ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — In 2011, Ethiopia began construction on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam—a massive barricade on the Nile River. The project promises to jettison Ethiopia to energy independence and economic prosperity. However, the dam is controversial for several reasons and is currently on hold due to a lack of funding.
The dam project has prompted concerns from Ethiopia’s neighbors downstream. Some Egyptian leaders feel blindsided by the project, which was announced in the midst of the Egyptian Revolution.
“The timing of the Ethiopian announcement for the project led us to be afraid,” said Dr. Mahmoud Abu Zeid, former Egyptian Minister of Water under Mohamed Morsi and current president of the Arab Water Council. “I think that Ethiopia took advantage that Egypt had other concerns, to start the construction of the dam.”
In 2013, then-president Morsi threatened to defend “each drop of Nile water” with Egyptian blood.
It is not hard to see why Egypt would have concerns about a dam project on the Nile.
“You could look at this dam as a tap, that Ethiopia can open and close at its whim,” Zeid said. “This gives them a very dangerous power. This will impact on Egypt’s water security.”
Nearly 100 percent of Egypt’s agriculture and water reserves depend on the Nile.
Ethiopia, however, has promised not to abuse its privileges on the Nile. “I don’t expect any war because of this water,” said Aleymayehu Tegenu, Ethiopian Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy. “We always call for discussion rather than war. War is not an option; discussion is an option.”
Ethiopia recently reached a preliminary agreement with Sudan and Egypt. However, downstream countries are not the only ones with reservations about the dam project.
The dam will flood the lands currently inhabited by the Gumuz—an ethnic minority in Western Ethiopia. For the Gumuz, the dam will spell the end of their ancestral way of life. The Gumuz have, by and large, accepted their pending relocation; however, they resent their suspended state, as the dam project is currently on hold.
They have stopped cultivating their land but have not received word of when they will be relocated. At present, they must decide whether it is worth it to invest time in their land; land which will soon be underwater.
“We would like to know when we will be moved,” one villager said. “We have already stopped building new houses, and stopped tending the land.”
Foreign donors have shied away from the controversial project, meaning that the Ethiopian government and its people are funding 100 percent of the dam’s construction.
However, for some Ethiopians, the near-term costs seem to outweigh the long-term benefits.
“Myself, I can’t even save,” a hairdresser in the capital city of Addis Ababa said. “To build the dam, they’ll take our money. I’d prefer to save for my family. Our generation won’t benefit from the dam anyway. It might be useful for the next generation, but for us it won’t make much of a difference. It would have been better not to have started the project.”
While the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is controversial, it is indubitably necessary. Lack of access to electricity has long impeded Africa’s industrial development. According to a study by Chatham House, only 15 to 20 percent of the Ethiopian population has access to power—an issue that the dam promises to alleviate.
– Parker Carroll