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The GERD Dam in the Water Dispute between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. A Scenario Analysis in an Ecosystem Approach between Physical and Geopolitical Geography

Authors: Stefano De Falco and Giulia Fiorentino

Affiliations: University Federico II of Naples, Italy

Organization/Publisher: AIMS Geosciences

Date/Place: March 21, 2022/USA

Type of Literature: Research Article 

Number of Pages: 21

Link: https://www.aimspress.com/article/doi/10.3934/geosci.2022014 

 

Keywords: GERD, Ecosystem Model, Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan, Water Conflict  

 

Brief:

 

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), located on the Ethiopian branch of the Nile known as the Blue Nile, is being constructed to generate hydroelectric power. The Blue Nile originates in the Ethiopian Plateau, near Lake Tana, and flows south through Ethiopia before turning northwest and passing through Sudan, where it is called the Bahr al Azraq. The river ultimately reaches Khartoum, where it merges with the White Nile to form the Nile.

 

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the largest hydroelectric project in Africa, has been built at an unprecedented cost and investment in infrastructure. In addition to its massive scale, the project has the potential to significantly alter the hydro-political landscape of the Nile River and its geopolitical significance. In fact, when the dam is filled, it is expected to have a similar impact on Nile outflow as the Aswan Dam.

 

Ethiopia’s Nile River has the potential to generate over 15,000 MW of untapped electricity. By harnessing this resource, Ethiopia and other East African nations connected to Ethiopia’s power infrastructure, including Sudan, Kenya, and Djibouti, could improve access to electricity. Currently, only about 45%, 60%, 75%, and 60% of the populations of Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya, and Djibouti have access to power, respectively.

 

In the context of energy development, where hydroelectricity is viewed as the primary sustainable option, tensions are rising among the governments through which the Nile River passes over the shared control of its waters. As hydroelectricity becomes increasingly important for sustainability, these governments are grappling with the challenges of sharing control of the Nile’s waters.

 

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is located on the Blue Nile, approximately 45 kilometers from Sudan and 750 kilometers northwest of Addis Abeba in the Guba region. Construction of the dam was announced in 2011.

 

The dam has become a symbol of Ethiopian nationalism and a true “renaissance” for the country. However, it is important to also consider the concept of hydro-solidarity in this context. While the dam will play a crucial role in energy production, food production, economic development, and poverty reduction in Ethiopia, it is necessary to also consider the impacts it may have on other coastal countries that rely on the same cross-border river for their water resources, particularly Egypt and Sudan. It is important to balance the benefits of the dam for Ethiopia with the potential impacts on these other countries.

 

Italian firm Salini Impregilo began construction on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in 2011, and when it is completed in 2022, it will be the largest dam in Africa. The dam will have the capacity to generate 6600 megawatts of energy. However, the reduced flow of the Nile caused by the dam has led to significant protests from the Egyptian government, which relies on the Nile for 95% of its water supply. The dam has also caused tensions between Ethiopia and Sudan, which initially supported Ethiopia’s arguments before aligning with Egypt’s position. Despite these tensions, the Ethiopian government maintains that the dam will bring significant benefits and development to the country, which has historically been impacted by poverty and internal political turmoil.

 

The case of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) raises several important questions beyond the dam itself, including water sharing in transboundary rivers, the processes by which collective claims are made, and global economic development. The GERD case highlights the complex issues surrounding these topics and their significance in the broader context of international relations and resource management.

 

The issue of water sharing in transboundary rivers can be viewed from different perspectives, including geopolitical and cultural ones. Some see the Nile Basin as a site of historical and nationalistic rivalry between Egypt and Ethiopia, while others emphasize the uniting elements of history and culture, such as the relationship between the Coptic Church and the Orthodox Ethiopian Church. These different perspectives highlight the complexity of the issue and the need to consider multiple viewpoints when addressing water sharing in transboundary rivers.

 

This paper adopts a framework that combines the aspects of physical geography with those of geopolitics to provide an analytical model for understanding the water dispute. This model is based on the management of shared river water resources and takes into account the dynamics of ecosystem competition. The goal of this approach is to provide a geographic perspective on the processes at play, highlighting the intersections between physical geography and geopolitics. The ecosystem model is proposed as an alternative perspective for studying the stalemate over the Nile River’s water resources, and for evaluating the factors that are most likely to influence the conflict, both in terms of its development and its limitations.

