The Chinese-financed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), despite a recent breakdown in talks on Africa’s largest development project, risks powering up a range of downstream tensions and rivalries.
These run from rising rivalry between Egypt and Ethiopia to a festering border war between Ethiopia and neighboring Sudan. At stake, too, is the future of almost 90% of the water in the Nile River, the world’s longest waterway.
Egypt, where millions depend on the river for their livelihoods, considers control of the Nile an “existential” issue. Sudan, meanwhile, fears the GERD may seriously endanger its own dams, which depend on water flowing from upstream neighbor Ethiopia.
But, for Addis Ababa, the GERD project is a chance to bring electricity to millions of citizens who currently live without electric power.
Finding a way to address the fears and hopes of all three states has so far eluded negotiators, with frustrated African Union (AU) mediator Naledi Pandor declaring last week that the talks had regretfully “reached a dead end.”
Nearly a mile wide and taking nearly a decade to build, the US$5 billion GERD is “the largest development project in Africa, said Ashok Swain, UNESCO Chair on International Water Cooperation.
Spanning the Blue Nile – the eastern and far more voluminous of the two branches feeding the river – GERD is also the world’s seventh-largest dam and by far the largest in Africa.
When its giant, 74 billion cubic meter reservoir finally fills – a process begun last summer and which could take 5-15 years – the GERD’s turbines could start generating some 6,000 megawatts a year of electricity.
China has a major stake in the project through the extension of a $1.2 billion credit facility to finance the dam’s transmission lines.
This is part of some $16 billion in Chinese loans to Ethiopia, according to the US National Bureau of Economic Research, with Beijing far-and-away Ethiopia’s largest overseas investor.
Yet, a major portion of the dam’s funding also comes from individual Ethiopians, who invested their savings in the project on the premise it would bring great benefits to their country of 112 million people.
Electrification can light up school classrooms and clinics, air condition offices, refrigerate food and start up industry. Egypt and Sudan have been using water from the Nile for centuries, with between 86% and 90% of this – depending on the season – coming from the Blue Nile.
The prospect of this flow being reduced, while also coming under Ethiopian control, has therefore rung alarm bells in these two downstream nations.
Sudan, meanwhile, was initially warm to the idea of GERD, given that it could help control flooding in the Nile – a particular problem for Khartoum in recent years.
Yet, with no agreement on how much water Ethiopia will allow downstream once GERD is operational, Khartoum also now fears that in times of drought Ethiopia might cut water flow to Sudan’s own hydroelectric dams in order to keep the GERD’s reservoir full.
Sudan has an ongoing border dispute with Ethiopia over the Al-Fashqa region, north of the GERD. This has seen a hike in tensions in recent weeks, with both sides accusing the other of instigating violence.
Sudan also argues that experts from the AU should be left to come up with a formula for deciding how much water Ethiopia has to release, particularly in drought conditions.
Ethiopia, however, rejects this, not wishing to be tied to a formal agreement. Egypt, too, opposes the idea, seeing such technocrats as ill-equipped to resolve a political dispute.
This led to a collapse of the most recent round of talks, with no date set for their resumption. Hopes for a peaceful resolution now hang on several upcoming events. There will be a change of AU leadership with the Democratic Republic of Congo taking the chair.
The Democratic Republic of Congo lies on the White Nile – the river’s other tributary – giving it a much greater direct interest than current chair South Africa in the whole river’s future.
Asia Times / ABC Flash Point News 2021.