The Blue Nile Is Dammed
Geopolitics, water security, and health will keep the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam alive.
This month, Ethiopia completed the initial filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a nearly $5 billion hydroelectricity project on the Blue Nile River. With 4.9 billion cubic meters of water in the dam’s reservoir so far, Ethiopia will now be able to test two of the project’s energy-generating turbines. The country plans to fill the rest of the dam over the next five years, a prospect that worries downstream Egypt, which depends on the Nile for fresh water.
As the two countries continue to negotiate over the dam’s future, we’ve gathered our best reads to explain the stakes.
The Blue Nile dam has been a flash point between Egypt, Ethiopia, and, to a lesser extent, Sudan since the project was made public in 2011. For Ethiopia, the energy generated by the dam—estimated to be over 6 gigawatts, the largest hydroelectric plant in Africa—is essential to its continued economic development. The water held in the dam’s reservoir, meanwhile, will help it meet its population’s water needs. For Egypt, though, the decline in water flowing its way would be devastating.
In a 2019 article, the researcher Imad K. Harb explained how the seeds of this apparently zero-sum game were sown by colonial-era water-sharing agreements. For example, according to the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, “Egypt and Sudan were guaranteed an annual supply of 48 billion and 4 billion cubic meters, respectively, out of an estimated yearly yield of 84 billion cubic meters of Nile water. Another agreement in 1959 between the United Kingdom and independent Egypt increased Egypt’s share to 55.5 billion cubic meters and Sudan’s to 18.5 billion cubic meters, with the rest shared by the other countries along the river.” It is easy to see how, as Ethiopia’s population has boomed, the old agreements that guaranteed it only a small share of the river’s water started to chafe.
Indeed, Foreign Policy’s Keith Johnson wrote in 2018, a “dam at the head of the Blue Nile in the Ethiopian highlands has been a dream since the 1960s.” It was only in 2011, though, he continued, “when Egypt was rocked by the Arab Spring and facing domestic upheaval … that Ethiopia unilaterally decided to start work on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.” Soon, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was Egypt’s defense chief and would go on to become the country’s leader, threatened to send troops to stop the dam’s construction, Johnson noted in an earlier article.
But by 2015, the countries involved seemed ready to make peace. “Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan reached a preliminary deal” that year, Johnson explained, “that could help whisk away the bad blood” over the dam. The parties agreed, among other things, to “accept the dam’s inevitability and seek to manage its impact on neighboring countries.” One reason for the sudden chumminess? Security. “Sisi cited mutual counterterrorism goals in his address” to the Ethiopian parliament at that time.
Relations took a nosedive once more, though, particularly as Ethiopia’s leverage over Egypt increased. For years, Johnson argued, Sudan had allowed more of the Blue Nile’s water than the old treaties allowed “to flow downstream to Egypt, which [had] used more water than it [was] entitled to.” In recent years, though, “Sudan has sought to increase its own water use, aiming to boost its agriculture sector. Because it hopes to use the dam for irrigation, Sudan has moved closer to Ethiopia and become a supporter of the project.” In 2018, the country warned of Egyptian troops on its border and “abruptly recalled its ambassador to Egypt, the latest chapter in a fight that started [in 2017] with trade boycotts.”
In 2019 and 2020, diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute picked back up, with the United States offering to mediate talks in Washington, Johnson wrote. In those meetings, the three countries at least agreed on what points were left to resolve. There was no time to waste: Ethiopia was scheduled to start filling the dam this July.
The U.S. intervention, though, was not cheered by all. Addisu Lashitew, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution, warned that the Trump administration appeared to simply be doing Egypt’s bidding. In late February, Ethiopia even temporarily walked away from the negotiations. “The country’s foreign ministry,” Lashitew explained, “has expressed its disapproval of the draft agreement, characterizing it as ‘unacceptable & highly partisan,’ while Egypt has noted that it signed the agreement at a meeting where Ethiopia was not present. Instead of helping resolve these differences, the U.S. Treasury released a statement that argued that the draft agreement ‘addresses all issues in a balanced and equitable manner’ and warned Ethiopia that ‘final testing and filling [of the dam] should not take place without an agreement.’ To Ethiopia, this seemed to confirm the longstanding fear that the United States has been a biased mediator.”
In the midst of the diplomatic breakdown, the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, adding renewed urgency to water disputes. “For the 4.8 million residents of Ethiopia’s capital city, interruptions to the water supply are nothing new,” argued Alan Nicol of the International Water Management Institute. “But in the grip of a pandemic, the latest disruption threw into sharp relief the inequality created by limited and unpredictable access to clean water. Without a treatment or a vaccine, the primary advice to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is regular hand-washing and good hygiene. But this is out of reach for millions of Ethiopians living without sustainable access to clean water, laying bare the critical link between water and public health.”
By July, just as Ethiopia started to fill the dam, the United States was putting even more pressure on the country to resolve the dispute: “The Trump administration,” reported Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer, was “weighing withholding some aid to Ethiopia over a Nile dam project that has severely strained its relationship with downstream countries Sudan and Egypt.”
For now, a formal withdrawal of aid is yet to come, and the sides have returned to talks brokered by the African Union. But with the first phase of filling the dam completed, the pressure will be on to settle this dispute once and for all.