 

Hostilities or water conflicts between Cairo, Khartoum, and Addis Abeba over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) reached a climax in July 2020 when Ethiopia announced its intention to fill the dam’s reservoir to at least 145 meters in order to generate the maximum amount of megawatts needed for the nation’s economic development. The tensions surrounding the GERD and its potential impact on the water resources of these countries have been ongoing, but the announcement marked an escalation of the conflict.

 

The authors of this paper reject the claim by the Ethiopian government that the GERD project will not pose any real threats to Egypt. Instead, they argue that Egypt is facing real threats of drying up or a significant reduction in Nile water due to the limited availability of natural resources. This is a particularly worrying concern given the country’s rapidly growing population, which has increased from 23 million in 1955 to over 99 million today, with a forecast of over 150 million by 2050. For Egyptians, the Nile is not simply a matter of luxury, but a matter of “life or non-life,” as its waters are essential to the survival of 98% of the population.

 

The importance of the Nile’s water resources for Egypt is at odds with Ethiopia’s equally pressing need for this resource for energy purposes. This creates a conflict of specific interests for the countries located on the banks of the Nile River. The tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia are not simply a dispute over water, but rather a complex mix of hydro-geopolitical disagreements with multiple motivations. These conflicts can be categorized into two forms of ecosystem competition. The first is competition for exploitation, which is related to physical geography and the competition for natural resources, in this case, the water of the river. The second is competition by interference, which involves political geography and the dispute between the competing countries on the banks of the Nile.

 

The competition model for the exploitation of a shared resource is based on the hypothesis that countries negatively impact each other by taking away a portion of the same limited resource (if the resource were abundant, the use by one government would not decrease the availability for the other countries bordering the Nile). This model suggests that competition for exploitation occurs when countries are vying for access to a shared resource that is in limited supply.

 

Competition by interference refers to the potential for the resource contention scenario to escalate into an actual conflict between countries. This can take the form of active armed confrontation or passive defense, in military terms, of the natural resource threatened by the actions of other countries. Competition by interference is a further escalation of the resource competition scenario and involves a direct confrontation between countries over the threatened resource.

 

According to the military ranking compiled by the Global Firepower index, Egypt has a stronger military than Ethiopia, ranking 9th in the world, immediately after the United Kingdom, while Ethiopia ranks 60th. Egypt is widely considered to have the most powerful army in Africa. In addition, Egypt has the support of several Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which have made significant financial investments in Ethiopia. Given these factors, it seems unlikely that Ethiopia would pursue a military solution to the conflict, and instead would likely try to reassure Egypt through diplomatic efforts that the dam will not pose any dangers to the Nile water supply.

 

To achieve sustainable peace in the region, it is necessary to find a balance between the physical geography of the countries contending for the same resource and the geopolitics of negotiating a consensual distribution. To do so, the following steps should be considered. First, it is necessary to determine an acceptable level of water that can be drawn from Ethiopia through the GERD dam for energy purposes. Secondly, the negotiation should focus on the benefits that Ethiopia can gain from the mega scheme. Finally, diplomatic communication should be conducted with a focus on the dynamics of water resources administration. Diplomatic solutions to the disputes between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan should be based on a fair and reasonable distribution of the Nile’s water resources through common institutional frameworks.

 

Therefore, it is important for countries with conflicting interests to reach consensus before the completion and operation of the Ethiopian project, if the project is meant to be sustainable. If hostilities and suspicion between these riparian states continue, large-scale war and open military confrontations may become inevitable, with multiple actors involved and significant regional and global consequences. To avoid this outcome, it is crucial for the countries to find a way to resolve their differences and reach a mutually beneficial agreement.

 

In general, the construction of large dams on transboundary river basins should only begin after the affected nations and regions understand the filling and long-term operation of the reservoir. The ecosystem model advocates for negotiations between the parties involved as a solution to conflicts over the water resources of the Nile River. It is important for all stakeholders to fully understand the potential impacts of such projects and to work together to find a mutually beneficial solution.

 

Water is both an element of osmosis and a contrast between physical and political geography. The perspective proposed in this paper aims to present an analytical approach to managing shared water resources. The evidence from the ecosystemic analytical model suggests that the diplomatic path, based on the search for a consensual balance in the management of tensions triggered by conflict, is the only viable approach for achieving the common good and the national interests of each country involved. The GERD case serves as an example from which to learn for future dam development in politically sensitive river basins. The results show that the ecosystem constraints of the GERD could potentially affect the expected annual river flow to Sudan and Egypt and could have political consequences.


By: Jemal Muhamed, CIGA Senior Research Associate

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