• Balázs Farkas

Who Owns the Nile? Conflict over Ethiopia’s Planned Gigantic Dam

Ethiopia’s planned construction of a massive new dam to ensure water availability for the country has led to a diplomatic crisis with Sudan and Egypt as the resources along the Nile become more and more limited.



Photo: BBC


Ethiopia’s aim to be self-sufficient in electricity and provide a strong base to the country’s economy resulted in building a vast dam on the Blue Nile. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa (and the seventh in the world), when it will be finished.



Photo: Deutsche Welle


The construction of the dam began in 2011 with an overall cost of around 5 billion dollars, which is an expensive investment for Ethiopia, an economically challenged, developing state. The GERD will be able to produce 6.45 gigawatts of electricity per year, which will be able to cover Ethiopia’s energy demand, and also provides 2 gigawatts for export, which could generate a $580m yearly income for Ethiopia, according to Al Jazeera.

The GERD also includes an enormous reservoir with a capacity of 74 billion cubic meters. Although 20,000 people had to be relocated in order to provide enough space for the reservoir, the population is very optimistic about this dam. Besides generating electricity, it will function as a bridge as well. In addition, the reservoir might become a tourist destination and allow an estimated 7000 tons of fish to be harvested every year.

The big problem of the GERD is filling it, as it requires four to seven years to fill the reservoir completely. But the speed of the filling has a significant impact on the amount of water in the Nile, which seriously affects the agriculture in Sudan and Egypt. The farmers in Sudan and Egypt are used to a normal fluctuation of the water level, but when the reservoir is being filled the water level becomes lower, which generates problems for them. That is why the Government of Egypt is interested in lengthening the filling period, whilst Ethiopia insists on the original plan of filling. Although this issue could have serious consequences in farmers up the Nile, it will be just a temporary issue. However, the evaporation caused by the large surface of the reservoir could be a permanent difficulty, and is the main source of concern from Ethiopia’s neighbors.




Photo: PILPG


The solution of the situation depends on the communication between the three countries (especially between Egypt and Ethiopia). However, it is not as easy as it seems to find a solution, due to previous agreements. According to these agreements, which are signed by Egypt, Sudan and the UK, Egypt has the right to control 66% of Nile water, Sudan 22%, and the rest, 12%, is lost to evaporation. Moreover, Egypt has a right to veto dams upstream, as well. However, Ethiopia did not take part in these negotiations, which is why they did not consider these agreements obligatory for themselves; whilst Egypt would constrain its rights.

Now that the second filling stage of the reservoir is finished, it means an addition of 13,5 billion cubic meters in order to reach the planned 74. This step is highly criticized by the governments of Egypt and Sudan. According to their point of view, the main problem is not the water shortage caused by the filling, but the lacking agreements between the countries, which should include guarantees for Egypt and Sudan. If Ethiopia still remains reluctant to take part in negotiations and reach an agreement, Egypt is ready to use its military power. To avoid this, now the U.N. Security Council is forcing the countries to start negotiations. The success of these negotiations will be pivotal in securing peace in the region.

Overall, we can see that water scarcity, and the tussle for water between countries is getting more and more serious. A growing population, climate change, and wasteful use of water make water arguably the most important resource of today. There is a possibility that more conflicts will appear, especially in arid countries, just to provide enough drinking water for the population. To avoid these scenarios, significant steps will need to be undertaken by the countries involved. In one of the first instances of water scarcity leading to a geopolitical crisis, the negotiations between the three East African states could begin a pattern of diplomacy between countries to ensure the availability of water.

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