Skip to content

The Fight for the GERD (Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam) – 2 – Remarks of Rob Prince. February 19, 2021

February 23, 2021

Dams along the Nile and its tributaries


The more I look at it the more I am convinced that while, yes there are always technical issues. I’m not minimizing them at all – but ultimately, when I look at the heart of the matter of the conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia that we are going to be talking about today over the completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is the fear of other regional powers that Ethiopia is going to emerge at their expense.

Rob Prince


Full Program on YouTube

The Fight for the GERD – a Zoom Panel discussion, sponsored by WAAS – Women of Africa Alliance for Solutions. February 19, 2021

Introductions by Mamay Worku, co-Chair of the Ethiopian Public Diplomacy Task Force, active in Colorado’s Ethiopian Community

Mamay Worku introduces Mahder Serekberhan and Rob Prince

Rob Prince – retired Senior Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies.

Mamay introduces Rob Prince:

Rob Prince: Thanks for the introduction. I too have been looking forward to this discussion.

For starters, this morning at breakfast I was talking to my wife, Nancy and my father-in-law, Lowell Fey. They are both highly educated and generally informed about happenings in the country and the world. I asked them what they knew about the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (or GERD as it acronym is called).

They both gave me a rather blank look.

We have to realize that for Americans, this topic is almost entirely unknown and that this panel discussion is an introduction to the subject. In this discussion I am mostly directing my remarks to fellow Americans – Why should we be concerned about the GERD?

I assume that anyone from the Horn of Africa is well versed in this general topic.

Although Ethiopia rarely is covered in the U.S. mainstream media, still there have been hints recently that something is going on in Ethiopia in the media of late particularly last October when then President Trump held a press conference announcing the normalization between Sudan and Israel.

In that press conference – for many of us in the United States – without any context at all – he made a rather bizarre remark that Egypt would probably bomb the dam in Ethiopia. He added to that something about a loan that the United States was scheduled to give to Ethiopia – that the loan had been cancelled and would continue to be cancelled until Ethiopia “came to terms” – that was the expression he used – in the negotiations with Egypt over the future of the dam, the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

For Americans – what was going on here?

Even without knowing the context Trump’s statement was a threat – from the president of the United States – to Ethiopia: We, Washington, will give you the loan, if you agree to our terms of settlement of the issue with the Egyptians.

That is what came out in the news; it circulated some for a day or two – along with the Ethiopian rejection of the threat, and the terms – but beyond that – what is it that Americans know about this dam project in Ethiopia?

For starters, let’s just say this…

There is a major dam project being constructed in the northern reaches of Ethiopia along the Blue Nile, a major tributary of the Nile River that has its sources in Ethiopia. When completed – and it will be completed rather soon – it will have the potential for providing electricity for the entire country of Ethiopia but also electricity for the surrounding areas – without which the possibilities for economic development will remain limited if not frustrated.

Egypt, Ethiopia’s downstream Nile River partner (along with nine other countries) has been concerned about the GERD’s construction because an overwhelming amount of its water use comes from the Nile River – over 90% of it – so it has its concerns with how the DAM’s functioning will effect its water supply.

The ground was broken for the construction of the GERD ten years ago, in 2011. That construction continues today; it’s near completion. So now the question of the dam’s functioning has become a more urgent question for all concerned.

There have been negotiations over the future functioning of the GERD – they go back to 2013, 2014 – actually even prior to that – . I won’t go through them in any detail other than a series of agreements had been reached between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia in the past. There was one quite important one – it seemed to me – in 2015 that appeared to come up with a workable framework for cooperation between the upstream and downstream participants. Looking at it from what I have studied about these agreements – but afterwards, the Egyptians seem to continue to – as they say – change the goal posts with Egypt continuing to want to reopen negotiations.

Last year the United States attempted to broker an agreement between Egypt and Ethiopia. Unfortunately those negotiations broke down when the Ethiopian delegation refused to sign the final statement and walked out. So we this long history of diplomacy concerning the GERD.

In this introduction, just a little bit about the dam itself in these initial comments. There is a comment I found that goes something like this:

“Development is political power plus the electrification of the whole country.”

The quote is apt for what we are talking about.

The dam is key not only to Ethiopian development, but of stimulating development throughout the entire Horn of Africa in general – will provide the whole region with electricity providing the region with the electrical prerequisites that it needs.

A few more facts

Looking at how it was funded I was surprised. As is the tradition with such projects, to fund this project the Ethiopian government went to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund for loans. And mostly these requests were rejected. This suggests that there has been pressure from Washington – whose influence in such institutions is key – to stop this kind of institutional development at very high levels.

As a result, the Ethiopians have had to raise much of the funds necessary from the project from their own people – a people living in what is still a poor country. This is a project that the people of Ethiopia have contributed a great deal to – everyone – regardless of the tensions that exist in the country today – they are all invested in the GERD project. The country understands the importance of the GERD as a prerequisite for an economic take off for the country..

The GERD has the possibility of unifying not just the country but the region of the Horn of Africa, a region torn at the moment with all kinds of tensions that are well known. If we need to we can talk about them too.

What has fueled this economic development in Ethiopia over the past decade (or a little more)?

Ethiopia has tried to model itself on the South Korean model of development. The Chinese, Gorbachev essentially tried to implement the same model. It included the import of foreign investment and technology with at the outset of a low wage manufacturing system for export. Over time, when the system works, it becomes more of a higher tech, higher wage manufacturing export economy.

What has greatly stimulated Ethiopian development has been Chinese investment in Ethiopia. That combination of Ethiopia’s own internal economic dynamism – it has a strong agricultural, mining and low end manufacturing aspects to its economy – along with Chinese investment. One area that is really critical – China built a railroad from Djibouti at the southern exit of the Red Sea where it meets the Indian Ocean – to Addis Ababa. It give Ethiopia, a land locked country since the independence of Eritrea, more of an export outlet for its products and also a pathway for Chinese projects into the Horn of Africa.

There is this dynamism which has taken place in Ethiopia over the past few decades. But that economic grow is limited. The limit to Ethiopian growth has been the low level of electrical power. About 40% of the country has electricity.

So this gives you an importance of the GERD project.

One final introductory comment …

Why is there such opposition to the completion of the DAM? I’ve tried to get a better handle on the tension. Of course there are technical issues.

But my understanding of the issue is that the opposition is mostly political with the heart of the matter being the following: what Ethiopia is today is an emerging regional hegemonic power. If it is successful in its development, its influence in the region will grow considerably. There are a number of other countries – and Egypt is one, but it’s not the only one – there is also Saudi Arabia – they fear that as Ethiopian influence grows, theirs will decrease.

The more I look at it the more I am convinced that while, yes there are always technical issues. I’m not minimizing them at all – but ultimately, when I look at the heart of the matter of the conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia that we are going to be talking about today over the completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is the fear of other regional powers that Ethiopia is going to emerge at their expense.

I’ll stop there – that’s an ear full as they say – and turn it over to Madher.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: