The Long-Term Water Politics of Ethiopia’s Nile River Mega-Dam will impact millions

A general view of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia - source Getty Images.
A general view shows the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in Guba, Ethiopia, on Feb. 19, 2022. (AMANUEL SILESHI/AFP via Getty Images)

Ethiopia’s unilateral filling of the dam’s reservoir will worsen water scarcity in Egypt and Sudan, threatening to set a dangerous precedent for regional water politics if the three states do not resume negotiations. Ethiopia completed its third filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in early August, ignoring Egypt and Sudan’s emphatic objections to increasing the amount of water in the dam’s reservoir to nearly a third of its total capacity of 74 billion cubic meters. This filling brings Ethiopia closer to its rumored goal of reaching the reservoir’s full capacity by 2027, and is the latest round of unilateral action in a decade-long dispute. Situated in the highlands of the Benishangul-Gumuz region of northwestern Ethiopia, the GERD’s annual fillings and ongoing operations will alter the flow of the Nile River, which contains more than 85% of the water passing through Sudan and Egypt. The two downstream countries — fearing long-term consequences for water scarcity and sovereignty — have long insisted on a tripartite binding agreement on filling and operating the GERD. But, years of negotiations have fallen through as Ethiopia continues to advance the dam’s development.

  • Construction on the GERD began in April 2011 at a projected cost of approximately $5 billion. The project is owned by the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation, and while the majority of the GERD’s funding is domestic, China reportedly contributed $1.8 billion toward the project.
  • Ethiopia unilaterally began filling the reservoir in July 2020, with a second phase of filling in July 2021. The third filling increased the amount of water held by the dam’s reservoir to 22 billion cubic meters.
  • Egypt and Sudan are dependent on the Nile for about 98.26% and 96.13% of their annual water needs, respectively.
  • The Egyptian Aswan High Dam and the GERD together are capable of retaining more than 280% of the Nile’s annual flow, which means that the world’s longest river will be primarily driven by the operation of two dams, rather than natural processes, upon completion of the GERD.

The GERD has become central to the development of the Ethiopian economy, as it will more than double the country’s electricity capacity and regulate the flow of water to the benefit of non-Ethiopian downstream dams. The Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation expects the GERD to generate more than 5,000 megawatts (MW) of power once fully operational, which would mean greatly increased electricity access for the half of the country that is currently without power. The dam will also likely enable the Ethiopian government to export surplus electricity to neighboring countries. Additionally, the GERD will regulate the flow of the Blue Nile and decrease the amount of downstream sediment. This will moderate the impact of seasonal flooding, increase food supplies in Ethiopia by providing reliable access to irrigation, and extend the lifespans of downstream dams in Sudan and Egypt by trapping sedimentary silt.

  • In 2020, Ethiopia’s installed generation capacity of 2,300 megawatts meant that about half of its population lacked access to electricity, according to the World Bank.
  • The GERD’s two installed turbines (out of a total of 13) currently generate 750 megawatts of electricity.
  • Power interruptions decrease Ethiopian, Egyptian and Sudanese annual business revenue by 6.9%, 6% and 1.2%, respectively, according to Addisu Lashitew, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Haim Kassa, a professor at Miami University.
  • A 2015 study at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam found that the GERD will likely retain most of the sedimentary silt material that flows with the Blue Nile, which will allow Sudanese hydropower dams to produce up to 36% more electricity per year and reduce the costs of dredging the dams’ reservoirs and canals.

Nonetheless, Ethiopia’s filling of the reservoir will all but certainly worsen existing water stress in Egypt and Sudan, particularly if the region faces drought conditions. Scientists have determined that the GERD’s completion will produce varying degrees of water deficits, depending on the rate of the reservoir’s filling. Egypt and Sudan are already experiencing extreme water stress as population growth, environmental degradation, pollution and expanding agricultural areas increase the demand for (and decrease the supply of) uncontaminated water. The shorter the filling timeline, the bigger the impact on downstream countries, as more water is diverted to the reservoir annually, (explaining why Egypt and Sudan oppose Ethiopia’s unilateral actions). With Ethiopia’s suspected seven-year timeline in mind, climate and GERD-induced water deficits will be further exacerbated by potential droughts. This will not only reduce water flows in Egypt and Sudan, but will also increase the amount of Blue Nile water required to reach the GERD reservoir’s full capacity via evaporation. Furthermore, Ethiopia’s unilateral filling and resulting poor relations with Egypt and Sudan make crisis management more difficult in the event of a drought.

