The Politics of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) – an Ethiopian Perspective

Though it is shared by 11 riparian countries, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia dominate the contesting debate over the Nile water resource. Historically, the Nile basin has been dominated by unilateralism, exclusion, colonial and neo-colonial drives to justify Egypt’s and Sudan’s monopoly over the utilization of the shared water resource.

Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images
Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images

Motivated by Britain’s colonial interests, Egypt and Sudan found themselves in a privileged position vis-à-vis other riparian countries. According to the 1929 treaty between Britain and its Egyptian colony, any upstream states were not allowed to reduce the volume of the Nile water flowing into the Sudan and Egypt. Similarly, Egypt and Sudan signed the 1959 Bilateral Nile Water Full Utilization Treaty.

Despite the growing diplomatic rifts between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, the prospect of war over the #GERD is a remote possibility

To deconstruct the enduring legacies of the above colonial and neo-colonial impositions, Ethiopia coordinated upper riparian countries towards crafting the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in 1999. NBI was designed to culminate in permanent normative and institutional frameworks to ensure equitable utilization of the shared water resources of the basin. After intensive negotiations that took about ten years, NBI has been transformed into the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) in 2010. CFA is a shared declaration of intentions of the majority of Nile riparian states, except Egypt and Sudan, to ensure equitable utilization of the Nile. Hence, as opposed to the previous colonial accords, the CFA empowers Nile basin States to develop projects without the prior consent of Egypt and Sudan. 

The preceding deadlock at the CFA paves the way for the construction of the GERD. GERD is the first and seventh-largest dam in Africa and the World respectively. The GERD has a storage capacity of about 74 billion cubic meters of water and about 6450 MW power generating capacity. It will double Ethiopia’s electricity generation capacity and earn as much as a billion dollars annually from energy exports to neighbouring countries. Due to the reluctance of conventional financial institutions to finance the GERD, the Ethiopian government covers the cost of the project by mobilizing its domestic finances. Currently, the overall implementation of the project has reached 80%. The GERD symbolizes an overarching unifying national development project.  

Currently, there have been rising tensions between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt over GERD. Though they ended in a deadlock, trilateral negotiations on the filling schedule of the GERD were conducted on 4 and 5 April 2021 under the auspices of the African Union (AU).  On 15 June 2021, the Arab League passed a resolution against Ethiopia’s plan regarding the second filling of the GERD in July before a binding agreement between the three parties.  On 24 June 2021, Sudan sent a letter that calls for the intervention of the UN Security Council for resumption of the latest rounds of negotiations in Kinshasa between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Similarly, Egypt insists on the involvement of outside actors such as the USA, UN Security Council, the Arab League, and the Gulf States over the GERD negotiation. For its part, Ethiopia has persistently opposed all external initiatives except the AU-led framework.  

Yet, several findings demonstrate the potential benefit of GERD for Egypt. For example, it would trap sediment upstream, thus protecting major reservoirs in Egypt, and profit from purchasing surplus electricity generated by the water held in the reservoir. Moreover, the topography of the GERD area is more suitable for storing the water than Egypt’s desert terrain with its higher rate of evaporation. Despite the positive externalities of the GERD, Egyptian officials present the GERD as an existential threat and utter dire warnings of great calamity and chaos if their demands are not met. 

The underlying motive behind Egypt’s securitization and politicization of the GERD is explained beyond the project’s externality over its immediate water supply. Instead, it is viewed as a declaration of Egyptian hegemony over the utilization of the shared water resource of the Nile. Besides, Egypt fears that GERD will give Ethiopia more power and control over the water supply, thereby weakening Egypt’s sphere of influence over the basin. As a result, Egypt’s persistent pressure against Ethiopia is directed towards either disrupting the process of the second round of filling of the GERD or reaching a binding agreement to limit Ethiopia’s future use over the Nile.  

From the Ethiopian perspective, the GERD has been justified both from the country’s development imperatives and parts of its resistance to the colonial and neo-colonial ambitions of Egypt to monopolize the Nile. With increasing urbanization, population growth, climate change and economic development, the country’s energy demand is increasing rapidly. Moreover, Ethiopia is one of the least developed countries in Africa where only about 30 % of its citizens have access to electricity. All of these development challenges compel Ethiopia to develop its water sector by launching mega-projects such as GERD and thereby transforming its economy. Besides, Ethiopia is currently striving to become a regional hub of electric power exports by developing hydropower projects such as the GERD.

The GERD infers the fact that international principles in this case follow far behind state practice. Hence, though the question of how the GERD should be filled and operated is something that Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have yet to agree upon, the fact of the matter rests on the implication of the project in the emancipation of all Nile riparian states from Egypt-motivated impositions over the manner of utilization of the resource.

Sudan is often referred to as the breadbasket of Africa for its abundant, fertile, and suitable land resources within its Nile basin. Nevertheless, the storage capacity of its dams over the basin is declining over time due to the high degree of  flood, soil degradation, sedimentation, evaporation and seepage. In this regard, the GERD is expected to reduce floods, evaporation loss, and land salinity of Sudan. Consequently, Sudan openly sided with Ethiopia over the GERD project for the first time in the history of Nile politics particularly during the former administration of President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir.

Nevertheless, the current administration of Sudan, particularly its Military wing has failed to own the country’s comparative advantages over the GERD. Instead, it serves Egypt’s geopolitical strategies and interests over the GERD. Furthermore, the Sudanese military has violated Ethiopia’s international border and has attacked Ethiopian farmers and investors deep inside Ethiopia’s territory.

 The GERD debate is an extension of the historical conflicts over the utilization of Nile water resources, which, in turn, exacerbates the problem of the absence of reciprocity among riparian states. Despite the growing diplomatic rifts between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, the prospect of war over the GERD is a remote possibility. This is because of marginal precedents of major water wars over shared water resources, the resilience of international institutions, the growing military capability of Ethiopia to deter Egypt’s calculation of war, and finally the current stage of the project.  

Professor Mohammed Seid Ali and Professor Embiale Beyene Admasu are both based in the Department of Political Science and International Studies, Bahir Dar University, Ethiopia.

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