The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)

1.0 The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam – A Monument to Progress and a Point of Contention

Situated on the Blue Nile River, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is a testament to Ethiopia‘s ambitious drive towards modernisation and economic development. Initiated in April 2011, this colossal hydroelectric project will be Africa’s largest dam. The estimated cost of constructing the dam is around $4 billion. And, as of early 2024, the GERD’s construction has reached a significant milestone. 94.6% of the work is completed, signalling a new era for Ethiopia’s infrastructure and energy sectors (source).

Experts expect the GERD to double Ethiopia’s electricity generation capacity, propelling the nation towards its goal of becoming a major power exporter in the region. The dam promises to generate over 5 gigawatts of electricity. And, it will address the power needs of over 50% of the Ethiopian population currently living without it. (source).

However, this symbol of Ethiopian aspiration is also a focal point of regional tension. Particularly with Egypt and Sudan, which lie downstream. The Nile is a lifeline for these nations. Because of this, the dam has been at the centre of a complex water-sharing puzzle: 

  • Egypt, with its historical dependence on the Nile waters for nearly all its agricultural and domestic use, views the dam as an “existential threat” to its water security (source). 
  • Sudan, while standing to benefit from regulated floods and cheap electricity, remains cautious about the dam’s operation and safety implications (source).

The contention over the GERD highlights the complicated balance between Ethiopia’s right to development and the downstream countries’ rights to the Nile waters. As this engineering marvel nears completion, it not only promises economic vitality for Ethiopia but also presents a critical test of diplomacy and cooperation in one of Africa’s most significant river basins. With the world watching, resolving this dispute will set a precedent for international water management in an era where climate change is driving more water scarcity (source).

Ethiopia celebrates the inauguration of The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

2.0 History of the GERD: Ethiopia’s Ambition

Despite abundant water resources, Ethiopia has historically been unable to exploit the full potential of the Nile because of economic limitations and regional politics. The GERD represents a strategic move to break away from these constraints, offering a sustainable and independent path towards industrialisation (source).

Planning for the dam began in the early 2000s, with construction starting in April 2011. The project faced obstacles, including regional tensions with Egypt and Sudan, which opposed international financing. The dam began filling in July 2020, marking its operational phase in February 2022  before full completion. Ethiopia plans to finish the dam before the end of 2024. (source)

Ethiopia’ is pursuing the GERD to address the country’s acute energy shortage and assist with economic development. As of today, over 52% of Ethiopians are still living without access to electricity. The primary aim behind the GERD is to harness the hydroelectric potential of the Blue Nile. When harnessed, it aims to produce 5.15 gigawatts of electricity. (source)(source

For Ethiopia, the dam is also a pathway to economic growth and regional leadership. They plan to export electricity worth $1 Billion USD annually to neighbouring countries. This aligns with Ethiopia’s broader goals of economic diplomacy. Additionally, the project expects to create significant employment opportunities, improve agricultural irrigation potential, and mitigate flooding, which has been an ancestral challenge for communities along the Blue Nile (source). In essence, an ambitious hydroelectric project on the Blue Nile has the power to transform the lives of tens of millions of Africans.

3.0 Trouble Downriver: Egypt and Sudan’s Threats and Concerns 

The Egyptian negotiators during the third round talks on the GERD in Cairo, October 2023.

Damming the Nile is a contentious issue for Egypt and Sudan, for whom the river is an indispensable resource. The parties frequently enter negotiations about the dam’s safety and impact. Despite periods of progress, such as bilateral talks and negotiations under international auspices, a lasting agreement has been elusive (source). Both Egypt and Sudan call for a legally binding accord to protect their water rights while accommodating Ethiopia’s development plans.

As of 2024, the trilateral talks have yet to yield a resolution that satisfies all parties. The leaders of Egypt and Sudan continue to insist on their historical rights to Nile waters. Seeking an agreement that ensures the GERD’s operation does not imperil their nations’ access to this critical resource. The outcome of this dispute will have far-reaching implications for regional stability. And, international norms governing transboundary water resources in an era marked by climate change and increasing water scarcity (source).

3.1 Egyptian Threats 

Egyptian officials routinely express concerns over any reduction in the Nile’s flow because of the GERD. In 2023, Egypt received a score of 45 out of 100 in the UN Global Water Security Assessment. This categorises it within the “insecure” bracket, indicative of significant challenges in water security. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has been vocal about the potential risks. He states, “No one can take a single drop of water from Egypt, because it’s a matter of life, a matter of survival for a nation”. (source)(source)

“No one can take a single drop of water from Egypt, because it’s a matter of life, a matter of survival for a nation”.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, March 2021. (source)

3.2 Sudanese Concerns 

Sudan shares similar apprehensions, though they are more positive about potential benefits such as flood control and electricity supply. Sudanese leaders have expressed their unease about the dam’s safety and operational procedures. However, they maintained a positive approach describing the GERD as “a catalyst for cooperation” (source). In 2023, Sudan earned a score of 30 out of 100 in the UN Global Water Security Assessment. This places it in the “critically insecure” category, reflecting vulnerabilities in its water security and their urgent need for a deal. (source

4.0 Will There Be A Diplomatic Solution to the GERD?

As dam construction approaches its final stages the tripartite negotiations between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan have reached a critical juncture. In the round of talks held in Cairo on October 23, 2023, the impasse persisted despite intense diplomatic efforts.