  • A 2021 study published in Environmental Research projected that Egypt’s intrinsic unmet demand, or its water deficit without accounting for the filling of the GERD, will average about 18 billion cubic meters during the dam’s filling period (which the study determined could span between three and 25 years); a five-year filling period would add an estimated 20 billion cubic meters to Egypt’s annual water deficit, while a seven-year filling period would add an estimated 10 billion cubic meters. The same studies have not been conducted on Sudan, though the harm to Sudanese water deficits is unlikely to be as great because it has access to the Nile’s waters before Egypt does.
  • The United Nations considers a country ”water scarce” when annual water supplies per capita fall below 1,000 cubic meters. Egypt’s annual per capita share of water currently stands at approximately 550 cubic meters, or well below that U.N. metric. The country also faces an annual water deficit of around 7 billion cubic meters.
  • At capacity, the GERD’s stored water will equal 18 months’ worth of the Blue Nile’s flow.
  • Heshem El-Askary, a professor of remote sensing and earth system science at Chapman University in California, noted that the impact of the GERD’s first filling in July 2021 on water levels downstream in Egypt’s Lake Nasser — which is one of the largest reservoirs in the world, and the country’s main source of irrigation located on the southern Egyptian Nile — was offset by unusually high rainfall in the two previous years (almost 1.8 standard deviations above the annual average). El-Askary said this wetter-than-normal period was a ”positive anomaly” and that, if Egypt had seen a normal amount of rain in 2019 and 2020, the dam’s filling would have reduced water levels in the lake. And if Egypt had been in a drought, water levels would have dropped drastically, highlighting the vulnerability of Lake Nassar amid the continued filling of the GERD in Ethiopia.
  • The GERD was built on the Nubian Block, a highly fractured expanse of rocks, which in a worst-case scenario could cause major leakage of water reaching up to 25% of the dam’s total volume, thus requiring a volume higher than 74 billion cubic meters (the GERD’s total capacity) to account for losses in seepage and evaporation.
  • Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan’s populations combined are projected to reach about 340 million by 2050. This — coupled with increased economic development needs and the expected lack of rainfall due to climate change — will further strain the region’s already limited water supplies.

Egypt’s Water-Saving Strategies

Egypt is attempting to avert its worst-case scenario of ”absolute water scarcity” — brought on by a combination of population growth, climate change and development projects like the GERD — through various mitigation strategies. The country has already begun expanding modern irrigation systems that use less water than traditional drip systems, as well as implementing coastal protection projects (including rain harvesting facilities) to prevent flooding along Egypt’s northwest coast. Egypt is also considering reducing the cultivation of rice, sugar cane and other water-consuming plants, along with building a new management system and distribution facilities to better ration its limited water supplies. Other proposals on the table include increasing the country’s desalination capacity to boost the available amount of treated wastewater, and creating new systems that maximize the use of groundwater.
Greater water deficits in Egypt and Sudan will worsen food insecurity and unemployment, decrease agricultural output, and increase migration flows throughout the region during the GERD’s filling period. Approximately 95% of Egypt’s farmland is located within a narrow zone of the Nile riverbank, which means that decreased water volume will directly harm both agricultural zones and irrigation water supplies in the country. According to the aforementioned 2021 Environmental Research study, Egypt could lose $28 billion in total agricultural GDP if it does nothing to mitigate water deficits and Ethiopia fills the GERD in five years (a scenario where Ethiopia fills the dam filled more gradually over 10 years would result in $17 billion worth of agricultural losses for Egypt, according to the same study). Both the Egyptian and Sudanese governments already struggle to feed their respective populations, particularly as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupted wheat exports to two of Africa’s largest importers. In addition to damaging food security, such losses would also worsen unemployment, given that the agricultural sector employs nearly 20% of Egypt’s workforce and nearly 40% of Sudan’s workforce. Egypt’s economic crisis adds an additional dimension, as mitigation measures (such as taking additional water from the Aswan dam) would reduce power generation capacity, forcing the state to bear the increased cost of generating more electricity using natural gas, coal and other hydrocarbons. Taken together, these factors will likely boost migration outflows, adding to the region’s internally displaced population and creating additional stressors on struggling economies.

