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Ethiopia's GERD dam: A potential boon for all, experts say

April 8, 2023

With 90% of the Grand Ethiopian Reservoir Dam completed, Sudan has now turned into a supporter. Though Egypt is critical of the project, experts have ruled out war and point to potential benefits for the whole region.

A view of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a massive hydropower plant on the River Nile
Ethiopia's mega project GERD will boost the country's electricity output, but the dam is still opposed by Egypt Image: Minasse Wondimu Hailu/AA/picture alliance

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, has been dogged by controversy ever since construction started on the $4 billion (€3.6 billion) mega project in 2011.

Above all, the two neighboring downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan have expressed worries that the dam could lead to reduced water flow in the Nile River, causing increased water scarcity — a major issue in a region that suffers acutely from droughts and negative effects of climate change.

Now, 12 years on, Ethiopia’s Office of National Coordination has announced that the hydroelectric power dam has been 90% completed. 

For Ethiopia, the dam will make a huge difference. The government expects it will generate up to 6,500 megawatts of electricity, doubling the annual national electricity output. This will enable the 60% of the population that is not yet connected to the grid to gain access to reliable power.

Ethiopia's neighbor Sudan, which draws two-thirds of its water supplies from the Nile and regularly suffers from massive flooding during the rainy season, had first criticized the project from the start. Now, however, it seems to have changed its view amid hopes that the dam will help to regulate the annual floods.

In January, Sudan's de facto leader, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, told Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, that the two countries were "aligned and in agreement on all issues regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam."

Egypt, which was also an early critic of the project, has, however, not changed its mind, maintaining that the dam on the Blue Nile, the River Nile's main tributary, will jeopardize its water supply. 

Around 97% of Egypt's population of 106 million people live along the River Nile and depend on it as a source of fresh water. There is also a deep-lying emotional aspect at play in the country's criticism of the project, as the river has always been considered Egypt's lifeline. 

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed speaks at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam,
Ethiopian Premier Abiy Ahmed, seen here at the GERD in 2020, feels the dam is a game-changer for his countryImage: Minasse Wondimu Hailu/AA/picture alliance

In mid-March, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told local media that "all options are open, all alternatives remain available" in the context of the dam's upcoming completion, which is being closely followed by Egypt.

Egypt's warning came despite the fact that it has found a solution to make up for the loss of water caused by the filling of the GERD water reservoir, which started in 2020: Egypt has directed more water from Lake Nasser, the water reservoir of Egypt's own hydropower Aswan High Dam, into the Nile.

Military conflict off the table

Despite the criticisms still coming from Egypt, researchers now tend to rule out a military conflict between it and Ethiopia over the GERD. 

"The window for any possible attack on the dam has closed, given the fact that the reservoir is nearly full," Timothy Kaldas, deputy director of the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told DW. 

An attack on the dam at this point would result in massive flooding of Sudan's Blue Nile River. "This is something that the Egyptians will certainly not pursue," Kaldas said. Egypt and Sudan are regional allies. 

Jemima Oakey, an Amman-based researcher of water and food security in the Middle East and an associate at the London-based consultant firm Azure Strategy, agrees. She told DW that "launching a militarized offensive, which Egypt lacks the economic resources and geopolitical backing to do, would be neither justifiable nor in Egypt’s interests, as there is also no guarantee that any conflict would leave its water situation improved."

GERD's regional implications

"The dam project in Ethiopia is an illustrative example of the extent to which national modernization projects and environmental dependencies are simultaneously reinforced by the constant threat of climate change," Tobias Zumbrägel, a researcher focused on the impact of climate change on the Middle East at Germany's University of Heidelberg, told DW.

"We are longer just talking about a water problem, which is a major problem in itself, but we are also talking about the fact that an entire region is actually under threat of becoming more destabilized," he added.

For example, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries have reiterated their willingness to back Egypt in demanding sufficient water supply from Ethiopia.

Egypt, however, has repeatedly accused Israel of working against its interests when it comes to the GERD, despite the otherwise solid bilateral relations betwen the two countries, which signed a peace agreement in 1979.

Israel and Ethiopia also have close diplomatic ties.  

A view of the power control center at Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
Scientists say aligning the Egyptian and Ethiopian dams could increase water supply Image: Minasse Wondimu Hailu/AA/picture alliance

Scientific solutions

Researchers point out that there are political and scientific ways to settle the situation. 

"Egypt's and Sudan’s most pragmatic, cost-effective and peaceful option is to set up a data-sharing agreement with Ethiopia to manage the water flows from the dam," Jemima Oakey told DW. Such an agreement could include guaranteed water releases during times of drought. "It would build trust, promote cooperation and allow for sustainable and careful multilateral management of the Nile’s flows," she said. 

However, since construction started in 2011, Ethiopia has repeatedly rejected such options, as well other forms of political agreements.

Hagen Koch, a senior scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, in his turn, pins his hopes on a scientific approach. "Great benefits could be derived if Egypt's Aswan High Dam and Ethiopia's GERD were operated together," he told DW. 

"The GERD is located in the highlands; the Aswan High Dam is on a much lower altitude where temperatures are higher," he told DW, adding that Aswan's water reservoir Lake Nasser is also four times larger than the reservoir of the GERD.

"If you manage this sensibly and store more water in the GERD than in Lake Nasser, you will have lower evaporation losses, and thus both countries would have more water available for their respective hydropower generation." 

It remains to be seen whether by the time of the dam's completion in 2024 or 2025 — depending on the amount of rainfall during the rainy season — any agreement will be reached.

Edited by: Timothy Jones

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam still controversial

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa