aswan dam on the river nile in egypt ** Note: Slight blurriness, best at smaller sizes

Why the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Negotiations Matter

Does Ethiopia have the right to construct the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) or does Egypt have the right to prevent this from happening? To get a sense of what’s at stake for each of these countries and what can be done, we interviewed two experts—one from Egypt and the other from Ethiopia. Mohamed Nasr Allam, the Cairo-based expert, is the Former Minister of Irrigation in Egypt and Professor of Water Resources Engineering at Cairo University. Wondwossen Michago Seide, the Addis Ababa-based expert, is a former Researcher at the Nile Basin Discourse Forum.

The Nile River snakes its way through eastern Africa, covering more than 4,100 miles, draining an estimated area of close to 1.3 million square miles, and providing income to more than 160 million people. The Nile flows through 11 states, but two countries, Ethiopia and Egypt, have the strongest links to the River. Ethiopia is the source of the tributary, the Blue Nile, which provides 80-85% of Nile River water. After flowing north, the Nile empties from Egypt into the Mediterranean and Red Seas.

Sharing the Nile waters has long been a complicated negotiation process. The downstream country, Egypt, has historically relied on colonial international agreements and was awarded the majority of the Nile waters. The upstream country, Ethiopia, was excluded from these agreements.

The IMF ranks Ethiopia as one of the five fastest growing economies in the world. Its economy has grown at an average rate of 10.8% per year in 2003/04 – 2012/13. One of the government’s key goals has been the construction of massive industrial and infrastructure projects.

Meanwhile, the Nile satisfies 97% of Egypt’s water needs. Prior to Ethiopia’s diversion of water from the Blue Nile for the GERD, a 2012 study predicted Egypt will be in a state of water poverty by 2025. With the ability to generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity, GERD will be Africa’s largest dam when it’s completed in 2018.

The impact will be felt in Egypt, as Minister Allam says the GERD is “expected to reduce the Nile River inflow to Egypt about 5.0-7.0 bcm/year on average and the hydropower of Aswan reservoir by about 30-40% on average (about 1,000 MW/year).” In addition to the GERD, Ethiopia will add three other dams to the Nile River: the Border, Mabil, and Kara Dod dams, which are not part of the current negotiations. Allam writes “the impacts of these three dams will be about 1.5-2.0 times the GERD.”

This could pose a dire problem for Egyptians, as Allam says “the per capita share of water in Egypt is less than 625 CM/year, and the annual food gap is 7 billion dollars. Deficiency in drinking water exists in most of the coastal cities and remote villages, and deficit in irrigation water exists in the tail ends of most irrigation canals. ”

Ethiopia has been able to unilaterally start building the GERD because of what Seide calls “a power shift”. He explains further by writing “Egypt used to be considered a hydro-hegemon, now the Nile Basin is without a hegemon but with parallel powers. With the wise decision of self-financing the dam, Ethiopia silenced the international community-biased interference and curtailed the Egyptian diplomatic clout.”

Ethiopia’s main focus is economic development, which is demonstrated through its decision to build the GERD. Meanwhile, Egypt’s national security is inextricably tied to its water security. Ethiopia’s decision to build the GERD threatens Egypt’s water resources, thus possibly causing food and water shortages, as well as public health problems. Clearly, this could further destabilize an already unstable Egypt and cause riots, if not more. Ultimately, this could bring about a further destabilization of the Middle East.