  • Sudan is concerned that its proximity to the GERD will make it vulnerable to the rapid release of stored water that could physically damage its smaller dams at Merowe and Roseires.
  • 85% of Egypt’s Nile waters go to agricultural irrigation, but water shortages are already a problem for farmers in the Nile Valley due to domestic issues. Egypt has expanded its nationwide agricultural land by 9% in the last seven years to an estimated 10 million acres in 2021, increasing the demand for irrigation water.
  • The GERD’s first filling in July 2021 disrupted water supplies in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum for three days, prompting shortages at irrigation pumping stations.

Amid Egyptian and Sudanese concerns over water scarcity, long-standing disagreements over fundamental aspects of negotiations will continue to inhibit a diplomatic solution. On top of the threat to Egypt and Sudan’s water supplies, six key points of contention have prevented Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan from moving past even the initial stages of talks.

  1. Format of GERD agreement: Ethiopia says that it will only negotiate under a nonbinding dispute resolution mechanism, while Egypt and Sudan say that all negotiated commitments should be binding.
  2. Drought protocols: Egypt and Sudan want clear commitments from Ethiopia to ensure that the GERD will release enough water during drought or low rainfall periods, but Ethiopia refuses to agree on what constitutes a drought or commit to releasing specific amounts of water.
  3. Timeline for reservoir’s filling: Ethiopia had previously expressed willingness to fill the dam over a seven-year period with completion slated for 2027, but Egypt has demanded a longer period, initially 12 to 21 years and more recently 11 years, to minimize disruptions to downstream flows. Such a delay would cost Ethiopia billions in lost revenue from the GERD’s electricity generation capacity.
  4. External mediation of GERD talks: Ethiopia rejects third-party mediation on principle, while Sudan and Egypt have at different times requested that the European Union, United States, United Nations and/or the African Union mediate the dispute.
  5. Overall impact on the Nile: The three parties disagree over the validity of previous scientific assessments of the GERD’s impact on water scarcity and the Nile riverbed ecosystem. Ethiopia contends that the 2013 study submitted by the International Panel of Experts (IPoE) — a commission formed by Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt — found that the GERD will not harm downstream states, but Sudan and Egypt point to the panel’s findings that its results were inconclusive and require further study.
  6. Recognition of past water treaties: As the two downstream states, Sudan and Egypt draw on historical water-sharing agreements as evidence of irrefutable rights to Nile waters. But Ethiopia has said it will not recognize the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian treaty or subsequent colonial-era agreements (which allocated all water rights to the two downstream states and granted Egypt veto power over upstream projects) because it was not part of those negotiations.

With limited leverage and means of retaliation, Sudan and Egypt are unlikely to convince Ethiopia to return to negotiations or slow its progress on the GERD anytime soon, which will further increase tensions between the Nile countries. As Ethiopia continues to raise the GERD’s reservoir levels, thereby strengthening its control over downstream Nile waters, the governments of Egypt and Sudan will likely grow increasingly uncomfortable with their own weakening water sovereignty. But Egypt and Sudan have largely exhausted their political options to dissuade Ethiopia from continuing with the GERD’s development. Poor diplomatic relations, mutual mistrust and calls for international mediation have had no effect on Ethiopia’s willingness to make concessions. The downstream states have limited economic and/or security recourse to elicit compliance from Ethiopia that wouldn’t also spark an even greater conflict, which neither Sudan nor Egypt appears willing to do at this point in the dispute. In the near term, a continuation of the status quo is the most likely scenario. As such, Ethiopia is likely to proceed with subsequent fillings of the reservoir, which could further elevate tensions with Sudan and Egypt. Within this context, ongoing disputes over contested border areas in the region, or accusations of Egypt or Sudan interfering in Ethiopia’s civil war, could more easily escalate into potentially violent clashes between the Nile countries.

