GERD: What the Ethiopian Dam Means for Africa

The GERD is essential for Ethiopia’s development, economic and otherwise. For Egypt, however, the impounding phase poses a threat. Water scarcity is at the forefront of concerns for the country.
Figure 1: GERD location

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD for short, is a hydro-electric plant under construction on the Blue Nile River, in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia, 45km from its east border of Sudan. It sits on the Nile’s main tributary and is upstream of Egypt (meaning, it is in the direction opposite to the flow in the river, i.e. towards the source of the river; or, ‘seaward’). Once completed and operational, the GERD will be the largest hydroelectric power generation facility in Africa and the fifth largest in the world.

On the surface level, it seems to be agreed upon that the dam will lead Ethiopia into economic prosperity and Egypt into water scarcity, though the reality is much deeper than that. It has become a polarising political topic in the two nations and caused quite a global ruckus, with multiple third parties offering to lead the negotiation, most notably the UN.

The Nile Dam: History and Where it’s at Now

Figure 2: Nile River Map

The Nile Basin river system flows through 11 countries. The Blue Nile and White Nile merge in Sudan before flowing into Egypt and towards the Mediterranean. Large-scale development of the Nile dates back to the late 19th century when British colonial officials proposed a vision of basin-wide management. As countries gained independence, Egypt and Sudan signed a deal in 1959 called the “Agreement for the Full Utilization of Nile Waters”. It followed that the two countries agreed to share the Nile’s resources, with Egypt taking the bigger share (Egypt 55.5bcm and Sudan 18.5bcm, annually). Ethiopia and other upstream states are not part of, and do not recognize this agreement.

Similarly, building an Ethiopian dam isn’t a novel idea, it has been in the making for decades now. Between 1956 and 1964, the United States Bureau of Reclamation conducted site surveys of the Blue Nile river to identify a site for the dam. However, the project never took off, due to the Ethiopian coup d’état of 1974. Two more site surveys were conducted in 2009 and 2010, with a design being submitted in November 2010.

In March 2011, the turnkey contract (US$4.8 bn) was awarded to the Italian construction company, Salini Impregilo, without competitive bidding. The dam’s foundation stone was laid in April 2011. At this point, the project was called the Millenium Dam, changed from its previous name during the planning phase, ‘Project X’.

By starting GERD construction without the consent of the downstream states, Ethiopia has failed to abide by the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention requiring upstream countries to consult the downstream states before embarking on projects of this magnitude.

As of August 2020, construction of the GERD was over 70% complete, and Ethiopia has completed the first year filling of the reservoir by impounding 4.9 billion cubic metres (bcm). The second filling was completed on 19 July 2021, without the agreement of Egypt and Sudan.

It is clear that Ethiopia sees this as the only way forward. “For Ethiopia, accessing and utilising its water resources is not a matter of choice, but of existential necessity,” Taye Atske-Selassie, Ethiopia’s UN ambassador, said.

The people of Ethiopia are a big part of the funding of this project, since Ethiopia is financing the dam completely on its own through selling bonds to Ethiopians both at home and abroad. The project itself has eased ethnic divisions to create a pan-Ethiopian sense of self, the nation coming together for the people’s dam.

In Depth: The Real Effects of the Dam

Ethiopia-Kenya power line (Source: Rod Waddington, Flickr)

The GERD is essential for Ethiopia’s development, economic and otherwise. With an expected capacity of 6000MW, the project is aimed primarily at generating hydropower. All the energy generated by GERD will be going into the national grid of Ethiopia to fully support the development of the whole country, both in rural and urban areas, with plans of exporting if there is a total surplus of energy generated.

It will also conserve water in Ethiopian highlands by having lower evaporation, and will be capable of handling a flood of 19,370 tonnes per second, and is expected, upon completion, to also reduce approximately 40km of flooding in Sudan.

A farmer keeps watch from a treetop south of Arba Minch, Ethiopia. (Source: David Stanley, Flickr)

A water secure nation translates into a food secure nation. Agriculture accounts for more than half the country’s GDP and as much as 90% of exports and employment. By controlling droughts and floods, the GERD will reduce crop failure caused by climate change. It will allow Ethiopia to increase its agricultural output, allowing farmers to grow crops during the dry season or when rainfall is low in the wet season.

During the impounding phase of the dam, the GERD benefits mainly Ethiopia and to some extent Sudan. The benefits to Sudan are summarised by results from a study suggesting that a steady-state operation of the GERD (2020-2060) would give Sudan’s accumulated GDP gains ranging between $27 bn and $29 bn, compared to a baseline without the GERD.

For Egypt, however, this phase poses a threat. Water scarcity is at the forefront of concerns for the country. The filling duration of the GERD’s reservoir will decrease the country’s share from Nile River water and affect its water security. The filling of the dam will inflict economic costs on Egypt, especially if it occurs during a sequence of dry years.

