Egypt's Options to Counter Ethiopia's Grand Dam Run Dry

5 MINS READJun 6, 2018 | 08:00 GMT
This photograph shows the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in 2015. The hydroelectric project near the Sudanese-Ethiopian border is nearing completion.

A photo taken on March 31, 2015, shows the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam under construction near the Sudanese-Ethiopian border. Ethiopia began diverting the Blue Nile in May 2013 to build the 6,000-megawatt dam, which will be Africa's largest when completed. Egypt, heavily reliant for millennia on the Nile for agriculture and drinking water, fears that the dam would decrease its water supply.


The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will be a boon for Addis Ababa but a burden for Cairo. However, there's little Egypt can do about that....

The diplomatic merry-go-round shows little sign that it is about to slow down. In mid-May, officials from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan sat down in Addis Ababa to discuss the estimated $6.4 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project and to find a solution to the Egypt-Ethiopia impasse over the hydroelectric project on the Nile River. Although the negotiators, including foreign ministers, intelligence chiefs and water ministers, failed to break the deadlock, they did sign a new road map to establish a scientific study group to monitor one of Egypt's biggest concerns — the rate at which water fills the reservoir. The talks seem likely to beget more talks, because Cairo will have little choice but to adopt a more conciliatory tone in the months ahead if it wishes to minimize the effect of the new dam — as well as that of any future projects — on downstream activities.

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At the outset of the year, Stratfor said Ethiopia would move full speed ahead with its flagship Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, regardless of Egypt's concerns. As the project nears completion, Cairo will have to confront the fact that it no longer wields the same amount of influence over its upstream neighbors.

A Battle for Water

Attempts at diplomacy notwithstanding, the fundamental differences between Cairo and Addis Ababa (as well as Khartoum) will remain as the project nears completion. (Ethiopian authorities have said they are aiming to finish the project by the end of the current Ethiopian year, which ends in October, but that time frame appears to be overly ambitious.) Egypt harbors understandable fear about the potentially negative effects of the dam, because the downstream giant derives 95 percent of its water supply from the river. Consequently, officials in Cairo are particularly worried about the rate at which Addis Ababa fills the dam's reservoir, because doing so rapidly would further strain Egypt's water supply. A French firm conducting impact study reports has suggested that Ethiopia could prevent undue disruptions in the water flow to downstream countries if it fills the reservoir more slowly, although Cairo and Addis Ababa have been tussling over the report's findings. Ultimately, Addis Ababa wishes to fill the reservoir in about three years or so — a much quicker time frame than the decadelong duration preferred by Cairo.

For Addis Ababa, the dam addresses the country's electricity shortages and furthers its development strategy. Upon completion, the project will make the landlocked country of 100 million more attractive to outside investment. The benefits will also be tangible for Sudan, which will have the option of using the dam's surplus electricity. In fact, the prospect of more electrical power effectively convinced Khartoum to switch sides from Cairo to Addis Ababa — inevitably infuriating Egypt.

A map shows the location of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Nile region.

A Harbinger of Things to Come 

The speed at which Ethiopia fills the reservoir, however, is not Cairo's only concern, because the massive undertaking is likely to be just one of many future projects pursued by Ethiopia and Sudan on the Nile or its tributaries. The prospect of more projects gets to the heart of Egypt's predicament: Although Cairo fundamentally disagrees with Addis Ababa about the current project, it cannot afford to walk away from the talks with Ethiopia lest it find itself out in the cold on future projects. For decades, Cairo was the pre-eminent Nile power in part due to historical treaties regarding water distribution (in international water politics, it is especially hard to take away water once it is given), which allowed it to dictate river policies. But because Egypt will continue to lose influence over its upstream neighbors — especially as Ethiopia flexes its muscles amid rapid economic growth — it cannot ignore the reality at a time when water will become ever scarcer due to overpopulation, pollution and saltwater intrusion in the country's agricultural heartland and major centers. Due to these factors, Cairo has few options but to remain in the talks to help shape the parameters of the colossal project, which is likely to set a precedent for future infrastructure works.

Gone are the days when Cairo could call the shots on the Nile. Regardless of what Egypt does, Ethiopia is forging ahead with its megaproject.

Gone are the days when Cairo could call the shots on the Nile. Regardless of what Egypt does, Ethiopia is forging ahead with its megaproject. Unable to twist Addis Ababa's arm through coercion due to its lack of leverage, Egypt will inevitably pursue a change of strategy that champions greater conciliation. There are no guarantees that Cairo's overtures to Addis Ababa will succeed, but an Egypt dependent on the Nile's waters can do little but hope that its diplomacy bears fruit.

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