The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) continues to create political tensions between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. The GERD is a $4 billion hydroelectric project on the Blue Nile, in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region of Ethiopia, about 15 kilometres east of the border with Sudan.
The construction of the dam started in 2011. Ethiopia has started filling the dam as the country prepares to fully utilise it. Most water for the dam will be sourced from the Blue Nile, which has been the bone of contention and the source of dispute between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.
The Nile flows from two tributaries: the White Nile is considered to be the headwater and the Blue Nile its main water source. The former rises in the African Great Lakes between Rwanda and Burundi, and the tributary of the Blue Nile is Lake Tana in Ethiopia, which contributes over 80 per cent of the Nile’s flow. The dispute between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt has been inevitable and a long time coming. Besides economic growth and the need for an independent power supply by countries bordering the Nile, including Ethiopia, there are also historical injustices that still need correction.
Egypt, Sudan and Britain ignored Ethiopia during negotiations, and indeed other African countries, and subsequent agreements pertaining to the usage and consumption of the Nile. The most pertinent agreement is the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement between Sudan and Egypt. The agreement allowed the entire average annual flow of the Nile to be shared among Sudan and Egypt at 18.5 and 55.5 billion cubic metres, respectively. In defence of the agreement, Egypt has argued that African countries benefit from favourable rainfalls and are therefore better off than Egypt. The argument suggested that African countries on the Nile should construct dams that could reap the full benefits of rainfall. Africans have counter-argued that climate change has resulted in unusual weather patterns and unpredictability.
The economic growth in Ethiopia has been improving, making that country one of the fasting growing economies in East Africa. Moreover, the inflow of foreign investments from countries like China has increased energy needs. Ethiopia is, therefore, looking at its natural resources, including the Nile, to address energy supply requirements. Ethiopia’s energy demands have been put under further pressure by the influx of African diplomats and technocrats into the country.
Ethiopia hosts the headquarters of the African Union (AU), the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and has consequently become the residence for many additional people across Africa and the world. For Egypt, there is a need for the realisation that the Ethiopia of today will not be pushed over. The country has a very strong army, has been battling insurgents in Somalia and has contributed forces to peacekeeping missions around the globe. It also elected a dynamic young president, Abiy Ahmed, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Ahmed has been pushing for inclusive regional coordination and governance in the Horn of Africa. He is also hailed by many leaders of the world for signing a peace agreement with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, ending a longstanding conflict between the two countries. Ethiopia is on the rise, the country’s Ethiopian Airlines is doing extremely well and the Addis Ababa Bole International Airport is one of the busiest airports in Africa. GERD is part of the economic and political renaissance of Ethiopia, it is a “dam for Ethiopians by Ethiopians,” as the project is fondly referred to in Ethiopia. Ethiopians take pride in the fact that most of the funds for the dam were raised in Ethiopia. The dam has become a serious rallying point for nationalists. Any disturbance to the project could trigger destructive reactions and threaten regional stability.
Ethiopians have started filling the Nile, however, it remains to be seen how the Egyptians and Sudanese will react if indeed the flow of the Nile into both countries is dramatically impacted. What further complicates things for both Sudan and Egypt, is that a number of countries that border the Nile are also looking at constructing dams for their own energy needs. Kampala, the Ugandan capital, received an application for a licence to construct a $1.4 billion hydroelectric power plant on the Nile, documents show. The Nile runs through the borders of Uganda, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Sudan, Egypt, Ethiopia, Burundi, Rwanda and Kenya.
The advent of the GERD marks the beginning of an unpredictable future for both Sudan and Egypt. Egypt must negotiate a good deal with Ethiopia – a deal that could be used as a precedent and basis for negotiations with other countries bordering the Nile in future. It will have to alter its attitude towards Ethiopia and Sub-Saharan countries – an attitude that in general has been undermining, and at times racist. In May 2016, during the UN Environmental Assembly in Addis Ababa, the head of the African Diplomatic Corps instituted a formal protest to the assembly after the head of the Egyptian delegation, Mohamad Hisham Shoeir, is alleged to have called Africans “dogs and slaves”. It is a behaviour that still persists in much of North African and the Middle East, unfortunately. Secondly, war-like rhetoric from Egyptian leaders has further complicated prospects of successful negotiations. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi told the Financial Times in December of last year, that “the Nile is a matter of life and death” for Egypt. His predecessor, President Mohamed Morsi, was less relenting on the subject, “if the Nile diminishes by one drop, then our blood is the alternative,” he vowed.
What should be concerning to Egypt, is that in an era where political injustices are prevalent, and racists are on the attack following the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, Ethiopia’s right to construct the dam for its power needs is most likely to gain support from many African countries, black communities internationally and the AU. Egypt should embrace a new attitude, cast aside the historical agreements and re-enter negotiations with Ethiopia without preconditions, for the sake of its people.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.