Why has the issue flared up now?
Largely because of comments made by Donald Trump last week during a call with Sudanese and Israeli leaders. The US president claimed Ethiopia was failing to negotiate in good faith over the project; “Egypt,” he said, will eventually “blow up that dam”. Undeterred, Ethiopia’s PM, Abiy Ahmed, has vowed to press ahead. “Ethiopia will not cave in to aggressions of any kind,” he insisted.
What can the dam do for Ethiopia?
Transform its economy. For much of the 20th century, Ethiopia was a byword for African poverty. Its autocratic Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in 1974; and under the Marxist military junta that displaced him – the Derg – it was ravaged by famine in the 1980s. However, since the Derg’s overthrow in 1991, Ethiopia’s fortunes have revived. Annual economic growth has been close to 9% since the turn of the century, and there are hopes it could achieve what the World Bank calls “Middle Income” status by 2025. To achieve this, successive governments have sought to harness the power of the Blue Nile, the source of which is in Ethiopia’s mountainous highlands, and from which 86% of the Nile’s waters flow. In 2011, 50 years after it was first proposed, construction began on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd) near the border with Sudan.
How big is the Gerd?
The dam, now partly finished, is 1.1 miles across and 509ft high. When operational, it will be Africa’s biggest hydroelectric power plant, generating 6GW of electricity – doubling Ethiopia’s capacity. Its reservoir will be the size of Greater London and hold 17.7 cubic miles of water, more than the volume of the 900-milelong Blue Nile. The cost is also vast: construction is set at $4.8bn. Yet, unusually, it has largely been financed domestically. Under the last but one PM, Meles Zenawi, Ethiopians were urged to make donations and buy low-denomination bonds. Most did so voluntarily, but civil servants were forced each year to donate a month’s salary and businesses to buy higher-value bonds.
How will the Gerd help Ethiopia?
It could transform it. Only 30% of the 115 million population at present have a stable electricity supply. The government hopes the Gerd will not only stimulate domestic industry, but generate enough surplus for it to be Africa’s biggest power exporter. And the draw isn’t just economic; it’s also, as Ethiopia sees it, about righting historic wrongs. The nations downstream on the Blue Nile – Sudan and, in particular, Egypt – have historically viewed its waters as theirs by right (as did Britain when it was their colonial ruler). The Gerd is an opportunity for redress. “Ethiopia is seeking to correct past injustices and share this precious resource in an equitable and reasonable manner,” says Taye Atske Selassie, its UN ambassador.
How has Egypt reacted?
Angrily. The Nile supplies 90% of its water and 95% of its 102 million population live within a few miles of the river. Cairo fears Ethiopia’s plans 2,000 miles upstream could have a devastating impact on agriculture, and that the Aswan Dam – a vital Egyptian energy supply – could be badly affected if the water flow drops as a result of the Gerd. Egypt was caught off-guard by the project; President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has said it would never have got off the ground in 2011 had his country not been distracted by the simultaneous turmoil of the Arab Spring. In 2013, the scale of Egypt’s opposition became clear when its then-president, Mohamed Morsi, was recorded discussing, among other measures, the possibility of an aerial bomb attack on the dam.
Have things calmed down?
To some extent, yes. Some of Ethiopia’s neighbours – including Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti and Eritrea – see the Gerd as a potentially useful power source. The project may, in particular, benefit Sudanese farmers, by regulating the water flows and thus limiting the impact of floods during the rainy season. Hence in 2015, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan signed a declaration outlining their commitment to cooperating on the project and peacefully resolving differences. More recently, at a 2018 meeting in Cairo, Ethiopia’s PM, Abiy, told President Sisi: “I swear to God, we will never harm you.” But none of this has so far translated into a tangible deal, and the dispute remains unresolved.
What is the situation at present?
In the summer rainy season, Ethiopia began filling the reservoir. This is a highly contentious matter; fill it too quickly, and not enough water will reach downstream, where it is needed by Sudan and Egypt (which proposes a filling timetable of 12 to 21 years). On 21 July, Abiy announced that the first year filling had been completed: 1.17 cubic miles, of a total projected capacity of 17.7 cubic miles. He has also used strong language about his country’s plans: warning that he’s ready to “mobilise millions” to defend the Gerd, and adding that “no one could prevent” its completion. But Egypt is already facing water shortages, and its population is growing. “The Nile is a question of life, a matter of existence to Egypt,” President Sisi said last year, adding that he would use “all available means” to defend it.
What will be the outcome?
Both countries describe the issue as “existential” for their people. Prime Minister Abiy, who faces re-election next year, knows the Gerd is one of the few issues that unites Ethiopians of all ethnicities. Meanwhile President Trump, who once described President Sisi as “my favourite dictator”, has sided with Egypt, the US’s closest ally in the region, and blames Ethiopia for failing to cooperate. “I had a deal done and they broke the deal and they cannot do that,” he said. “It’s a very dangerous situation because Egypt is not going to be able to live that way… they’ll end up blowing up the dam.” Ethiopia, for its part, has accused Trump of inciting a war.