Ethiopia’s Disputed Dam: 6 Month Outlook


    Since 2010 Ethiopia has been in dispute with Egypt and Sudan over the construction of the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD). The dam is critical to Ethiopia’s development goals and an existential threat to Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia now essentially controls the water flowing downstream, which Egypt relies on for 90% of its water. As regional tensions rise and China’s economy declines, it is possible that it will intervene to protect their interests in all three countries. However, failing that it is unlikely a resolution will be reached but also unlikely Egypt will covertly attack the dam.

    GERD reservoir outlined. (Credit: International Rivers)

    KJ-1. It is unlikely that a diplomatic resolution will be achieved in the next 6 months.

    • Since the GERD’s inception in 2010 Ethiopia has been in diplomatic talks with its downstream neighbors. Now over a decade later there is still no real progress being made. Even with mediators such as the African Union, the UAE, and other Arab states no resolution has been reached. (Source)
    • The GERD is far too important to Ethiopia to halt activities. The dam is critical for Ethiopia to reach its modernization goals by 2025. The dam will give the country a surplus of power, allowing them to export power to countries on its grid such as Sudan, Kenya, and Dijibouti. (Source)
    • The Egyptian government has not made a statement in favor of continuing negotiations with Ethiopia and there are no scheduled talks in the future. (Source)

    KJ-2. It is unlikely that Egypt will conduct covert action against the dam within the next 6 months.

    • When the dam had first started construction in 2010 Egypt threatened to conduct covert action against the dam. Twelve years later the dam is now built and fully filled. If any covert action was conducted in the past it was unsuccessful. (Source)
    • The GERD’s completion is not an indication of Egypt lacking the capabilities. The Egyptian intelligence service has a track record of successful covert actions against far harder targets. If Egypt wanted to, it is highly likely that it could destroy the dam. (Source)
    • Despite Egypt viewing the GERD as an existential threat, it appears committed to finding a diplomatic resolution to the dispute. Egypt initially brought the issue before the UN Security Council and has asked multiple other nations to act as mediators in the dispute. (Source)

    Now that the dam is built and fully filled, its destruction would be catastrophic for Egypt and other downstream countries. The dam holds 70 billion cubic meters of water. Destroying the dam would mean massive flooding, damage to infrastructure, and death for any city along the Nile’s banks. (Source)

    Satellite image of the reservoir in October of 2020. (Image credit: Sentintel Hub)

    KJ-3. If tensions continue to rise, it is within the realm of possibility that China will intervene in the next 6 months.

    • China is currently facing an economic slowdown and possible recession. Over the last four quarters the country has only had a GDP growth of 0.4%, compared to its target of 5.5%. Additionally, unemployment is reaching record heights and the housing market is crashing. (Source, Source)
    • China has made significant investments in the GERD and Ethiopia as a whole. In 2013 China loaned Ethiopia US$1.2 billion to build a power grid. In 2019 China announced an invested another US$1.8 billion to expand Ethiopia’s power grid. The dam has been heavily funded and built by Chinese firms. (Source, Source)
    • China also has significant economic interests in the two opposition countries. As of 2019, China has invested US$7 billion in Egypt. Additionally, China has a significant stake in Sudanese oil firms and its Belt and Road Initiative built the US$141 million Haidob port. (Source)
    Jordan Smith
    Jordan Smith
    Jordan is currently working on his undergraduate degree at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He is majoring in International Politics with a concentration in Security Studies and a minor in Russian language.

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