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The enduring diplomatic struggles of Ethiopia’s dam plan


The enduring diplomatic struggles of Ethiopia’s dam plan


The US has suspended aid to Ethiopia over Addis Ababa’s decision to fill the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile before reaching an agreement with Egypt and Sudan on how to manage the shared waterway.


– Representatives from the three Nile states have failed to reach a joint agreement related to the GERD in the most recent round of African Union-led talks
– Physical construction of GERD is set to be complete in 2023; with an estimated 6.3-gigawatt output of electricity, it will be the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa
– Although outright conflict between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan is unlikely, the project has been a continual source of tension since construction began in 2011


On August 20, Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project manager Kifle Hora announced that construction work on the colossal dam was three-quarters completed. The announcement came in the same week as the resumption of African Union (AU)-facilitated negotiations between Ethiopia and downstream countries Sudan and Egypt. The most recent round of negotiations produced a diplomatic deadlock and the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation reported a failure to reach an agreement as to GERD’s filling and operations. No date for future negotiations has been set, but the irrigation ministers each agreed to pen a letter to Chairman of the AU, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, outlining their vision for the next stage of talks.

Positioned in the Benishangul-Gumuz region on the Blue Nile, 40km east of the border with Sudan, the long-planned GERD project is Ethiopia’s biggest engineering project of its kind — costing approximately 7% of Ethiopia’s 2016 GDP. GERD has long been a source of tension between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, and negotiations have been laborious and failed to produce a comprehensive framework concerning the dam’s filling and operations.

Tripartite negotiations yielded some success in 2015 with the signing of the Declaration of Principles Agreement (DPA), which outlined ten clauses intended to form the basis for ongoing technical talks. Negotiations on the safety, filling, and operation of the dam have been maintained, but heated disagreements and internal political crises in Ethiopia and Sudan have delayed progress. Egyptian and Ethiopian leaders agreed to resume negotiations following Russian-facilitated meetings in Sochi 2019, but eventually settled on US and World Bank-led mediations. The AU has been sponsoring the arduous negotiations since July after US efforts stalled in February 2020.


Photo: Jacey Fortin/Wikimedia Commons

Ongoing tensions between the three states peaked in July when Addis Ababa acknowledged the first phase of filling to be complete. Recent diplomatic efforts to present a joint agreement for GERD’s filling and operation fell short on August 28, with representatives citing the multitude of ‘legal and technical’ disagreements. Theoretically, given that the dam is designed to hold water to generate electricity, rather than divert it for agricultural use, the filling period will be the most disruptive to downstream countries. Some of this period can be managed in a way to avoid harm to Egyptian and Sudan interests, but both countries have serious concerns and have sought binding commitments related to safety and water release.

Egypt has enjoyed historic domination over the Nile’s flow through colonial-era treaties, notably via the 1929 Anglo–Egyptian Treaty and 1959 Nile Agreement. This control has been critical to life in Egypt — depending on the season, the country relies on Nile water flow for 82–95% of its water needs. Consequently, it’s no surprise that Cairo once called the dam an ‘existential threat’ to agriculture and public health. Egypt has previously thwarted external funding for the development of storage or hydropower facilities on the Blue Nile and Egyptian politicians were overheard discussing possible military action against GERD in 2013.

Despite initially siding with Cairo, Khartoum has come to support the dam, albeit with concerns regarding safety given its proximity to the Sudanese border. Sudanese officials acknowledge the benefit of GERD in regulating brutal seasonal flooding that prevents farmers from utilising more than 20% of their arable land. GERD’s better prevention of silting also offers a greater lifespan to Sudan’s own hydroelectric dams.

Although Ethiopia has acknowledged downstream concerns, the government claims that electricity generated by GERD will help alleviate poverty for much of its 110 million-strong population as well as supply electricity to the 65 million Ethiopians lacking access. Additionally, Addis Ababa insists on natural rights over the use of Nile water to stimulate economic growth and is eager to expand on the meagre 10% of hydropower potential currently tapped. The project is also a source of immense national pride and a symbol of economic success.