Aswan, Egypt (Source: zolakoma, Flickr)

Although 85% of Nile waters originate in Ethiopia, nearly all consumptive use occurs downstream in Egypt and Sudan. Egypt depends on the Nile for 95% of all its water needs — fresh drinking water, agriculture, electricity generation, fishing, and more.

However, mitigating water scarcity risks of GERD is manageable. A study proposed strategies that would save an amount of water that exceeds, by 12.1bcm, the expected losses caused by GERD. It concluded that adopting the suggested management actions and policies could reduce or eliminate the impact of GERD on Egypt.

Other than the risk of fresh water scarcity, an international panel of experts stated that the main adverse impact on Egypt will be a reduction in power generated at Aswan High Dam due to a fall in the water levels of Nasser Lake.

In the case that the first filling of the GERD occurs during dry years, the AHD will reach the minimum operational level during four consecutive years. This reduction of AHD outflows from their normal levels could have adverse impacts on water supply, industrial and irrigation pump stations efficiency, navigation, and hydropower stations. If the GERD is operated unwisely, it may exacerbate water stresses in Egypt, as the country is vulnerable to severe droughts even at present conditions (without GERD operating)

According to another study, if a 6 year filling period is adopted, it’s sufficient to fill the reservoir with little impact on the current irrigation water demands from the AHD in Egypt and without additional management investment.

Negotiations: Where They At

The Nile Basin has always proposed a major potential for resource conflict due to the possibility of inequitable water utilization. Egypt has for a long time held the major ownership of the Nile River water and prevented Ethiopia from constructing a dam.

“The basin’s proneness to conflict has been exacerbated by the absence of an inclusive legal and institutional framework governing the utilization and management of its meager water resources,” writes Dereje Zeleke Mekonnen in his paper ‘Declaration of Principles on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: Some Issues of Concern’.

Former president Donald J. Trump, joined by Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, meets with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Sudan Asma Mohamed Abdalla, left, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Egypt Sameh Shoukry, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Gedu Andargachew, in the Oval Office of the White House. (Source: Official White House Photo, Flickr)

Negotiations between Egypt and Ethiopia have been going on for a decade ever since the construction started, a period through which the dam was continuously being worked on. Sudan has also been part of these negotiations, as the Blue Nile also flows through the country.

  • May 2012: a ten-member International Committee of Experts (two each from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, as well as four neutral international experts) is launched to review Ethiopian studies and examine if they took into consideration international standards and impact on the two downstream states.
  • May 2013: the committee produces a report that recommends additional impact studies.
  • 2015: the three countries sign a declaration of principles in Khartoum which spoke about the “spirit of cooperation”.
  • May 2018: the three countries’ intelligence chiefs and foreign and water ministers establish the National Independent Research Study Group to discuss the dam’s impact, filling and operation. The study group failed to produce an agreement.
  • November 2019 – January 2020: four technical meetings on the dam are held, the first and fourth in Addis Ababa, and the third and second in Cairo and Sudan, respectively.
  • January 2020: the delegations of the three states meet in Washington to resume talks, with the participation of the World Bank and the United Nations. A primary agreement was reached. The agreement included six provisions that consisted of a timetable for filling the reservoir that included times of drought and extended drought.
  • February 2020: Ethiopia claims that the U.S. and World Bank overstepped their roles and were leaning towards Egypt’s favour, and refuses to sign a draft agreement that had been initially signed by Egypt.

Egypt says it could lose more than one million jobs and $1.8 bn in economic production annually in case of droughts such as those that affected the Nile Basin in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Though such a condition is unlikely, the country wants the first stage of the filling process to be longer than three years, and for Ethiopia to guarantee it 40bcm per year after the first stage is completed.

The Ethiopian government still maintains its stance that Egypt’s requirement of 40bcm per year is unrealistic, and guaranteeing it would perpetuate the colonial privilege that the British government handed to Egypt when it recognised the “natural and historical right of Egypt to the waters of the Nile” in 1929.

It also says that while it could fill the reservoir in two to three years, it made a concession by proposing a four to seven year process.

One problem, Crisis Group states, is that Ethiopia and Egypt both view the Nile waters issue as a vital national interest, which generates considerable domestic pressure to stick to maximalist positions.

GERD presents the opportunity to rebuild trust between African countries like Ethiopia and Egypt.

“It is essential that Egypt rebuild its trust with other African countries,” says Hamed Ali, associate professor and chair of the Public Policy and Administration Department at the American University in Cairo. “Egypt should see GERD and the negotiations as opportunities to open up to Africa, to engage with the neighboring countries. Promoting economic exchange between Egypt and other African countries is a long-term goal that Egypt should strive for, and this process could start with Ethiopia and the Renaissance Dam.”