Construction site of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in Guba Woreda, Benishangul-Gumuz Region, Ethiopia. Photo: AFP

The Chinese-financed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), despite a recent breakdown in talks on Africa’s largest development project, risks powering up a range of downstream tensions and rivalries.

These run from rising rivalry between Egypt and Ethiopia to a festering border war between Ethiopia and neighboring Sudan. At stake, too, is the future of almost 90% of the water in the Nile River, the world’s longest waterway. 

Egypt, where millions depend on the river for their livelihoods, considers control of the Nile an “existential” issue. Sudan, meanwhile, fears the GERD may seriously endanger its own dams, which depend on water flowing from upstream neighbor Ethiopia.

Yet for Addis Ababa, the GERD is a chance to bring electricity to millions who currently live without power.

Finding a way to address the fears and hopes of all three states has so far eluded negotiators, with frustrated African Union (AU) mediator Naledi Pandor declaring last week that the talks had regretfully “reached a dead end.”

Grand Renaissance

Nearly a mile wide and taking nearly a decade to build, the US$5 billion GERD is “the largest development project in Africa,” Ashok Swain, UNESCO Chair on International Water Cooperation, told Asia Times.

Spanning the Blue Nile – the eastern and far more voluminous of the two branches feeding the river – GERD is also the world’s seventh-largest dam and by far the largest in Africa.

When its giant, 74 billion cubic meter reservoir finally fills – a process begun last summer and which could take 5-15 years – the GERD’s turbines could start generating some 6,000 megawatts a year of electricity.

China is a major financier of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Image: Twitter

China has a major stake in the project through the extension of a $1.2 billion credit facility to finance the dam’s transmission lines.

This is part of some $16 billion in Chinese loans to Ethiopia, according to the US National Bureau of Economic Research, with Beijing far-and-away Ethiopia’s largest overseas investor.

Yet, a major portion of the dam’s funding also comes from individual Ethiopians, who invested their savings in the project on the premise it would bring great benefits to their country of 112 million people.

“While Ethiopia is divided and volatile at the moment,” William Davison, International Crisis Group (ICG) senior analyst for Ethiopia, told Asia Times, “one of the few things bringing Ethiopians together has been the Nile issue and GERD.”

The project is supported across the political, ethnic and regional divides that criss-cross this troubled African nation.

“The GERD’s electricity has the potential to significantly transform rural areas of Ethiopia,” John Mukum Mbaku, a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institute and Africa development expert, told Asia Times.

Electrification can light up school classrooms and clinics, air condition offices, refrigerate food and start up industry.

With such potential, “The GERD has become a symbol of national pride and identity to Ethiopians,” says Mbaku, with any effort to obstruct it likely “to be met with a very robust response.”

Yet just such an obstruction effort has been underway for years from Ethiopia’s downstream neighbors.

Existential Crisis

“Egypt and Sudan have been using water from the Nile for centuries,” says Swain, “with between 86% and 90% of this – depending on the season – coming from the Blue Nile.”

The prospect of this flow being reduced, while also coming under Ethiopian control, has therefore rung alarm bells in these two downstream nations.

The dam “could endanger the security and very survival of an entire nation by imperiling its wellspring of sustenance,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri told the UN Security Council last summer after Ethiopia began filling unilaterally the dam’s giant reservoir.

A young Egyptian fisherman pulls his net in the River Nile in Gabal al-Tear village near Minya city, November 13, 2019. Photo: AFP/Khaled Desouki

Shoukri estimated that for around 100 million Egyptians, the Nile’s waters are their “single source of livelihood.”

For Egyptian ruler Abdul Fattah Al-Sisi, therefore, “It’s a question of domestic stability,” Riccardo Fabiani, the ICG’s North Africa Project director, told Asia Times. “For the Egyptian on the street, there is a general anxiety about GERD and it is important that Al-Sisi be seen to be able to protect Egypt’s interests.”

While Al-Sisi has so far ruled out military action against the dam, he continues to face a chorus of domestic demands for a tough response.

At the same time, “The dam dispute amplifies other, pre-existing regional tensions,” says Fabiani. These include  “competition between Egypt and Ethiopia when it comes to regional influence, with GERD a major statement by Ethiopia that it wants to be a major regional player.”

Sudan, meanwhile, was initially warm to the idea of GERD, given that it could help control flooding in the Nile – a particular problem for Khartoum in recent years.

Yet, with no agreement on how much water Ethiopia will allow downstream once GERD is operational, Khartoum also now fears that in times of drought Ethiopia might cut water flow to Sudan’s own hydroelectric dams in order to keep the GERD’s reservoir full.

“In the last few months,” says Swain, “Sudan has been pushing its position much more forcefully. The new regime in Khartoum has been getting more international support and becoming more confident generally, realizing that it can play a greater, independent role in this.”

Sudan has an ongoing border dispute with Ethiopia over the Al-Fashqa region, north of the GERD. This has seen a hike in tensions in recent weeks, with both sides accusing the other of instigating violence.

“It all becomes connected,” says Fabiani, “with the Tigray conflict, Ethiopian-Sudanese border clashes all mixed up with the dam.”

African disunion

Sudan also argues that experts from the AU should be left to come up with a formula for deciding how much water Ethiopia has to release, particularly in drought conditions.

Ethiopia, however, rejects this, not wishing to be tied to a formal agreement. Egypt, too, opposes the idea, seeing such technocrats as ill-equipped to resolve a political dispute.

This led to a collapse of the most recent round of talks, with no date set for their resumption. Hopes for a peaceful resolution now hang on several upcoming events.

“First, there will be a change of AU leadership in February,” says Swain, “with the Democratic Republic of Congo taking the chair.”

The DRC lies on the White Nile – the river’s other tributary – giving it a much greater direct interest than current chair South Africa in the whole river’s future.

Ethiopian citizens celebrate the successful filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) as the dam’s first two turbines’ electricity production is tested, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on August 2, 2020. Photo: AFP/ by Amanuel Sileshi

Second, will be the start of the Joe Biden presidency. The efforts of his predecessor, Donald Trump, to browbeat Ethiopia into agreeing to a deal were widely seen as ineffectual in the region.

“Ethiopia has shown it will resist outside pressure and hasn’t made any concessions to it over the years,” says Fabiani.

A third factor will be the arrival of rains in the summer months, when Ethiopia has said it will begin filling the dam’s reservoir again, even if there is no agreement.

Sudanese Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Yasir Abbas said on January 10 that this “constitutes a serious threat to the Sudanese water installations and half of the population of Sudan.”

What his and Egypt’s government will do about this remains to be seen, but, as Fabiani warns, “Something will surely have to give.”