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The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: Ethiopia’s Pride, Egypt’s Albatross

July 14, 2020

Ethiopian construction workers, building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

(Postscript: the day after posting this article, Ethiopia began filling the dam)

Colorado, where I have lived for more than half a century,  is no stranger to water conflicts as the headwaters of four of the country’s major rivers (the Colorado, Rio Grande, Arkansas and S. Platte) all have their sources here and flow into adjoining states.

It has been involved in its share of legal challenges over who gets what. The logic of geography suggests that communities – or states – along the same riparian systems should find ways to share water – and use it more wisely. Water rich and drought effected countries also need to find common ground.

Similar conflicting interests have erupted in Africa and the wider issue is the fact that water conflicts are likely to become more commonplace as a result of climate change, unstable rainfall patterns, and population growth add to the strains. For centuries – if not millennia – downstream Egypt has controlled the allocation of Nile water flows. In the modern period it has dominated the more upstream areas politically as well in what amounts to a colonial – or neo-colonial relationship with its upstream “partner,” Ethiopia.

Now that “water hegemony” Egypt has enjoyed for so long, that partnership is about to change. On the verge of a development renaissance fueled by its own talented population, strategic location, Chinese infrastructural investment and an attempt to leave it painful history of the past 150 years behind that has included a nasty, if not vicious episode of Italian colonialism, backwards traditionalist government, political and ethnic excesses, Ethiopia, struggling to contain domestic ethnic turmoil, tries to forge ahead economically and socially. At the heart of its vision for development, a dam project, Africa’s largest – the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, is near completion on the Blue Nile near Ethiopia’s border with Sudan. Completed up and running, the dam will generate some 6,000 megawatts of power, enough to provide all the electricity that Ethiopia needs and then some for export. Ethiopia says its development depends on the $4.8 billion hydroelectric dam, which it says it is entitled to build as a sovereign nation. Egypt, some 1500 miles down stream has expressed deep concern over the Ethiopian dam’s development, fearing it might cut the flow of some of the Nile waters.

The danger of a military conflict between the two – with not so subtle hints that Egypt might bomb the dam if it begins operation – are in the air. The stakes for both countries involved could not be higher. While for Egypt there is a practical consideration – its need for Ethiopian assurances that the Nile water flows will continue at near present levels, ultimately its more deep-seeded fear lies elsewhere: its loss of power and control over the river, its ability to dictate water policy to its more upstream neighbors, eroding.

At the time of this writing Egypt and Ethiopia a locked in a two week period of negotiations over the fate of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and its impact on downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan. It remains “a rocky process” that could disintegrate that much further in coming days as it does not appear that the two sides are any closer to reaching an agreement. Egypt, is 90% desert with 95% of its 100 million population living along the banks of the Nile. It depends upon the Nile for 97 per cent of its water needs. The Egyptian government claims it is not opposed to Addis Ababa’s development ambitions and that Cairo is ready to accept a reasonable level of impact on its share of the river’s water.

In a June 18, 2020 article published in Mada Masr, described in Wikipedia as “an independent Egyptian online newspaper,“ laid out the Egyptian negotiating demands,

“An Egyptian government source who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity said there are three aspects Egypt would not “under any circumstances” sign up to a deal without: an agreed minimum amount of water Ethiopia would have to release annually, legally-binding measures for mitigation and dispute resolution, and a final document that does not imply any permanent concession from Egypt on its water rights.”

Egypt wants a legally-binding deal that ensures it lack Nile water flow during lengthy spells of drought. It also wants an effective institutional mechanism for resolving future disputes. It says Ethiopia has balked at these demands.

For its part, while from all appearances Ethiopia understands it will have to make concessions to its much politically (and militarily) stronger downstream “partner” – and intends to – it does not want to forced into a situation where its development is compromised by Egypt’s riparian needs. It notes that Egypt’s claim on “maintaining its historic rights” to all the Nile waters is based on agreements fashioned by Egypt and Great Britain during the colonial period – and therefore lacking international validity – and need to be renegotiated now, long into the post colonial period.

One of the sticking issues between the two is the speed at which the dam is filled with Ethiopia committed to filling the reservoir involved over a 5-to-7 year period. Egypt is insisting that the process be considerably slowed so that its fresh water supply isn’t effected. It has suggested filling the dam over 12 to 20 years, a concession the Ethiopians are not willing to make. They have already invested a decade in its construction and are anxious to see a return on their investment.

This, along with a mechanism for dispute resolution has been the main sticking points.

It has been an Ethiopian dream to dam the Blue Nile for the past sixty years at least. Ethiopia has insisted on its sovereign right to both build and utilize the dam. It claims – with considerable justification – that the international law overseeing the flow of the Nile came into being during the colonial period and that although Britain and Egypt came to agreements but Ethiopia was excluded from the discussions.

