21 Sep, 2020

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: A Tale of Two Niles (or even three)

by Alessandro Balduzzi

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd) is a barrage being built by Ethiopia on the Blue Nile. From Addis Abeba’s point of view, it represents a symbol of progress and of Ethiopia’s ambitions as a growing regional power. Seen from Cairo, the dam is threatening Egypt’s historic access to the Nile and the survival of its agriculture. The third actor directly affected by the Gerd, Sudan, looks at it both positively, as a source of electricity and a way to limit damages caused by floods, and with concern, given the reduced influx of Nile waters into its territories. Basically, the Gerd is a great resource in terms of production of electricity from a natural source, but it can also trigger both water and food insecurity in downstream countries. The need to find the balance between pros and cons is the main reason for a debate which has been involving Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan for more than a decade.

As Herodotus wrote, Egypt is deemed as “a gift of the Nile”. Most of its inhabitants - more than one hundred million people - reside along the river and the latter’s delta is the pulsing heart of Egyptian agriculture and the food basket of the country. The Delta stretches along the Mediterranean coastline from Alexandria in the west to Port Said in the east. Home to more than 40 million people and to about half of Egypt’s agricultural produce, this area measures about 160 km north to south. This lush green triangle in the northern part of Egypt is already acquainted with artificial phenomena threatening its ecosystem. 

Similarly to Ethiopia’s current will to show its growing power to the world, 1971’s Egypt - back then ruled by pan-Arabist icon Gamal Abdel Nasser - inaugurated the Aswan High Dam. Whilst generating around half of Egypt’s electricity at the time, this barrage also triggered the gradual decline of the Delta’s ecosystem, located more than 750 km northwards. Dams such as those aforementioned count on huge reservoirs to produce a large amount of electricity. Still, the interruption of the natural cycle of flooding that these huge barrages involve is the single largest cause for alterations in the distribution of silt on riverbanks. 

As a matter of fact, Egypt is a gift of the Nile’s silt, whose organic richness has made the land on the river’s flood plain utterly fertile - and thus arable - through the centuries. Moreover, dams prevent the sediment from streaming towards the sea and building up the Delta. The consequence of the disruption of this natural phenomenon is the accelerated erosion of the coastal banks and the subsequent intrusion of Mediterranean water into the Delta, turning once-fertile farmland into plots made unproductive by high salt concentrations. Whilst the construction of the Aswan High Dam started this process, the Gerd could mean irreversible damage to the region.

Because of that the trilateral debate involving Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan mainly revolves around the timing of the reservoir filling. According to Addis Ababa, the faster the better. Still, the impact on Egypt’s water availability is inversely proportional to the pace of the filling. For instance, a 21-year-long filling of the basin would lead to the loss of about 2,5 percent of Egypt's agricultural area (and that would be - obviously - Cairo’s favourite option). On the other hand, Ethiopia is unsurprisingly pushing for a faster process, which could take three years at the swifter predictable rate. Such a rapid filling, though, would lead to the loss of around 67 percent of Egypt’s arable lands.

The focal point of the dispute is therefore the conciliation of needs which are poles apart. As described above, the Nile’s waters are Egypt’s key to survival. At the other end of the spectrum, they are Ethiopia’s key to its development needs in terms of both electricity production and irrigation. Once wholly functioning, the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will generate around 6,450 megawatt against the Aswan High Dam’s 2,100, ranking as the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa. This milestone will mean supplying electricity to entire regions in Ethiopia which have been deprived of it and thus boosting foreign investments and local industries. 

In the middle - not only geographically - between Egypt and Ethiopia, Sudan is concerned about the reduction of its share of the Nile’s water and silt and the impoverishment of its fertile land, which would undermine its food security as well. Nevertheless, Khartoum is also considering the benefits of the dam, notably in terms of flow (and flood) regulation and electricity import. Once the dam is complete, Ethiopia is set to become Africa's largest energy exporter, relying upon about 2,000MW of surplus electricity.

The huge dam under construction on the Blue Nile raises several issues, ranging from the right to access water resources to the need to replace outdated treaties dating back to the colonial era, as well as finding the right balance between progress, ecology and waste reduction. For instance, Egypt could meet its agricultural needs by resorting to groundwater, the reduction of water-intensive crops, investments in desalinisation and improved irrigation methods. 

Above all there is of course the right to food security for all people, regardless of their nationality. Ethiopian farmers have the right to enjoy modern efficient irrigation methods and electricity to the same extent as Egyptian farmers must be able to keep cultivating their lands without being forced to move to cities on the brink of demographic explosion.