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Water Conflict in Africa: the Largest Hydroelectric Power Station Is the Bone of Contention Between Ethiopia and Egypt

Ethiopia has been building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile River since 2011. During this period relations between Egypt and Ethiopia became strained with mutual threats and accusations. Moreover, there is a risk of water conflict in Africa, which would completely destabilize East Africa.

After construction, GERD will be the largest hydroelectric power station in Africa with a capacity of 6000 MW. The dam will have a height of 145 m and long of 1 708 m. Private and government bonds are the main funding source for the project in order to eliminate pressure on Ethiopia.

During this time, there were 4 rounds of negotiations and several expert groups. The sides exchanged loud statements from time to time. For example, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said at the meeting of the UN General Assembly, that he would “never” allow Ethiopia to impose a “de facto situation” by filling the dam without an agreement. The Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali also did not stay away and emphasized that no force could stop Ethiopia from building a dam and if there were a need to go to war, Ethiopia could get millions readied. So, the threat of real water conflict in Africa still exists. 

But in the last days, some positive changes emerged in this context.

The last round of talks took place on January 13-15 in Washington, DC, by the medium of the United States and the World Bank. Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have reached an initial agreement on the Renaissance Dam.

The countries should now agree on the final text of the document. The main agreement will be signed on January 28-29, when the three countries will meet again in the US capital.

The parties agreed that filling of the GERD will take place during the wet season (July-August). The initial filling stage of the GERD will provide for the rapid achievement of a level of 595 meters above sea level. A special mechanism will be developed for further filling stages.

But the agreement does not contain a regulation on the main contradiction – the speed of filling. Ethiopia wants to do this in 6 years, while Egypt insists on a longer term – 10 years.

The dam’s reservoir will hold up to 74 billion cubic meters of water and during filling the water flow in the river will be reduced by 25%. The longer period of the filling – the lesser the impact on the flow.

The Nile River has been a controversy in the region for a long time.

water-war-in-africa

It is the most important natural resource for at least 10 countries (with the White and Blue Nile): Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

The first agreements on water politics in the Nile basin appeared in the late nineteenth century. But in this context, the most important is the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement between Sudan and Egypt. It shared the entire annual Nile flow between Sudan and Egypt – 18.5 and 55.5 billion cubic meters respectively. And this agreement ignored the rights of the rest of the countries to the waters of the Nile.

The Nile is important for Egypt in regard to transport, irrigation and fishing. The Nile covers 90% of Egypt’s water needs, and the Blue Nile formed 60% of the Nile’s flow, on which Ethiopia builds the dam. In addition, Egypt has its own Aswan dam on this river.

According to the UN report from 2015, Egypt will have faced up to a serious shortage of water by 2025. Therefore, taking the necessary measures for the country as soon as possible is one of the most important tasks.

For Ethiopia, the benefits from GERD are obvious: electricity for rural areas and industrial development. Only 44% of Ethiopia’s population has access to electricity. In addition, the dam will enable Ethiopia to become the largest exporter of electricity in the region together with already-existing Ethiopian projects in this area.

But the question of the water conflict in Africa also lays in the regional role of both countries.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seeks, through various regional initiatives, strengthening of Egypt’s role on the African continent (el-Sisi is the President of the African Union now). For Ethiopia, regional leadership is a long-standing dream. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali makes significant efforts to achieve this dream, held up as “the most active diplomat in the region”.

In current circumstances, Egypt is unlikely to turn the negotiations into a favorable path for it. Sudan, Egypt’s longtime ally, is on the side of Ethiopia. As after a trilateral meeting in March 2012, Sudan declared support of GERD.

For Sudan, the dam is the possibility of cheap electricity and way to regulate the flow of water, which often leads to devastating floods. Therefore, Egypt lacks regional support, and its negotiating position is weak.

As of now, the dam is about ready by 80%. The point is whether Ethiopia will keep its promises on the distribution of water during a drought.

Despite the negotiations lasts, the hope for compromise remains. Ethiopia is most likely to follow its previous negotiating strategy, and Egypt will be forced to agree on a compromise because of the weak position.

 

Author

Marta Oliynyk-Domochko
Marta Oliynyk-Domochko

Marta Oliynyk-Domochko is Ph.D. in Political Science, researcher, think-tanker, Executive Director of Global Ukraine Foundation.

As an analyst, she focuses on foreign policy, African regional cooperation and security issues, soft policy, public diplomacy and other topics.

Contact via e-mail [email protected]

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