Despite the pointedness of meetings, negotiations have covered a lot of ground. Agreements have been reached on how Ethiopia should fill the dam and the release of predetermined amounts of water. However, Egypt is at loggerheads with Ethiopia over demands for extra water commitments and hydro-compensation in the case of protracted droughts. Ethiopia claims the release of so much water would render the dam inoperable and resents the notion of owing water to downstream states. Dam and water safety issues also remain pertinent, and Cairo and Khartoum have pushed for a binding agreement, while Addis Ababa is seeking to establish non-binding guidelines to be executed consistent with the DPA.


Photo: The Kremlin

Addis Ababa appears steadfast in its commitment to the construction and filling of the GERD, regardless of the difficulties that arise from diplomatic pressure or the COVID-19 pandemic. Ethiopia has already demonstrated its willingness to operate unilaterally through the initial construction of the dam and its first stage of filling. Underscoring this, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed recently stated that the second filling of the dam would proceed unobstructed during the rainy season of August 2021. This second impoundment of the reservoir behind the dam should see the water level almost quadruple from the current 4.9 billion cubic metres to 18.4, and will present the first opportunity for the dam to start generating hydroelectric energy. Abiy Ahmed also noted that continued work on the dam between September 2020 to August 2021 will be crucial to its physical completion by the scheduled 2023.

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Projections of Ethiopia’s economic transformation into a regional energy exporter reinforce government commitment to GERD. Ethiopian reports estimate that national energy exports and income will quadruple upon completion of the dam and will facilitate hydroelectric sales to neighbouring states like Tanzania and Uganda. Given Ethiopia’s track record of unilateralism regarding GERD and its anticipated economic gain, there is little reason to doubt Addis Ababa intends to remain on schedule, irrespective of an agreement with Sudan and Egypt.

Despite early threats of military action from Egypt, this has been expressly ruled out by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In a July 28 statement, al-Sisi denounced military action and emphasised negotiations as the central means to resolution. Even before this statement, most observers dismissed the possibility of a water war between Ethiopia and Egypt. Analysts note that water wars rarely eventuate given the dependence of downstream countries on the provision of water upstream — launching military action against a state with the capacity to divert water supply carries catastrophic risks to water vulnerable states.

In the case of Ethiopian–Egyptian relations, Egypt does not have significant military advantage over Ethiopia, nor does it share a border, meaning it would have to convince Sudan to enter the conflict on its side. The likelihood of Khartoum entirely abandoning support for the project is minimal given the recognition of GERD’s benefits to Sudanese agricultural and hydropower sectors. Projections of the dam’s effect on Sudan’s Gezira region alone suggest the land would be farmable three seasons of the year and could help Sudan become a major regional food provider. Additionally, Ethiopia enjoys much greater support from Eastern African basin states, which all seek the effective use of Nile River resources free of the restrictions imposed by Egypt’s historic water rights.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the construction of GERD and related diplomatic efforts remain to be seen, but initial signs look promising. Currently, the primary imposition on the construction of GERD is a special protocol for trucks entering the project site, as over 1,000 trucks deliver cement and related goods to the production site each month. Diplomatically, government officials have engaged in video conferences and Abiy Ahmed visited Khartoum on August 25 to further negotiation efforts. Despite the instability accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic, diplomatic and construction efforts towards GERD are proving versatile and persistent.

Exactly how negotiations will resume in the future is uncertain, but the optimism expressed for ‘fruitful’ discussions by Egyptian and Sudanese ministers is encouraging. Addis Ababa has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to engage downstream states multilaterally but has continued building GERD consistent with its construction schedule. As the physical completion of the dam draws closer, it seems reasonable that diplomatic urgency for a viable solution will increase accordingly. Egypt and Sudan have not proven amenable to non-binding guidelines and Ethiopia is unlikely to agree to anything that would compromise GERD’s operations. Nevertheless, all parties appear to appreciate that some form of compromise must be established soon.

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