Completion and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam-(GERD) will profoundly affect not only the future of Ethiopia, but all of the Horn of Africa, and the entire African continent. It reflects the bold visionary thinking that characterizes Ethiopia’s unwavering determination to eradicate poverty in the second largest nation on the continent with 103 million people. Ethiopia has been a leader in economic growth for the last decade due to its unparalleled commitment to constructing new infrastructure projects. Although an emerging nation, Ethiopia with assistance from China, completed the Addis-Ababa to Djibouti railroad in October 2016. This is the first and only electrified rail line in sub-Saharan Africa- (SSA), reducing travel time from several days by truck to hours by rail, effectively freeing Ethiopia from the limitations of a landlocked nation via Djibouti’s port.
Ethiopia’s former Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, who conceptualized the developmental state, proposed building a dam on the Blue Nile, laying the first foundation stone on April 2, 2011. Thus, initiating the construction of a massive hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile that will be the largest in Africa. The GERD will be 175 meters tall, 1,800 meters wide, with a reservoir of 79 billion cubic meters-(BCM), more than twice the size of the Hoover Dam in the US. It will have the potential to generate upwards of 6,200 megawatts (MW) of electricity. Upon completion, Ethiopia will be the largest net exporter of electricity in Africa with transmission lines to its neighbors that include Sudan, South Sudan, and Kenya. Ethiopia will also become second only to South Africa in power generation in SSA, as it strives to achieve its interim goal of producing 15,000 MW. The GERD, self-financed by bonds sold to the Ethiopian people, is not only a source of tremendous pride, but an indispensable component of Ethiopia’s resolve to expand its manufacturing sector and become a “middle income” nation by 2025. A nation must have abundant and accessible electricity in order to power an industrialized economy. With more than 60% of its population deprived of access to electricity, and energy demands growing every year, Ethiopia wisely realized that utilizing the potential hydro-power of the Blue Nile to drive its economic growth was not an option; but a necessity.
Sovereignty Superior to Colonialism
Egypt is accusing Ethiopia of violating the 1959 agreement for utilization of water from the Nile River, which stipulated that 55.5 BCM of waters be allocated to Egypt, 18.5 BCM to Sudan and that no other nation could interfere with the flow of water in the Nile. There is no basis in law or physical topography for Ethiopia to adhere to this agreement for the following reasons:
- The 1959 water agreement is a rewrite of the British imperialist 1929 water treaty, when Egypt was a British colony that governed Sudan under the Anglo-Egyptian Condominium (1899-1956).
- The Blue Nile flowing from Lake Tana in the Ethiopian highlands that joins the White Nile in Khartoum, provides 85% of the Nile water as it travels north through Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea.
- Ethiopia, as an independent nation that was never colonialized, was not a signatory to either water agreement.
- Ethiopia has the sovereign right and obligation to utilize its natural resources, in this case water, to improve the living conditions of its people.
The Nile River, although the longest in the world at 6,650 kilometers, is not the most voluminous. Historically, the Nile was the only water way to cross the Sahara Desert from SSA. Today ten nations in Eastern and Central Africa are part of the Nile Basin with their total population approaching 500 million, whose present and future needs exceed the 84 BCM of Nile water. For development of the Nile Basin, it is urgently required that:
- a new approach to water management for the region, which supersedes the archaic colonial agreement.
- a new system for generating additional water. A crash program to create billions of cubic meters of fresh water through desalination is an obvious solution.
In essence, a “second Nile” must be created. Nuclear energy, utilizing its higher heat source, would be ideal for removing salt through evaporation, and, equally as important, supplying thousands of megawatts of power to energy-starved nations.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Awarded Nobel Peace Prize 2020 (Courtesy of MGN.TV)
Shared Common Interest
The Declaration of Principles, signed in Khartoum on March 23, 2015 by the heads of state of Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia calls for cooperation among the three nations to resolve disputes concerning the GERD among themselves. The report states: “The Three Countries shall cooperate on the basis of sovereign equality, territorial integrity, mutual benefit and good faith in order to attain optimal utilization and adequate protection of the River.”
The shared vision of the Nile Basin should be to promote prosperity for all the nations involved. The common shared interest of the upstream and downstream nations is one and the same: to uplift millions of Africans out of poverty and present the expanding youth population with economic opportunities to obtain a meaningful and productive life that secures a future for their families.
Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shourky warned Ethiopia: “Ethiopia’s moving forward with the operation and filling of the Renaissance Dam is unacceptable and a clear violation of the Declaration of Principles and will have negative consequences for stability in the region.” Within Egypt threats of military action have recently resurfaced, but such unwarranted aggression is highly unlikely, and would be roundly condemned by the international community.
According to Xinhua News, Egypt is looking for the United States to play an “international instrumental role,” a position presently not supported by the US State Department. Egypt’s attempt to bring in an outside party to mediate disputes concerning the Nile waters is in direct violation of the Declaration of Principles.
Exercising its sovereign rights, Ethiopia has already completed 60% of the construction of the GERD, and although there have been delays, it is expected to begin producing electricity by the end of 2020. Egypt has no choice but to accept this reality and continue to engage discussions regarding the management of the Nile. There are substantive legitimate issues respecting the effects of the GERD on Egypt, a downstream nation that is almost totally dependent on Nile water. However, Ethiopia’s sovereignty over the Blue Nile is inviolate. In 2018 the National Independent Scientific Research Group-(NISRG) was established to discuss the filling of the dam’s reservoir. The NISRG consisting of scientists from Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia, has met several times, and has reported to the Minister of Water Affairs of each nation.
How many years will it take to fill the GERD’s reservoir, and what will be the flow rate of the Nile at the Aswan Dam, are yet to be resolved. These are technical matters that scientists and engineers must continue to examine in an atmosphere of good will and good faith. Such cooperation is essential to promote the common interests of all nations for a prosperous Nile Basin.
Lawrence Freeman is a Political-Economic Analyst for Africa with thirty years of experience in Africa promoting infrastructure development policies.