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Ethiopians vs Egyptians: Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

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David Carracedo Esteban

In 1984 a severe drought hit northern Ethiopia causing one of the largest famines known in the area. Nearly 200,000 Ethiopians lost their lives. At the time, Ethiopia was a poor country, underdeveloped and involved in several military conflicts. Thirty-seven years later, the Horn of Africa country is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, poverty has been more than halved – although it is still present – and the country is developing at a high level, earning the nickname of the China of Africa.

These profound changes have been driven in part by copying the model that made the Asian country develop so rapidly: investment in public infrastructure as a driver of the country’s transformation.

An example of this investment is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Located on the Blue Nile just 20 km from the Sudanese border, it will close off the waters of the Nile’s largest tributary, creating a reservoir with a capacity of 72,000 hm3. The project, which began in 2011, is currently under construction. The dam will allow the regulation of the Blue Nile, the irrigation of farmland and, most importantly, the hydroelectric exploitation of the Blue Nile with the installation of 6,000 MW of power. The figure is remarkable given that the country’s installed electrical power is 4,284 MW: this dam alone will increase the country’s electrical power by 150%. With this, Ethiopia aims to develop its industry, increase the country’s electricity coverage and become a major exporter of electricity to the African continent.

FOTO 1. Location of the dam. Source 4

However, the project has generated a major territorial conflict in the area. Egypt and Sudan, both tributaries of the Blue Nile, have been strongly opposing the project. Egypt bases its claim to the waters of the Nile on a 1959 colonial agreement that divided the river’s flow between the two states: 75% for Egypt and 25% for Sudan. Ethiopia does not recognise this treaty. It is noteworthy that Ethiopia contributes 60% of the water flowing through Egypt when it only accounts for 10% of the Nile River basin. It is estimated that Ethiopia contributes 72 million cubic metres and uses one; Egypt does not contribute and uses 55; and Sudan and South Sudan use 18.5 million cubic metres and contribute nothing.

The country of the Pharaohs is 90 per cent dependent on the river’s water supply. Economically, agriculture, which is fed by the waters of the Nile, accounts for 11.3% of the country’s GDP. A reduction in the flow of water would mean economic losses in the millions. Tensions in the area have escalated in recent years – Egypt has threatened to bomb the dam – due to the main stumbling block: the capacity of the reservoir and the time it takes to fill it. Ethiopia aims to fill the dam in the shortest possible time because it will be able to start producing and exporting electricity as soon as possible, and this will happen faster the more flow it retains. Egypt, on the other hand, fears a drastic reduction in water flow and that this will have a major impact on its economy. It is estimated that a retention of 25% of the Blue Nile flow for filling will mean a 20 point reduction in the Nile in Egypt and a filling duration of 4 years.

Will the two countries finally reach an agreement, and is Ethiopia’s legitimate development plan compatible with a reduction in the Blue Nile’s inflow to neighbouring countries? What is clear is that this is a real example of territorial conflict over one of the most precious commodities on the planet: water. The management of water resources is in most cases not limited to the national level. Few countries have rivers that originate and flow within the country and whose resources can be fully managed by a state. In addition, climate change is leading to a decrease in conventional water resources in most river basins. Therefore, there is an increasing need for planning, management and agreement between the countries concerned. In this case, the conflict will only be solved with the understanding of the parties.

FOTO 2. View of the dam after construction. Source 4 


  4. Abtew, W., & Dessu, S. B. (2018). The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile (2019 ed.). Springer.

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