During these talks, Egyptian officials reiterated their concerns about potential water shortages. A statement from the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs emphasised the need for “a legally binding agreement that guarantees the safety and rights of all parties” (source). The Sudanese delegation echoed this sentiment expressing concern about the regulation and safety of its own water supplies.

Ethiopia, on the other hand, has maintained a stance focused on regional development and poverty alleviation. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, in a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo on 13 July 2023, articulated Ethiopia’s position: 

“The GERD is a vital project for the sustainable development and energy access of millions of Ethiopians”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, July 2023. (source)

4.1 Recent GERD Negotiations

During the last negotiations in December 2023, tensions escalated. Egypt, expressing frustration over the lack of a breakthrough, declared the talks a failure. The Eqyptian Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources Hani Sewilam stated, “This was Egypt’s last attempt.” In contrast, Ethiopia emphasised its commitment to ongoing dialogue. The Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs underscored the necessity of “painstaking discussions to reach an agreement.” Similarly, Sudan advocated for the continuation of negotiations, aligning with Ethiopia’s stance on seeking a mutually acceptable resolution. This culminated in a clear delineation of positions. And, reflected the challenges in reaching a consensus on the operation of the GERD.

Additionally, in a session of the House of People’s Representatives of the second of February, the Ethiopian president confirmed Ethiopia’s readiness to negotiate on the GERD highlighting the needs for the dam’s completion (source). The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs insisted on the potential water shortages provoked by filling of the dam’s reservoir, blocking further negotiation. 

The international community, including the United States and the African Union, has urged the parties to find a peaceful resolution. However, as of early 2024, there is no lasting settlement. Downstream countries seek assurances that their water security will not be compromised by the dam’s operation.

Photo By: Ethiopian Electric Power Authority.

5.0 The Flow Towards the Future: Proposed Solutions

Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan’s shared interests create a compelling incentive for cooperation. The potential benefits of resolving the GERD dispute—political cooperation, regional harmony, and economic prosperity—are significant. With these incentives in play, it is likely that the involved actors will be coerced towards collaboration. The path ahead is complex. Yet, with each nation’s commitment to finding common ground, the GERD could become a symbol of unity and shared success in the Nile Basin.

Despite an endless series of failed negotiations, the GERD dispute may find hope through enhanced mediation efforts. The introduction of an external mediator such as the EU could inject new life into stalled negotiations. Additionally, it can offer innovative perspectives and international attention that could unlock the deadlock. Such a mediator, armed with a neutral stance and creative approaches, might be the key to bridging the gap between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan. Bridging this gap paves the way for a consensus that has long eluded these Nile Basin countries (source).

On 23 January, the Council of the EU held the tenth meeting of the EU-Egypt Association Council. The council expressed continued support of African Union-led talks. And, to play a more active role, by utilising its experience in the management of shared water resources in line with international law. (source)

Technical and scientific cooperation stands out as another promising path towards a resolution. By focusing on the mutual benefits of shared resources, such as electricity trade, flood control, and drought management, the nations could forge a collaborative relationship. This approach would not only address immediate concerns but also lay the groundwork for a sustainable partnership. A partnership, that leverages each country’s strengths for collective gain. However, the primary obstacle to this solution is the differing national priorities and the historical mistrust, which can hinder the establishment of a truly cooperative framework.  (source)

The crafting of legal and diplomatic frameworks could also herald a new chapter of cooperation. By establishing clear rules and agreements that all parties can rely on, these frameworks would please Egypt and Sudan which have insisted on a framework to guide the filling and operation of the dam as well as serve as a bedrock for ongoing and future water management negotiations. Such legal precedents would ensure equitable water sharing not only for the Nile but could also serve as a model for other transboundary water disputes around the globe. However, the challenge here lies in reconciling the conflicting interests and legal stances of the involved nations, particularly in terms of sovereignty and historical rights over water resources, which complicates reaching a universally acceptable agreement.  (source)

Photo By: Ethiopian Electric Power Authority.

6.0 Conclusion

The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) represents a pivotal moment in transboundary water management and African infrastructure development. The stakes for all parties are high: Ethiopia seeks to secure its future as a regional powerhouse, electrifying millions of homes and fuelling economic growth. Egypt, whose very lifeblood is intertwined with the Nile, perceives the dam as a potential threat to its existential water needs. Sudan finds itself in a delicate balance, weighing the benefits of flood control and electricity against the risks to its own water security.

The GERD is more than a dam; it is a symbol of Africa’s infrastructural ambition and a test for international water cooperation. Its completion could sign a new dawn of energy independence and economic integration for Ethiopia and its neighbours. However, the dam is also an example of how monumental projects must be guided by the principles of equitable resource sharing and sustainable management, especially in a continent where the effects of climate change loom large.

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