Hydroelectricity may be praised by scientists as an ecofriendly alternative to fossil fuels, but the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam could create as many problems for other riparian Blue Nile countries as it solves for Ethiopia.
Costing over $4.6 billion, the project could cure Ethiopia’s water and electricity crisis whilst damaging 50% of Egypt’s agricultural area. For centuries, Egyptian farmers have relied on the flooding of the river to provide a stable source of food and income. A dam reducing their share of water from the Blue Nile could potentially lead to near-desertification of the country.
Ancient history may have depicted Egypt as having the closest cultural connection with the river, however, the Nile has always been an aqueduct for culture and nutrients across the territory of the ten modern-day African countries it flows through. The Ethiopian Government’s plan to commence the filling of its dam in July 2020 could plunge both of the countries into a water war, as the two nations fight to strategically secure their right for the resource.
Ethiopia first submitted its plans to build the dam in March 2011, alongside the beginnings of the Arab Spring when President Hosni Mubarak was removed from power. The dam is currently 70% finished, and once fully filled, will flood 1,680 kilometres of forest in northwest Ethiopia, an area approximately the size of Greater London.
Construction of the project would reshape the way water is distributed through the Blue Nile downstream. This tributary of the Nile is responsible for depositing 84 billion cubic metres of water annually to other African countries.
Ethiopia’s Urgent Need for an Increased Share of the Nile Waters
Although Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa, only 44% of its population has access to electricity; per capita water consumption is also very low. The average Ethiopian has access to 125 cubic metres of water per annum compared to the global average of about 1,000 cubic metres. At the same time, the country has experienced a marked economic boom since the start of the 21st century with average annual GDP growth of 9.5% since the early 2000s making it the fastest growing economy in the world.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has the potential to modernise the country’s economy by increasing access to basic living essentials, such as water and electricity, that the West takes for granted. The demand for these necessities will only increase as Ethiopia’s population expands to a projected 171 million by 2050. Hydroelectricity and an increased water supply would secure the developing nation’s dream of greater sustainability.
Population Growth Undermines the Viability of Previous Water Treaties
The 1959 Treaty granted Egypt 55.5 billion cubic metres of the Nile’s output, Sudan 18.5 billion cubic metres, and the other eight upstream countries only 10 billion cubic metres between them. Ethiopian officials have voided this bilateral agreement and plan to increase their consumption of Nile water output.
Such is the level of popular support for the dam project that the Ethiopian Government has been able to finance it in part through the issuance of patriotic bonds. If the country were to now reaccept the 1959 Treaty it would have to reimburse millions of people money for a project that was never completed, and which was financially viable.
Why Egypt Is Willing to Fight
Throughout its history, Egypt has been dependent on access to the waters of the Nile, Egyptians have become accustomed to their increased share of the river and agriculturally rely on their previous percentage of the Nile’s water supply.
The river provides 90% of Egypt’s freshwater supply of which 85% of this is used for crop farming. If the dam was filled over a five-year period, Egypt could lose 36% of its water supply and 50% of its farmland. Any fluctuation in the country’s share of the Nile would wreak havoc on the country’s agricultural sector, and have tremendous negative socioeconomic consequences.
The Grand Renaissance Dam riddle currently has no easy solution. One country’s prosperity might well spell disaster for the other. While the threats of war from Egypt seem empty at this stage, Lieutenant General Birhanu Jula, has stated that Ethiopia is ready and willing to defend itself.
Emily Wilson is an independent writer and freelance political analyst. She is intending to start a degree in Politics and International Relations in September 2020.