AFRICA – January 2020
The dangerous dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
From the 28th to the 31st of January, Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Water Resources from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, along with the US Secretary of the Treasury and World Bank’s representatives, met in Washington DC for the second round of talks since the beginning of the year over Addis Ababa’s controversial and massive infrastructural project: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). It was supposed to be a decisive meeting and yet, the deadline for a conclusive agreement was once again postponed (see joint statement).
The core of the long-standing controversy over the $4,5 billion hydroelectric dam project is the fact that nearly 74-billion cubic meters of water will be drawn from the Blue Nile, the Nile’s primary tributary, in order to fill the reservoir and activate the turbines of the biggest power plant of this kind in Africa. During such stage-by-stage process that would take at least from two to four years, the river’s water capacity will be inevitably reduced, consequently constricting Sudan’s and, especially, Egypt’s rate of water supplies.
As climate change is making river flows ever more unpredictable, with unforeseeable patterns of extreme rainfalls and severe droughts, the dam’s effect on the flow rate is crucial. On the one hand it will fully satisfy and exceed Ethiopia’s energy demand, paving the way for its rise as a regional economic power, as well as reduce the risk of floods to Sudan during rainy seasons. On the other, though, Egypt relies on the river for more than 90% of its national water supplies. Besides, Cairo is already struggling since decades with serious water shortages due to wild urbanisation, pollution, squandering and increasing soil salinity.
This could be the perfect scenario for a water conflict, whose extent may vary from a logistically very improbable fully fledged war to a relatively more feasible attack to destroy critical dam components before its completion.
After years of consultations being hindered by incompatible national interests, the countries seem now close to a potential deal, with all parties committing to elaborate a mechanism that would ensure a stable water flow throughout the various filling stages and Ethiopia apparently consenting to an extension of the process’ period time up to seven years. Concluding an agreement in this sense is crucial for both Cairo and Addis Ababa, the former having to secure as soon as possible vital access to fresh water for its 100 million population and the latter being in need of a quick return on its ambitious investment but still fearing an Egyptian backlash.
Sofia Mastrostefano – Master’s Degree in Contemporary Political Philosophy at Vita-Salute San Raffaele University of Milan. She attended several courses on geopolitics and global security at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI). Currently Press and Media Manager of the NATO Defense College Foundation.