synergy logo.png

Fierce Controversies over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam - Alperen Ahmet Koçsoy


Ethiopia's Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project, started in April 2011, has been seen as a symbol of national pride among Ethiopians. Ethiopia has high hopes with its mega-project to achieve several goals, such as providing more people with electric grid access, driving its vulnerable citizens out of poverty, and even selling surplus electricity to neighboring countries. As of 2020, according to World Bank data, only 51.1% of the Ethiopian population has access to electricity. In this context, the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) poses an excellent opportunity for the country to develop.


The project is a 'mega-project' because of its enormous potential for electricity production. Its reservoir can hold 74bn cubic meters of water, making it the largest African dam. The physical capacity is not the only story; the fully operating dam will be able to produce 5150 megawatts of electricity. It would translate into Ethiopia doubling its energy supply. GERD is located in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region of Ethiopia. The dam will use the Blue Nile waters, which is the main tribute of the River Nile. Ethiopia started to fill the dam in July 2020. When the third scheduled filling happened this August, the water level reached 600 meters. GERD started to generate electricity on the 20th of February 2022, after the first turbine was launched. The second turbine was launched in August. When the hydroelectricity project is completed, it is expected to have 13 turbines.


Although Ethiopia is hyped for the project, there is strong opposition to it in Egypt and Sudan. Since GERD will use the waters of the Blue Nile, two countries fear there will be a reduction in the amount of water coming into the lower parts of the Nile. Sudan was closer to acknowledging Ethiopia's arguments when Omar al-Bashir was in power, but the new government changed the country's direction toward the problem. Sudan expresses concern about how the dam will affect the water volume in its dams. For Egypt, the changes in the water supply are way more crucial. It is so crucial that there had been calls in the parliament to 'bomb the dam.' 85.8 million of the Egyptian population lives within the Nile Basin, corresponding to nearly 94% of its total population. President Sisi said in 2021 that there would be 'severe regional consequences' if Egypt's water supply gets affected.


Egypt expressed some demands to Ethiopia, albeit it did not want this project to get completed in the very first place. One of them was to have the right to inspect the project to assess whether it would harm Egypt's and Sudan's water supply. Ethiopia has blocked the inspections. With the project complete and GERD starting production, this demand became out of context. The other primary demand from Ethiopia is to ensure that they would release certain amounts of water should a drought happens or the Nile's water level gets uneconomically low. Ethiopia has been reluctant to meet these demands since the start of the negotiations, while Egypt and Sudan did not compromise either. Although Sudan’s de facto leader Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan stated that it would be “possible to reach an agreement on the technical issues of the dam,” the big picture is not full of optimism. As a result, Ethiopia unilaterally continues the project. However, Abiy Ahmed Ali promises not to harm Egypt and Sudan. In addition, he asserts that the GERD project will benefit Ethiopia's two neighbors: the project will prevent floods that create damage, generate electricity that will be shared with other countries, and create tourism that would favor the region.


Egypt and Sudan are building their arguments on the treaties of 1929 and 1959, which regulated the Nile's water supply usage. According to the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement, signed between Egypt and Great Britain, Egypt has the right to veto the projects that may affect its water share. In the 1959 Agreement between Egypt and Sudan, Egypt was given the right to 55.5 billion cubic meters a year, whereas Sudan had the right to 18.5 billion cubic meters per year. These treaties create the legal basis for the dispute but are intensely criticized by Ethiopians. The treaties excluded other Nile Basin countries, one of them being Ethiopia. Hailemariam Desalegn, former prime minister of Ethiopia, said in an interview, "There cannot be any resolution on the dam issue in five words. Many people don't understand that Ethiopia contributes 86% of the Nile waters and was told that they were not allowed to use a single drop." Egypt and Sudan are often accused of having a colonial attitude since they are excluding other countries in Africa and justifying it with treaties that have their roots in the colonial era.


China has extensive investments in the three aforementioned countries and has been a potential mediator. China had seven billion dollars of investment in Egypt in 2019, whereas China Harbour Engineering was behind the $141 million Haidob port in Sudan. On the other hand, Chinese companies have been involved in constructing GERD. Exim Bank, for example, pledged to finance the purchase of the turbines and electrical equipment for the hydroelectric plants, which equals approximately 1 billion US dollars. Because of the economic relations, China has strong negotiation power. However, China portrays itself as a power that does not prefer to meddle with the affairs of other countries. Because of that and because having investments in these three countries, China is reluctant to intervene as a mediator. With its growing prestige in the continent as a non-colonial benign power, Turkey can also be considered a potential mediator. Still, its feud with Egypt prevents it from performing the role. Turkey declared support for GERD and has been strengthening its relationship with Ethiopia. An Ethiopian official stated, "We want African solutions for African problems," adding that Turkey, unlike other powers, "understands" that. Nevertheless, it would be unrealistic to expect Turkey to play a significant role in these stalemate negotiations.


Ethiopia gave no concessions, had already completed the dam's construction, and started producing electricity with two turbines. Although Egypt and Sudan fiercely oppose Ethiopia's fait accompli, Ethiopia will continue to produce more and more energy via GERD. A decade-long project's consequences are yet to be seen. Egypt, involved in the civil war in Libya; Sudan, experiencing tumultuous past few years; Ethiopia, going through a civil war, are not willing to fuel a conflict with each other. Nonetheless, if Egypt's and Sudan's concerns become real, the region should be observed in the coming years. The region should be observed regardless of what happens next. The water politics between the three countries might pose a prelude to potential water disputes in other parts of the world in the following decades.