Ethiopia has announced that no matter how the negotiations play out that it will start filling the dam over the next week or ten days. Egypt fears that filling the dam will give Ethiopia control of the flow of the Blue Nile, Africa’s longest river whose source is the mountains of Ethiopia. Ethiopia insists that the main purpose of the dam is the production of hydroelectric power rather than water reallocation for agriculture but the speed by which Ethiopia fills the dam reservoir will effect flows downstream.

Not only would the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s completion result in a dramatic boost in the country’s electricity production – currently at an access rate level of only 38% – undoubtedly needed for the country’s development, Ethiopia would also be able to export it to neighboring countries stimulating development among its neighbors as well.

Colorado River at Grizzly Creek. The Colorado River Compact is a 1922 agreement among seven U.S. states in the basin of the Colorado River in the American Southwest governing the allocation of the water rights to the river‘s water among the parties of the interstate compact.

Much of the dam’s financing was funded by issuing government “patriotic” bonds to Ethiopian nationals and those abroad. Some of the money also came from local taxes on salaries and donations. Ethiopians abroad and at home contributed the first $450 million to get the project off the ground, a breathtaking amount considering the country’s overall poverty. It also suggests the degree to which the project has widespread support throughout Ethiopian.

Addis Ababa claims it had to rely on its domestic supporters for finance because Egypt pressured international funders (the World Bank, International Monetary Fund) to refuse to back the project financially. Part of the funding, a little less than 40% – funding the turbines and associated electrical equipment – amounting to $1.8 billion (out of $4.8 billion total) – allegedly comes from China.

Egypt has enjoyed support in its efforts to throw monkey wrenches into the Ethiopian dam project from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which are supporting Egypt in its confrontation with Turkey in Libya and regionally have lined up with Cairo to frustrate Ethiopian dam initiatives. Both have strong lobbying programs in the United States which might explain in part the Ethiopian failure to achieve some compromised solution from the negotiations held in Washington DC earlier. In any case, in a weakened global position, the United States was unable to impose its will on  two of its key African allies.

Egypt has enjoyed support in its efforts to throw monkey wrenches into the Ethiopian dam project from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which are supporting Egypt in its confrontation with Turkey in Libya and regionally have lined up with Cairo to frustrate Ethiopian dam initiatives. Both have strong lobbying programs in the United States which might explain in part the Ethiopian failure to achieve some compromised solution from the negotiations held in Washington DC earlier. In any case, in a weakened global position, the United States was unable to impose its will on  two of its key African allies.

Egypt has enjoyed support in its efforts to throw monkey wrenches into the Ethiopian dam project from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both of which are supporting Egypt in its confrontation with Turkey in Libya and regionally have lined up with Cairo to frustrate Ethiopian dam initiatives. Both have strong lobbying programs in the United States which might explain in part the Ethiopian failure to achieve some compromised solution from the negotiations held in Washington DC earlier. In any case, in a weakened global position, the United States was unable to impose its will on  two of its key African allies.

Ethiopia has also insisted on its sovereign right to build and utilize the dam.Construction of the dam began in 2011 and has taken nearly ten years to come to completion. At the time Egypt was dealing with the Arab uprising known as the Arab Spring. The negotiations with Ethiopia over Egypt’s water consumption have been “torturous” ever since

That Ethiopia has a moral-ethical element to its arguments, from where I am sitting, is undeniable, as is its undeniable need for the dam to provide the electricity necessary for the country’s modernization which could, to a considerable degree, temper smoldering the country’s smoldering ethnic tensions. But, in a world where having the moral-ethical high ground does not always translate into justice – or political advantage – it would be wise for Ethiopia to consider something else – the balance of power between itself and Egypt.

On this point, Egypt has the upper hand and it has put a great deal of pressure – much of it not particularly subtle – to try to bring Ethiopia around to a more conciliatory position.

Although South Sudan denies permitting Egypt to build an air base near the Ethiopian border from which its jets could strike Ethiopia, the allegation continues to hang in the air. There are reports of Egyptian initiatives to build a naval base on Nora island off the Eritrean coast as well. These past years, since the Dam construction moved into its completion phase, Ethiopia has experienced nasty outbreaks of ethnic violence from its Oromo Muslim population, especially that element of the population heavily financed by Saudi Wahhabist mosques and missionaries. As militant Islamic jihadists find themselves increasingly defeated in Syria, those tens of thousands still holed up in Idlib Province are being transferred elsewhere in the world, to Libya in large numbers, but also, according to a German report, to Ethiopia as well.

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

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