is the claim to the Nile itself that the dam represents. In 1959, the newly independent nations of Egypt and Sudan signed The Agreement for the Full Utilization of the Nile Waters (the “Agreement”). Estimating the Nile’s annual flow at roughly 84 billion cubic meters, Egypt and Sudan agreed to split their use of the water based on existing needs at the time, with 55.5 billion cubic meters going to Egypt, 18.5 billion cubic meters to Sudan, and the remaining 10 billion cubic meters as the estimated loss due to evaporation and other factors. The Agreement has been the basis for all negotiations regarding the use of the Nile’s waters ever since. At the time of the Agreement, the other eight countries that happen to be upstream (now nine, counting South Sudan) had comparatively little political, economic, or military clout compared to both Sudan and Egypt. The persistence of these disparities managed to forestall any serious objections to the Agreement by the upstream countries for several decades, but the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (“GERD”) promises to upset the status quo.

Thirst for Change

Nearly 1,400 miles southeast of Aswan, Egypt, lies the Ethiopian city of Bahir Dar, situated at the source of the Blue Nile, Lake Tana (as opposed to the White Nile, which heads north out of Lake Victoria from its source in Uganda). Unlike Aswan, Bahir Dar is not exactly a tourist hotspot. There are no hotels emblazoned with English advertisements or aesthetically pleasing but commercially impractical vessels plying Tana’s coastline. The unlit streets are unpaved and, after dark, well worth avoiding. The typical traveler to this region is more likely to recall unsettling images of extreme poverty than stunning sunset vistas from the deck of a drifting felucca. With a per capita income of less than $1,200 a year, this is perhaps unsurprising.

The Ethiopian government, however, is hoping to change all that. In April 2011, construction of the GERD began in the Benishangul-Gomuz region of Ethiopia, about twenty-five miles from the Sudanese border. The GERD could produce as much as 6,000 megawatts of electrical capacity, effectively quintupling Ethiopia’s current capacity. It could create a sixty-three million cubic meter reservoir as well, which may do wonders for Ethiopian agriculture. For a country in such desperate need of infrastructure, the GERD may be the answer to many of the country’s problems all at once.

Egyptian Misgivings

Ethiopia’s downstream neighbors are not exactly thrilled at the economic benefits the GERD promises to deliver to Ethiopia or the potential shift in the regional balance of power. In fact, far from thrilled. South Sudan may very well see some tangible benefits from the GERD, including access to relatively cheap electricity and options to access the reservoir for agricultural projects. Nonetheless, an increase in Ethiopian demand for the Blue Nile’s water will inevitably mean less accessible water for downstream Sudan. And as for Egypt, well, they perhaps rightly perceive nothing but loss in this.

For starters, the Blue Nile provides nearly 60% of the water that eventually flows into Egypt after converging with the White Nile in Khartoum.  So much diverted water upstream means that Lake Nasser will inevitably see a decline in its reserves.  Egyptian engineers estimate that completion of the GERD could result in Sudan and Egypt  losing access to eighteen billion cubic meters of water annually and the Aswan High Dam’s electrical production diminishing by up to 30%.

For a country already racked by political instability and struggling for some sense of clear leadership, the problems presented to Egypt by the GERD cannot be overstated. For most in Egypt, the problem is clearly understood; what to do about it is not. In June of this year, an Egyptian television station mistakenly broadcasted a live feed of some Egyptian lawmakers discussing plans to support rebel factions within Ethiopia that might undermine construction of the GERD. Some lawmakers at the meeting even suggested an attack by the Egyptian air force on the GERD as a last resort. Egyptian leadership at the time quickly pointed out that these individuals did not hold positions of power and that their discussion should not be taken seriously. Nonetheless, the gravity of Egypt’s situation was clearly highlighted by the lawmakers’ frank appraisals. Even on the record, hostility to the GERD among Egyptian legislators is readily apparent. Some have referred to the construction as “tantamount to a declaration of war” and even recently-ousted President Mohammed Morsi warned that “all options are available” in regards to settling the dispute.

Moving Forward

For Ethiopians, the GERD provokes a very different response. For those living in Ethiopia, and for a substantial portion of the Ethiopian diaspora abroad, the GERD represents a great leap forward. Progress in not only economical terms but in both social and political spheres as well. While the majority of funding for the massive project has come as loans from China, the Ethiopian government has also begun issuing bonds to finance the project. Ethiopian embassies around the world are eager to provide advice on how to purchase these bonds, and some reports suggest that sales are fairly popular among expatriates.

Short of an Egyptian military strike, the project appears destined for inauguration in 2017, and with it a number of serious adjustments for the region. Perhaps first amongst these adjustments will likely include a strengthened bargaining position for the historically marginalized countries that hope to take a more commanding role in shaping regional affairs. In June of this year, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Burundi signed what is commonly known as the Entebbe Agreement, which reassigns water rights for the entire Nile Basin. Neither Egypt nor Sudan participated in shaping this agreement.

These two downstream nations’ reluctance to enter into negotiations that would almost inevitably reduce the benefits afforded by their historical preeminence is not surprising. Nonetheless, an unwillingness to work cooperatively in crafting new agreements may result in an unfortunate misstep. Traditionally, Egypt has been the most powerful country in the region.  However, instability on the home front, coupled with recent soaring population growth in all of East Africa, will likely result in a challenges to Egypt’s dominance. As problems implicating the entire region arise, as they certainly will, a foundation of mutual trust and cooperative interdependence would be an enormous asset. The future stability of the region may depend on its countries’ leaders’ success in shaping meaningful diplomatic solutions to shared problems.

For now, Egypt remains the dominant economic and political power in northeastern Africa. Whether the construction of the GERD upends the regional power balance remains to be seen. In any case, if construction keeps pace with its 2017 completion target date, Ethiopia may soon provide its owns prominent vantage point of the harnessed Nile. For the first time, electricity may flicker its way from the Sahel to the Semiens, lighting the way for businesses and tourists alike. And over a thousand kilometers downstream from this new glow, a giant lotus-shaped monument may soon commemorate just how far Lake Nasser used to reach.


Sources:

 

Aaron T. Rose, Ministers to meet over impact of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Daily News Egypt (Oct. 21, 2013), http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2013/10/21/ministers-to-meet-over-impact-of-grand-ethiopian-renaissance-dam/.

A Dam Nuisance: Egypt and Ethiopia Quarrel Over Water, The Economist (Apr. 20, 2011), available at http://www.economist.com/node/18587195.

Egyptian politicians caught plotting how to attack Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Tigrai Online (June 04, 2013), http://www.tigraionline.com/articles/egypt-plan-attack-gerd.html.

Ethiopia Data, The World Bank, http://data.worldbank.org/country/ethiopia (last visited Nov. 11, 2013).

Kirubel Tadesse, Ethiopia Ratifies Nile River Agreement Opposed by Egypt, The Huffington Post (June 13, 2013), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/13/ethiopia-ratifies-nile-river-agreement_n_3434897.html.

Lowell N. Lewis, Egypt’s Future Depends on Agriculture and Wisdom: The Nile River,  http://www.egyptianagriculture.com/nile_river.html (last visited Nov. 11, 2013).

Peter Schwartzstein, Water Wars: Egyptians Condemn Ethiopia’s Nile Dam Project, National Geographic (Sep. 27, 2013), available at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/09 /130927-grand-ethiopian-renaissance-dam-egypt-water-wars/.

 

The title picture is of local boats on the Nile just south of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, taken by the author during his journeys throughout the region.