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Why is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam contentious?

The Economist | The project has been a source of disputes in north-east Africa for a decade

DAMS HAVE several uses. They generate electricity, store water for crop irrigation and help to prevent floods. They can also cause dispute and heartache—for example, over damage to the environment or the displacement of people whose homes are lost beneath dammed waters. The construction of one on the Nile has sparked a quarrel between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), costing $5bn, will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric-power project once fully operational later this decade. Located on the Blue Nile in northern Ethiopia, upstream from Egypt and Sudan, it will produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity, twice as much as Ethiopia’s entire current output. Even though the dam could give the region a big economic boost, officials from the three countries have failed to strike a deal on how it will be operated. And the Egyptian government has even considered bombing it. In January yet another round of virtual talks failed. So why is the GERD so controversial?

Egypt frets that the dam will choke off the life-giving waters of the Nile. It has good reason to worry. Some 95% of the water consumed by the country’s 115m people is drawn from the river. Previous dams on the Nile have altered the floods and flow of sediments that the country relies on to grow food. The Nile Waters Agreements of 1929 and 1959 granted Egypt and Sudan the right to use all of the water between them, and gave Egypt the right of veto over upstream construction projects. Ethiopia, which was left out of the agreements, does not recognise them, prompting the disagreement over the impact of the GERD.

It is difficult to assess the exact impact of the new dam on downstream countries. Some studies suggest that Egypt could lose nearly half of its share of the water if Ethiopia filled the reservoir over a three-year period. Ethiopia has said it plans to raise the water level more slowly than that. Even so, the dam will undoubtedly give Ethiopia greater control over the river’s waters.

Egypt wants a legally binding agreement over river flows and demands that Ethiopia release certain amounts of water to top up the Nile, especially in the event of a drought, once the dam is operational. Ethiopia says it would prefer to agree on guidelines which carry no such legal compulsion. Until recently, Sudan had sided with its southern neighbour. But its attitude has shifted of late. In late November Sudanese officials noted an “abrupt” change in the amount of sediment in the water reaching their own Roseires dam, which sits downstream from the GERD. An exchange of letters between the two countries confirmed that Ethiopia had released some water from the GERD without prior warning. Sudanese officials fear that large releases of water could overwhelm their dam, which has a storage capacity less than a tenth of that of Ethiopia’s megaproject.

With or without Sudan, Egypt is not ready to concede defeat. Moreover, Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, may well be too distracted with problems at home to solve the dispute with his neighbours. In November the country fell back into civil war between the federal government and the region of Tigray. In recent weeks tensions have erupted between Sudanese forces and militias from Amhara, a region of Ethiopia, over contested farmland. The military clashes will surely delay talks about the dam even further. The African Union has already tried to mediate over the GERD. In September America suspended some aid to Ethiopia in an attempt to nudge it towards an agreement. International pressure could be the key to restarting the talks. But do not expect an agreement soon.

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