Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project and Political Conflict

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LAFAYETTE, Louisiana — In 2011, Ethiopia started construction on a dam along the Blue Nile River that the government coined the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project, GERD. Projections predict the dam’s cost around $5 billion, which was around 7% of Ethiopia’s GDP in 2016. Egypt and Sudan lodged formal complaints against GERD’s construction due to their concerns about the dam’s impact on the Nile River. The complaints they lodged revolved around two major concerns: the legitimacy of the benefits versus drawbacks outlined by the Ethiopian government and concerns about the dam’s impact on the water supply downriver. Since the benefits of the dam include necessary poverty alleviation, it is important to outline a clear view of GERD’s history, each country’s side and an outside expert’s viewpoint on the project.

A Brief Explanation of Energy Production and Dams

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation identified the site in surveys between 1956 to 1964. In 2009 and 2010, the government carried out two more surveys on the site before construction started in 2011. Specifications of GERD outline that it can handle 19,370 cubic meters of water flow per second. The Ethiopian government founded the project based on its potential at generating 6,000 megawatts. For reference, the Grand Coulee Dam generates around 6,800 megawatts.

A megawatt of energy supplies enough power for 400-900 modern American houses. In stark contrast, the average, Ethiopian household consumes about 0.3 MWh and traditional biomass fuels make up most of this energy production. In light of these numbers, Ethiopia’s government finds many benefits to GERD’s construction for all three countries.

Ethiopia’s Case for GERD

Ethiopia’s highlands provide around “85% of the water that flows into the Nile River.” The Ethiopian government hopes that GERD is a stepping stone to the same kind of economic development that countries like China and other Asian nations went under in the past two decades. The government feels this way because of two past decades of economic growth.

Higher GDP usually correlates with a higher demand for electricity. Ethiopia’s experts project the dam’s capacity to give 60% of the population access to affordable electricity. Proponents of the dam espouse the additional benefits of the dam’s positive impact on water quality and access.

Water Access in Ethiopia

Around one-third of Ethiopians lack access to safe water with nearly 97 million lacking access to improved sanitation. An improved water source is one protected from outside contamination for example piped water into a dwelling. Economic growth and demand for electricity in Ethiopia are the major driving forces for the dam’s construction. However, supporters of the dam push the benefits of the project for neighboring countries.

Egypt and Sudan’s Concerns about the dam

The majority of Egypt’s population relies on the Nile River for freshwater access. This reliance is the major point of concern for the Egyptian Government’s objection to the dam’s construction. All three countries engaged in African Union mediated talks that addressed some of the major issues, including droughts. The discussions led to an agreement around a baseline for drought declaration, but Ethiopia rejected automatic measures of draining water out of the reservoir once a drought starts. This lack of agreement on mitigation measures led to Egypt’s Government characterizing the filling of the dam’s reservoir as an existential threat.

Sudan sits between Ethiopia and Egypt. The Sudanese Government historically held mixed feelings about the dam project because of their acknowledgment of the benefits: affordable energy access and a more controlled flow of the Nile river. The government also expressed its concerns about Ethiopia continuing with filling the dam despite the lack of any binding agreements. Each of the three raises legitimate points for and against the dam, but what do experts say?

Outside Experts on the Projects Potential Impact on the Region

In an interview with The Borgen Project, Dr. John M. Mbaku, an attorney and economics scholar, elaborated on two key issues about the tensions around the dam between the three countries. He outlined that the potential electricity produced by the dam is more than the country can fully exploit, which means that they can export the energy to neighboring countries. Dr. Mbaku stressed the significance of this abundance of domestic electricity generation for the Ethiopians. He says, “Rural communities can build more sustainable industries geared toward the processing of agricultural products and light manufacturing… electricity will significantly improve access to education for rural households.”

According to Mbaku, the dam’s potential in poverty alleviation is a major incentive for the Ethiopian Government. However, he expressed that these same benefits can reach neighboring countries. Regarding the selling of excess energy production Mbaku states, “countries, such as the Republic of Sudan and South Sudan, can have access to reasonably affordable electricity, which can also spur development in their rural areas.” Dr. Mbaku also addressed Egypt’s complaints about the dam.

He outlined that since Egypt has the Aswan High Dam, AHD, it has less to gain from the dam than Sudan. He pointed out that, “there are presently 70 Egyptian investments in Ethiopia, covering areas such agriculture, the production of livestock, real estate and other sectors of the economy.” According to him, the Egyptian investments in Ethiopia mean that the Egyptian economy benefits from Ethiopian economic growth. In fact, Mbaku stated that if the dam leads to more developed rural areas in Ethiopia then the Egyptian investors are likely to continue to invest in Ethiopia.

What This Means for Impoverished People in the Region

The public disagreement between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the dam comes from a complex analysis of the dam’s impact on the three countries. Dr. Mbaku and other experts outline that the likely benefits of the project outweigh the drawbacks. However, leaders in the African Union and Mbaku himself outline the need for a binding trilateral agreement around the dam’s existence. If the three parties agree, Dr. Mbaku believes that the benefits outweigh the negatives when it comes to the impoverished rural populations of all three countries. They’ll have access to reliable electricity that increases their economic opportunities. The growth in their economy means that more funds exist for infrastructure which includes improved water and sanitation sources.

– Jacob Richard Bergeron
Photo: Flickr

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