Shifting the Nile: Ethiopia’s Plan and Regional Politics

Image: Cattle drink from the Blue Nile in Ethiopia in April of 2012

Kyle Krell is a Sophomore at Tufts University

For over 5,000 years, Northeast Africa has been controlled by a single, continuous force. Empires have fallen, leaders have died, and armies have lost, yet one thing has remained in power over the entire region: the Nile River. Across human history, control of the mouth — where the river flows into the Mediterranean Sea and spreads nutrient-rich sediment across the Nile Delta — has yielded abundant agriculture, greenery, and life amid the lifelessness of the Sahara. With this came power in the Mediterranean Basin. The Ottomans, Romans, Greeks, and, of course, the Egyptians were able to reign over the territory for many generations apiece, thanks to the fruitful Nile.

The Nile receives nearly all of its water from two main tributaries. The White Nile, the longer of the two, runs an impressive 2,300 miles, snaking from the mountains in Burundi to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, where it meets its sister — the much more powerful Blue Nile. The Blue Nile, which originates at Lake Tana in Ethiopia, accounts for 85% of the Nile’s streamflow, despite being only 900 miles in length. With such a large amount of the Nile’s water flowing from the Blue Nile, fluctuations in water coming from Ethiopia drastically impact conditions downstream in Sudan and Egypt, where so much of life depends upon the flow of the Nile.

Throughout most of human history, people simply used the Nile. But in the last century, as humans became more technologically advanced, people sought to reshape it, as well. There were small dams built along the Nile and irrigation systems constructed in Egypt and Sudan. But in 2012, Ethiopia unveiled a plan that would transform the Nile beyond what Egypt and Sudan were comfortable with: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

The GERD is a massive dam close to the Ethiopian-Sudanese border that, when operational, will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa and the seventh largest in the world. While the dam itself has been completed, Ethiopia must fill a reservoir capable of holding 74 billion cubic meters of water. This is necessary to ensure there is enough water flowing through the turbines to produce sufficient energy all the time, even during droughts and dry spells. Filling the reservoir, however, will decrease the flow of the Blue Nile and, therefore, the Nile itself. But Ethiopia feels the project is necessary.

As the most populous country in Africa, recently surpassing Egypt, Ethiopia desperately needs energy. 60 million people, over half the population, do not have access to electricity. They rank fourth lowest in the world in energy consumption — at a meager 69 kilowatt-hours per capita. As Ethiopia modernizes its infrastructure and their population continues to skyrocket, they will need to greatly increase their energy output. The GERD will achieve this and more. With the GERD expected to produce 16,000 gigawatt-hours per year (enough to fulfill the power needs for more than double the population of the country), Ethiopia plans on exporting energy to Sudan, Egypt, Djibouti, Uganda, and Tanzania, greatly benefiting the Ethiopian economy and the energy capabilities of neighboring countries.

Perhaps even more important to the country is the impact the GERD can have in unifying the nation. In a country on the verge of civil war and frequently caught up in public unrest, the GERD has served as a rare piece of common ground for all Ethiopians. Despite being a relatively poor nation, Ethiopia has managed to largely self-fund the project with taxpayer money and civilian-purchased government bonds. Many every-day Ethiopians directly invested in the GERD, tying them financially and emotionally to its success. The Ethiopian government appreciates this, so shutting down the GERD is not an option they will take lightly.

The Ethiopian government also believes it tried to reach an agreement with Egypt and Sudan, but the other countries were unwilling to work with them. In the early stages of the dam’s construction, Ethiopia proposed that the three countries fund, operate, and own the GERD jointly, but this offer was rejected. With Egypt and Sudan being so dependent upon the regular flow of the Nile, they have always strongly disapproved of the project in any form.

Both countries are right to be worried about the impact of the GERD. Sudan receives 80% of its nation’s energy from the Roseires Dam and Sennar Dam, both of which are located on the Blue Nile River. Decreasing the flow of the Blue Nile will surely hurt Sudan’s energy output, possibly creating an energy shortage within the country. While Egypt is not as dependent upon the Nile for energy consumption, their concerns are much worse, due to their extreme dependence upon the Nile for nearly everything else. The Nile provides 90% of the country’s water, fuels the agriculture responsible for 12% of its GDP, and creates an oasis for 95 million people to live. Egypt has already been suffering from a water crisis that has hurt the country, so even the smallest decrease in the water flow from the GERD could cripple the nation.

Egypt further stakes a historical claim against the construction of the GERD. In 1929, Egypt and the British Empire (which controlled and represented Sudan and several other modern upstream Nile nations) reached an agreement that granted Egypt veto power over any upstream projects that may interfere with the flow of water downstream. Egypt and Sudan signed another treaty in 1959 that reinforced the earlier provisions and allocated specific volumes of water to the control of each country. However, not being a part of the British Empire, Ethiopia was not part of these treaties. Thus, while Egypt believes these treaties support their claim to control over the flow of the Nile, Ethiopia holds that these treaties do not apply.

In the last ten years, as talk of the GERD became more serious, these nations entered into new negotiations. Despite the many meetings and conferences held between leaders, there has been minimal success. The only sign of any work whatsoever was a 2017 treaty between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, that agreed to “cooperate based on common understanding” and “utilize their shared water resources… in an equitable and reasonable manner.” This agreement essentially stated that the nations wanted to work together, but it did not lay out any tangible plan for achieving mutual cooperation. Since then, no other agreements have been reached.

In fact, the situation has worsened, particularly between Egypt and Ethiopia. Besides Egypt’s fear of losing vital Nile water flow, they are concerned about the power Ethiopia yields by possessing the capability of cutting off 85% of the Nile’s flow on a whim. They believe Ethiopia’s construction of the GERD is not so much a mission to obtain energy, but rather a ploy to leverage their geopolitical position over Northeast Africa. Foreign intervention has further aggravated tensions. President Donald Trump has actively supported Egypt, recently saying Egypt might “blow up” the GERD. Additionally, the United States has decided to cut up to $100 million of aid to Ethiopia in response to their construction of the dam. While Ethiopia wants this decision reversed, they have shown no signs of backing down.

It will be very interesting to see how this conflict progresses. Ethiopia wants to have the GERD fully operational and the reservoir filled within five to seven years, but Egypt wants the reservoir filled during wet seasons so as not to pose a greater threat to Egypt’s water supply. Doing so would undoubtedly lengthen the timetable for the GERD becoming operational, which is not a luxury Ethiopia can afford with such an energy shortage. Egypt has flirted with military action for years in response to the construction, and Ethiopia has countered by militarizing the dam and setting up anti-aircraft missiles. However, Egypt President Sisi has backed away from military action, fervently denying Egypt’s plans to attack the dam or Ethiopia.

So, where will we go from here? It seems increasingly likely that Egypt and Sudan will need to concede Ethiopia filling the reservoir in exchange for Ethiopia doing so slowly and during wet periods. The issue of Ethiopia’s long-term power over the flow of the Nile will be much more complex. Surely, the stalemate in negotiations between these nations will have to cease, and they will need to reach some sort of agreement on Ethiopia’s proper management of the Nile water flow. But with energy being so valuable to Ethiopia and water being crucial to Egypt, such an agreement will not come easily.