May 11, 2021 6 min read

Is Ethiopia’s new dam across Nile about hydro power or a political statement?

Is Ethiopia’s new dam across Nile about hydro power or a political statement?
Boat on the river Nile in Egypt. Photo: Vincent Fourneau/Unsplash

Traditionally Egypt has enjoyed a higher share of River Nile’s water, given its need and downstream location. Ethiopia’s large dam under construction across the Blue Nile would dent Egypt’s water share. Egyptians feel that the dam is not completely about renewable hydro power, but about Ethiopia’s political pride.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or for short GERD, is a hot subject of debate and controversy, and is the source of a fierce ongoing dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia. But is it really GERD that started this contest in the Nile basin?

To answer that question, I needed to zoom out of the current events and take a wider perspective at the flow of events over more than a hundred years.

The Nile basin includes 11 countries, out of which Egypt is the most downstream. The Nile River, which flows through the centre of Egypt, has two main sources. The first is the Blue Nile, which originates in Ethiopia, and contributes 86% to the flow. The other source is the White Nile originating in Lake Victoria that is shared among Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, and Congo; it contributes 14%.

Zamalek District (Right) Agouza District (Left) Nile River Cairo, Egypt. Photo: Sherif Moharram/Unsplash

Egypt is dependent on the Nile for more than 95% of its water needs. The current Egyptian uses are codified in a 1959 agreement between Egypt and its upstream neighbour Sudan, before Egypt built the Aswan High Dam, which was completed in 1970. According to the agreement Egypt was entitled to 75% of the Nile while Sudan was entitled to the remaining 25% that reaches the Egyptian border at the dam’s reservoir. The 1959 agreement was based on a 1929 agreement between Egypt and Great Britain, which represented Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. The 1929 agreement gave Egypt decisive power for the water use. Ethiopia was not a party to the said agreements. As a result, it has no previous legal commitment with the Egyptian government. The Ethiopian king did sign a treaty in 1902 with Great Britain, which represented Egypt. The treaty was not exclusively about the Nile. Nevertheless, one clause of the treaty mentions that Ethiopia was not to develop any project that could ‘arrest’ the flow of the river, a word that is relatively vague from a legal perspective. Furthermore, the validity of treaties concluded under the colonial era would always be a subject of debate.

Following the independence of the east African countries from Great Britain, the contest over the Nile resurfaced. There were several calls for a comprehensive framework to replace the 1959 agreement. In the 1970s and 1980s, Ethiopia expressed interest in developments along the Blue Nile. However, Egypt had always managed to maintain a sort of power over the region that enabled it to continue with the use of its water share. This was further backed by the fact that other countries wanted to have a good rapport with Egypt, given its standing as the power house of north-east Africa. Also, no one else needed the Nile’s water since all the riparian countries had viable alternatives. On the other hand, due to population growth and climate change, the Egyptian side was experiencing acute water shortages and had no feasible substitutes for the Nile.

El manial, old cairo, Egypt. Photo: Youhana NassifUnsplash

A breakthrough happened in 1999 when the World Bank launched the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). The NBI included all basin states and aimed for sustainable socio-economic development through a just utilisation and management of water resources. On the technical level, the NBI was a model of success. It had a very sophisticated design and multiple working mandates which generated several successful initiatives. Examples of these initiatives included water quality projects, to which all riparian states contributed. However, the NBI failed to establish a new agreement for sharing of water. The Egyptian and Sudanese negotiators wanted to include the water shares codified in the previously mentioned 1959 agreement. The reasoning of those downstream was the concept of water security. Both the countries felt that their water security would be harmed if their water shares were decreased as they do not have other alternatives. Egypt declared that the Egyptian citizen’s water use is less than 600 m3 per year which is much less than the UN water scarcity threshold of 1,000 m3 per capita per year. On the other hand, upstream states did not want to explicitly include any specific water shares. As a result, the Egyptians and the Sudanese withdrew from the negotiations. Thus, the matter was once more left hanging.

Fast forward to 2010, the situation escalated rapidly when upstream countries Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda signed a renegotiated Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) unilaterally. CFA aims at replacing the NBI with a permanent Nile Basin Commission which should take over the basin wide water governance. Articles 4 and 5 of the CFA state the principles of ‘Equitable and Reasonable Utilisation’ and ‘Do No significant Harm’. However, the principles are considered vague as there are no legal definitions yet, for the terms equitable, reasonable and significant. Additionally, CFA does not mention who gets to decide how to move forward from such global, non-specific principles.

In other words, CFA contains no solidly specified regulations for upstream developments. Meanwhile, the Egyptian government was engrossed in the domestic political instabilities that eventually led to the January 2011 Revolution. Simultaneously, in April 2011, Ethiopia started building GERD. This game changer announced the development of a new competing power house in north-east Africa, leading to the current negotiation marathon.

The Pyramid of Khafre in Giza, Egypt. Photo: Jeremy Bishop

But what does a massive dam on the Nile really mean for us Egyptians?

In Egyptian schools, they teach us how Egypt is the Nile and the Nile is Egypt. How we, as Egyptians, have been blessed with a very special gift that enabled us through a 7000-year civilisation to build the pyramids, the Sphinx, great temples, etc. For Egyptians, the dependency on the Nile is not just numbers; it’s a belief engraved in our minds that is backed by the use of water in our personal daily routines, farming, and even transportation that is either by the banks of the river or on the river itself. Basically, Egypt can be considered an oasis around the Nile.

Throughout the centuries, Egyptians have not been monopolising the river’s water, as made to appear; this was purely how the water naturally flowed from upstream where it was not needed, to downstream where it was most needed. Ancient people did not know about huge dams or water diversion structures. Consequently, a whole civilisation thrived downstream of the river. And subsequently, a current population of more than a 100 million is entirely dependent on it.

Dams are symbols of pride

Over time, new technologies evolved. The new normalised technologies tapped the river’s natural flow. These options became more favourable as threats like climate change and development through hydropower were familiarised. And predominantly, there remains the most influential aspect of all. Take a deeper look at what dams denote for people and what this means for a government. Dams are symbols of pride. Dams document a government's success and support political regimes. Ironically, a second look from an Egyptian citizen’s perspective enables us to fully understand the Ethiopian narratives of development and pride. We Egyptians have experienced the same propaganda over the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. Until now the Egyptian dam is regarded as a symbol of the former president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s successful contribution. Egyptian songs about the dam are still trending more than 50 years after it was built. This is not the case only for the Aswan High Dam or GERD; many other examples around the world entail similar anecdotes.

Presently, two very strong narratives are being laid on the negotiation table; water for domestic and agricultural use versus water for hydropower as the gate to sustainable development. Meanwhile GERD has become inevitable. Its consequences for the downstream population are uncertain. Consequently, the fate of Egypt remains dependent on the seasonal flood and how GERD gets filled, with no guarantee for our human right to water.

In the end, the need for a new comprehensive framework for water sharing was and remains inescapable. Previous failure to establish such a framework may push millions of people to the verge of famine. Additionally, current Ethiopian stance may cause the same fate. Nonetheless, some questions persist: What is the proof that GERD is the only solution for Ethiopian prosperity? Why haven’t principles of customary water laws like ‘Do No Significant Harm’ and ‘Prior Notification’ been taken into consideration? Is the location and design of such a massive dam the most feasible and sustainable from an economic and ecological perspective?

A lot of questions arise, and in my view they all lead to one obvious question: Is GERD about hydropower or political power?

Toka Mahmoud
Toka Mahmoud
Water and environmental engineer from Egypt. She holds a master’s degree in water management and governance from IHE Delft, Netherlands.
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