  • A decades-long border dispute between Sudan and Ethiopia over the fertile al-Fashqa triangle is a potential flashpoint for poor relations between the neighbors. In June, clashes erupted after the Ethiopian military allegedly killed seven Sudanese soldiers and one civilian. Violence raged for several days before the conflict de-escalated and the area resumed an uneasy peace.
  • Since the war in Ethiopia broke out between the central government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in November 2020, the Ethiopian government has repeatedly accused Egypt of secretly funneling weapons and resources to the TPLF, as well as other rebel groups.
  • High-ranking Egyptian and Sudanese officials have repeatedly referenced water autonomy as an existential threat, but these remarks appear to be saber rattling, as any military action on the parts of Egypt or Sudan would likely prompt sanctions from the West and retaliation from Ethiopia.
  • Compared with Egypt, Sudan has taken a markedly softer stance toward Ethiopia. But since the overthrow of the country’s former authoritarian leader Omar al-Bashir in 2019 (who had close ties to Ethiopian President Abiy Ahmed), Sudan’s transitional government has taken a harder line toward its southern neighbor. Interim Sudanese President Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has warned of a coming ”water war” with great loss of life if Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia fail to reach a settlement on the GERD and distribution of Nile waters (although as with Egypt, such a war would likely bring consequences Sudan is unwilling to weather).

In the long term, Ethiopia’s continued unilateral filling of the GERD will set a precedent for water politics that will likely complicate the region’s response to future climate shocks. If negotiations remain stalled and Ethiopia proceeds with filling the GERD’s reservoir, the East African giant will have set a regional precedent for unilateral action on transboundary water issues. In the future, construction of additional dams on the Blue Nile and Atbarah River (also known as the Black Nile, which begins in northwestern Ethiopia), could reference the GERD as justification for increased control over river flows without negotiations. This is particularly important for future irrigation projects. Even though the GERD does not currently include irrigation plans, future irrigation projects built using other dams could cause permanent loss of flows, rather than the temporary loss of flows caused by the GERD’s filling — further exacerbating extant water scarcity for downstream states. As global temperatures rise, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are all expected to see more intense and frequent weather shocks with cross-border implications. Flash floods caused by unusually heavy rainfalls (as recently evidenced in Pakistan), for example, could damage a dam in one country that submerges another country’s agricultural areas under water. And on the other end of the spectrum, longer and more severe droughts could cause irrigation shortages, among other issues, by reducing overall water levels in the region. In response to these looming climate-related threats, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan will lack the institutional framework for diplomatic resolution and coordination necessary to come up with regional solutions. While the GERD itself does not represent the existential threat that previous attempts at saber-rattling by Egypt and Sudan would suggest, the precedent that it sets for future projects will exacerbate the volatility of the wider region — particularly as extreme and unpredictable weather events become the new norm due to the growing effects of climate change.

Source: Stradford Reports

About Stu Turley 2288 Articles
Stuart Turley is President and CEO of Sandstone Group, a top energy data, and finance consultancy working with companies all throughout the energy value chain. Sandstone helps both small and large-cap energy companies to develop customized applications and manage data workflows/integration throughout the entire business. With experience in implementing enterprise networks, supercomputers, and cellular tower solutions, Sandstone has become a trusted source and advisor in this space. Stuart has led the “Total Corporate Digital Integration” platform at Sandstone and works with Sandstone clients to help integrate all aspects of modern digital business. He is also the Executive Publisher of www.energynewsbeat.com, the best source for 24/7 energy news coverage and is the Co-Host of the energy news video and Podcast Energy News Beat. Stuart is on Board Member of ASN Productions, DI Communities Stuart is guided by over 30 years of business management experience, having successfully built and help sell multiple small and medium businesses while consulting for numerous Fortune 500 companies. He holds a B.A in Business Administration from Oklahoma State and an MBA from Oklahoma City University.