Giant Dam Is Messing Up Water in Africa Even Before It Is Filled

Ethiopia is at odds with Sudan and Egypt over filling a reservoir that affects the Blue Nile river and the tens of millions of people who live near its banks.

The Blue Nile River in Sudan
The Blue Nile River in Roseires, Sudan, on June 8.

As Ethiopia begins diverting 13.5 billion cubic meters of water from the Blue Nile river to its controversial new mega-dam, residents of Sudan to the south fear a repetition of last year’s devastating drought.

The second stage of filling the $4.5 billion reservoir is ratcheting up tensions between Ethiopia and neighbors Sudan and Egypt, who depend on the Nile to support farming and generate power for their economies.

It’s also altering decades of behavior by the river, which normally swells in July when seasonal rains come. And it affects tens of millions of people living along the 4,000-mile-long Nile who rely on it for their water supply.

The move by Ethiopia to tap enough water to fill 5.4 million Olympic-size swimming pools was telegraphed for months. And yet it highlights how the many rounds of attempted mediation with Sudan and Egypt have failed, raising questions as to whether a solution can ever be found, or if Ethiopia will simply win by getting the dam filled in the meantime.

The Nile Network

It also comes at a delicate time for the administration of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has a strong incentive to push ahead with the project and make good on his promises to rejuvenate an economy that’s set to grow at a tepid 2% this year. While Abiy’s party leads the vote count in last month’s parliamentary elections, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s popularity has dropped from the levels he enjoyed when he first took office in 2018.

The repercussion of the failure to conclude a treaty became evident on July 13, 2020, when the dam gates were closed as heavy rains pounded the Ethiopian highlands and 5 billion cubic meters of water were collected in its reservoir. No warning was given to the Sudanese, who operate a much smaller dam of their own downstream in Roseires.

A monitoring station located at the border between Ethiopia and Sudan showed the Nile’s water level plummeted 100 million cubic meters between July 12 and 13, Sudanese government logs show. The last time they dropped that low was in 1984, the driest year on record.

Simon Marks
The Roseires Dam on June 8.
Photographer: Simon Marks/Bloomberg

Further downstream, six drinking water stations for the capital, Khartoum, ran dry, leaving most of the city’s 5 million people without piped supplies for three days. Irrigation systems along the Nile’s banks stopped working, damaging crops.

Broken Bridges

Government contractors are still busy repairing the road and bridges between Khartoum and Roseires, while homes close to the Blue Nile’s banks are still being rebuilt.

Mustafa Hussein, the head of Sudan’s technical negotiating team on the dam, said Ethiopia could have minimized damage by gradually filling the GERD in August when the rainfall is heaviest, rather than retaining 5 billion cubic meters within a week in July.

Flooding and drought aren’t the only issues. In November, Ethiopia opened one of the GERD’s lower gates for 42 minutes, releasing 3 million cubic meters of water, according to a description of the event recounted in a letter Seleshi wrote to his Sudanese counterpart.

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