The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: Life or Death for Egypt?

Written by: Saul Brodkey

As anyone can tell you, all human life is predicated on ready access to fresh water. Naturally, droughts, or any shortage of water, can have devastating impacts on local ecosystems, humans and vegetation alike. Case in point, the Nile River and the Nile Delta are home to 95% of the rapidly growing Egyptian population, which stands at nearly 100 million people today. Encircled by the Sahara, the consequences will be catastrophic for Egypt if the Nile runs dry.

Here the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or the GERD, steps into the spotlight. The Nile River is fed by two major tributaries: the White Nile and Blue Nile. The latter, originating in Lake Tana in Central Ethiopia, contributes around 80% of all Nile water from Khartoum to the Mediterranean. Built upon the Blue Nile, the GERD will provide approximately 16,000 gigawatt-hours of hydroelectric energy to the Ethiopian power grid annually. A symbol of Ethiopia’s economic development and ascent, the GERD would be the largest hydroelectric construction on the continent. The dam construction is nearly complete, and operations may start as early as 2023. However, before operations can begin, the dam’s reservoir must be filled, a task that requires the waters of the Blue Nile to be held back from flowing downstream to Egypt and Sudan.

This poses a threat to Egypt and has consequently sparked tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa. Deserts are not particularly well known for raining, which has left the Nile to serve nearly all of Egypt’s water needs, from agriculture and sanitation to drinking. The dam has the possibility of destroying up to a quarter of Egypt’s arable land along the flood plains of the Nile, due to water shortage estimates from the filling of the dam. From the days of Abraham to today, agriculture has stood centerstage in Egypt’s economy. Today, a third of the Egyptian population is employed in agriculture, representing just over a tenth of the GDP. With nearly a third of Egypt’s population already living off less than $3.20 daily, it is almost certain that provided the accuracy of the aforementioned estimates, a drought caused by the filling of the dam would make life in Egypt untenable for millions— a modern Malthusian catastrophe. Essentially displaced, millions of Egypt’s poorest citizens would flee in an unparalleled global refugee crisis. When Egyptian officials claim the GERD represents an existential threat to the nation, they aren’t necessarily hyperbolic.

Sudan joins Egypt in concerns about the GERD. When Ethiopia began filling the dam last year, Sudan saw mild water shortages stemming from low Nile waters. Alongside this foreshadowing of future droughts, Sudan’s own hydroelectric dams may face lower output. Nevertheless, Sudan is warmer towards the GERD than Egypt. Already, Ethiopia plans on exporting excess electricity to neighboring countries, including Sudan. Unlike Egypt, Sudan will benefit from the GERD as it will alleviate Sudan’s seasonal flooding woes. Sudan and Egypt previously agreed on acceptable constructions on the Nile in 1959; however, this agreement, rather shortsightedly, left Ethiopia out.

In previous negotiations, the three nations laid out a Declaration of Principles regarding the GERD, where all parties established, in principle, that the dam will be completed and it must not cause significant harm to any party. Thus, the current debate lies in the length of the filling period, not about the dam’s existence, as well as potential long term management. The longer the filling period, the lessened risk to Egypt and Sudan’s water security, but the longer until Ethiopia reaps the fruits of the dam and can electrify millions of households. Egypt seeks a filling period of seven years, while Ethiopia plans on, and unilaterally commenced, a filling period of three years. Moreover, Ethiopia denies any potential threat the current filling timeframe poses towards the downstream states, a notion that is backed by contrary studies. These studies find that the risk the filling poses towards Egypt’s water is probably minimal, and will only pose danger if a historic drought occurs during the filling period. The GERD will certainly reduce Egypt’s share of Nile water, but not enough to encroach on the security of its agricultural industry. While not an insignificant probability, the likelihood of serious harm to Egypt fails to convince Ethiopian officials to slow progress.

With these wildly differing estimations of risk, GERD negotiations have failed time after time between the three countries. Mediation from the United States and the African Union, while successful at times, have failed for years to resolve the dispute. Talks between the three countries at the start of 2021 yet again resulted in failure. Prior to this, the Trump administration withheld $300 million of foreign aid to Ethiopia until an agreement with Egypt and Sudan was reached, though recently Biden seems to be pivoting from this staunch, pro-Egypt position. As Ethiopia advances towards the second filling of the GERD this summer, the Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry called for arbitration by the United States, the EU, the UN, and the African Union.

Aside from praying for the best, there are two paths forward. The first, and worst path forward, would be war between Egypt and Sudan. Given Ethiopia is landlocked and shares no border with Egypt, this option initially seems unlikely. However, Sudan provides a window for this possible and unfortunate outcome. Ethiopia refusing to budge on past negotiations on the GERD has jolted relations with Sudan. Furthermore, recent spillover of the Tigray conflict into Sudan has reignited decades-old border disputes with Ethiopia. On March 2nd, 2021, Egypt and Sudan signed a military cooperation pact in the name of joint national security. Together, Egypt and Sudan could pose a serious military threat to Ethiopia and may resolve the GERD dispute by force. Egypt simply cannot risk Ethiopia’s current unilateral filling, and time is running out. Alternatively, and more likely, the recent attempts by both Sudan and Egypt to appeal internationally, in conjunction with signs of solidarity between them, will force Ethiopia to give way. With Ethiopia in hot water over the aforementioned Tigray Conflict, international arbitration will likely side against Ethiopia if these recent pleas prove successful, thereby ensuring a safe filling period. 

 Looking beyond the current impasse, the issues stemming from the dam will not disappear. Once the dam is up and running, Ethiopia will have a physical, concrete stranglehold over Egypt and Sudan’s water supply indefinitely. Egypt can mitigate the dangers of this reality by expanding desalination plants and managing its irrigation more effectively, but nevertheless will fail to disassociate its survival from the Nile. If relations between Egypt and Ethiopia fail to improve in the future, the GERD will become a regional powder keg, ready to ignite and detonate at any moment. The long-term solution to this may lie in the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), a regional organization dedicated towards the management and protection of the Nile. As all parties previously signed onto the NBI, it appears to be the next logical step. The NBI in the future can police the GERD situation in the name of regional security and foster economic prosperity throughout the Nile Basin, potentially benefiting both Egypt and Ethiopia.