Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

By Rupert Watson
Photos © Alison M Jones

Born in England, Rupert Watson has lived in Kenya for over 40 years as a lawyer, mediator, naturalist and writer. Mediation has taken him to many different parts of Africa. NWNL first met Rupert as the lawyer helpful in establishing the Mara Conservancy Bylaws in 2000. Rupert takes every opportunity to indulge in his lifelong fascination for birds, authoring innumerable articles on natural history. His first two books covered the lives of salmon and trout; and he wrote The African Baobab. After researching a 1946 murder by a young Kenyan Maasai man, he published that story in his book titled Culture Clash. Now, with binoculars in hand, he spends as much time as possible watching Africa’s birds.

Editors Note on One River: Today, Egypt’s population topped 101 million thirsty people living on subsiding, salty sands and depending on just one river – The Nile. This blog addresses the tensions as Egypt needs water and Ethiopia needs power – both resources to come from this one river – as Ethiopia completes its huge Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam [GERD]. Author Rupert Watson’s Jan 20, 2020 blog Managing the Nile introduced the simmering transboundary tensions within this basin of 11 nations. Three days ago, the New York Times ran a front-page story on GERD discussing how GERD exemplifies classic conflicts over water rights. Hopefully, more negotiations over GERD are soon to come – and hopefully Egypt can soon control its soaring population growth.

The power of Egypt’s sun seen in this bleached flag: the bottom should be black.

Quick Background Points

  • About 95% of Egypt’s water falls outside its borders and comes down the Nile; and 80% of Nile waters derive from the Blue Nile, which flows out of Ethiopia and joins the White Nile.
  • Egypt has tried to support its claims to the Nile’s water by first invoking a 1929 bilateral colonial treaty with Great Britain and then a further bilateral agreement with Sudan in 1959. This latter recognized to Sudan’s water rights from the White and Blue Nile Rivers, which meet in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum. 
  • Despite Egypt’s protest, Ethiopia began constructing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile in 2011. Ethiopia is desperately short of electricity, and when fully operational, the new dam should add 6,400 megawatts to its electrical grid.

The only loss of downstream water in a pure hydroelectric dam, meant only to push water through turbines for power, is the evaporation from the dam’s reservoir. However, dam commissioners have a habit of expanding the remit of their dams into multi-purpose ones by diverting water from the reservoir, particularly for irrigation or domestic use, thereby seriously lessening the downstream flow.  

Be that as it may, now the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is three-quarters complete, and even if not with good grace, Egypt seems to have accepted its existence and agreed to focus on hydrological issues arising from its construction.  The dam is of no use unless water is pouring through the turbines, and for this to happen the reservoir needs to be filled. How long this should take is a perennial question.  For the dam builder country, the quicker the better, so that power can begin to be generated. But fast filling threatens downstream flow and for those downstream, the longer the better. So, at the outset of negotiations, there was Ethiopia planning it would be three years, and Egypt planning 15 years – this for a dam with a capacity of around 74 billion cubic metres. 

Sudan’s biggest concern is less about water flow, than about safety, particularly the catastrophic consequences of earthquakes, although its complaints are inevitably softened by the probability of it buying electricity from Ethiopia once the dam is operational.  

Ethiopia comes to any Nile negotiations table with a dubious track record. The construction of its Gibe III Dam on the Omo River was set about with un-kept promises, particularly those made to resettled residents whose new homelands were quite unable to support them. Water was blatantly diverted to irrigated sugar-cane plantations and those communities close to the Omo Delta, which were historically dependent on annual floods for cultivation were not impressed by claims that the dam would even out the downstream flow, so rendering their annual inundations a thing of the past.  

The banks of the Omo River support livestock and sorghum fields as floods recede.

As well, the Gibe Dam’s Environmental Impact Assessments totally ignored the consequences of its construction on Kenya’s Lake Turkana, into which the Omo River flows. (Although like Sudan, Kenya made its case harder to argue by agreeing to buy electricity generated from the dam.)

So, against that background, Egypt’s concerns may have been particularly justified. But, today is another day, and the Nile is another problem. Not only are the two principal parties looking at a basic formula for filling the dam, but also trying to ensure flexibility in related issues. These include how best to keep the dam full in times of drought and yet at the same time, continue good downstream flow. How to take account of increased evaporation in hotter times? Is there a way to ensure a minimum flow to Sudan and Egypt? Or should all three countries share shortages and surpluses in the same proportions?  

These and many other issues are on the negotiating table, and credit must be given to the parties for getting this far in relative peace, and to the US government for having encouraged and facilitated the talks.  Where credit should certainly not be given is to those elements in the press who seem determined to see the negotiation fail.  Highly-respected columnists, such as Gwynne Dyer [London-based, independent Canadian journalist], are “95% sure that talks will fail.” Others rely on aged cliché that, “The next world war will be about water,” while banner headlines want to focus on “The River of the Damned.” 

At the time of this writing, nothing is in stone. The possibility of an agreement further round of talks looms later in February. However, there is a real possibility that Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia could actually reach an agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD. This winter’s on-going rains are probably easing the way into successful negotiations.

Propaganda murals in Egypt promote its past legacy and current strength.

Should an agreement be reached, there remains the question of its enforceability. Indeed, such provisions will be an essential part of any such agreement. The basic alternatives divide between self-enforcement by all parties after the creation of a joint management authority, or by all the Nile Basin countries as a whole. There is already a Nile Basin Commission Co-operative Framework Agreement to which all basin countries other than Egypt and Sudan are party. If these two would join, then there could be a basin-wide management to regulate dam filling, downstream flow and all else.  Built into any form of management, should be provisions for dispute resolution and information sharing.

And lest we forget, in October 2019, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, principally for his resolution of 20 years of boundary disputes with neighboring Eritrea.  Since then, however, internal domestic conflicts have been on the increase. Thus, his reputation as a peacemaker would be well restored by the conclusion of an agreement with Egypt over the Nile.  

Rupert Watson, Nairobi, February 2020

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