Since the commencement of construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in April 2012, voices are heard from downstream countries particularly from Egypt citing the project as a source of water insecurity to their country. Mixed voices are also heard from Sudan outlining benefits and adverse impacts. In recent years, as the construction registered discernible progress, the intensity of the voices and the diplomatic maneuvering is intensifying catering even out of basin nations such as the Arab League. From Egypt, just like we heard it during the times of presidents Sadat and Mursi, we are used to hearing from various outlets about the bragging on the military option. We are also witnessing joint military exercise with the Sudan including the buzz phrase ‘all options are open’.
Does Egypt face a real threat due to GERD or is it only for domestic political consumption that they are using these exercises and cliché phrases? What are their substantive reasons to threaten Ethiopia? Do Egypt and Sudan have enough wherewithals to leverage neighbors outside the basin?
In order to arrive at a clear understanding, one has to take into account technical, political, economic and geostrategic considerations of the basin and beyond. While this approach calls for a multidisciplinary analysis involving specialists from specific fields of specialization, it is however possible to highlight the facts starting from the technical and at least tangentially touching the economic, political and geostrategic issues.
For millennia, Nile has been the source of civilization in the basin. Lower riparian countries of the Nile; Egypt & Sudan; have been almost exclusively using the waters of the Nile for both consumptive and non-consumptive purposes. As the reader may be aware, consumptive use as its name indicates is for consumption such as drinking, irrigation and industrial use. The non-consumptive use involves navigation, hydroelectric power generation, recreational attraction and tourism.
By leaving a relatively small share to the Sudan, Egypt’s hegemony on the Nile is always pervasive even when it was colonized by every rising powerful empire in history. Presently, to legitimize its monopolistic water use, Egypt hinges its arguments on two agreements: 1929 and 1959. The architect of the 1929 Nile water agreement is colonial master Great Britain while all upper riparian countries (Ethiopia being the exception) were under its occupation. On the other hand, the 1959 agreement is a bilateral agreement between Sudan and Egypt allocating the lion’s share (55.5bm3) to Egypt, 18.5bm3 to the Sudan, 10bm3 for evaporation and none to the upper riparian countries. Ethiopia, the contributor of 86% of the Nile flow, was not a signatory to these legally farcical and lopsided agreements.
In recent years, upper riparian countries particularly Ethiopia has been pushing forward for the equitable utilization of the Nile. The explosive population growth, the need to attract investment and create jobs, the pervasive poverty, the urgent need to connect tens of millions to the national electric grid are few among the driving forces. Riparian countries of the basin have been negotiating and identifying common projects through the Nile Basin Initiative. Despite of its good intentions, the Initiative could not move fast forward mainly due to the resistance and delaying tactics of lower riparian countries. Under the prevailing circumstances, Ethiopia has gone its own ways of water based development emphasizing on hydropower projects.
The hydraulics of hydropower
In simple technical expression, a hydroelectric power plant consists of water from a higher ground with potential energy is guided to flow with speed thereby changing into kinetic energy. The flowing water (kinetic energy) rotates the turbines which in turn underpin the interconnected generating sets to produce electrical energy. Once the water turns the turbines, it flows out and follows its course downstream.
A layman to the field of engineering may ask why storing water in a big dam like GERD when the process is as simplified as described here above. The answer to the question is as simple as understanding the natural water cycle of water. The distribution of rainfall and the subsequent runoff that flows into rivers is both temporally and spatially erratic. In Ethiopia, heavy rains shower for three months and the rest of the year is dry and windy with only the base flow from the streams.
In order to have a dependable power generation, the flow of the water has to be predictable and remain regulated. One and the only option to do so is to temporarily store the excess water in the rainy season for use during the water deficient dry season. Practically therefore, constructing a dam for water storage comes to being and the stored water is directed to flow downstream via the power house. From this simplified expression, one can arrive at the conclusion that GERD is nothing more than a temporary detention tank; a typical non-consumptive use of water.
Benefits and possible ill-effects
The direct and indirect benefits of GERD to Ethiopia are quite enormous to enumerate. For anyone who cares to objectively observe and evaluate, the benefits that GERD avails to Sudan and Egypt are strikingly remarkable. The regulated flow of the Blue Nile saves Sudanese families from displacement, loss of life, outbreak of diseases from receding floods and crop devastation just like it is happening right this time. GERD relieve Dams in both Egypt and Sudan from the overwhelming silt load that critically shortens the life span and water storage capacity of their dams. Another advantage is related to increments in water volume. Storing water in the deep gorges of Ethiopia reduces the otherwise large evaporation loss in the desert at the expanse Lake Nasir in Egypt in leaps and bounds. Securing Green energy through grid connection of the three countries is the other windfall the two countries can sources from Ethiopia.
Without resorting to other benefits, the reader is kindly requested to evaluate the mentioned benefits lower riparian countries are going to acquire without investing a coin on GERD. Regrettably, Sudan and Egypt are spoilers of the project’s stride than being grateful to Ethiopia. The occurrence of severe drought years, environmental management issues, water security and the like are mentioned by Egypt albeit the Sudanese position is precariously changing every time and more often than not contradictory. From technical, social, environmental and economic point of view, Sudan followed by Egypt are more benefited by the project than being adversely affected. Arguments by both countries on the adverse impacts of the project are far more dwarfed by the benefits. One can conclusively state that both countries especially Egypt is a hostage of its own manufactured fears when no drop of consumptive use of Nile water by Ethiopia is possible due to the construction of GERD.
The real cause of dispute
From a geostrategic perspective, a rising and assertive Ethiopia may have an adverse impact to Egypt’s diplomatic clout in North-East Africa and the Middle East. It is an established fact that Egypt has a double faced diplomacy on the waters of the Nile: too aggressive on upper riparian countries and too generous to non-riparian neighbors. Egypt threatens upper riparian countries not to use water and promises to deliver water out of the basin to the Middle East and North Africa. Buying the support of its neighbors using Nile Waters as a connecting rod may not be feasible in the distant future as Ethiopia and other upper riparian of the Nile pursue for equitable utilization. Another factor is the domestic political backlash on being ‘soft’ on Ethiopia.
In conclusion, Egypt and Sudan will benefit from GERD in multiple ways without investing even a coin and the ill-effects are not that significant to ignite the too vocal voices. Why they are opposed to the project is anchored on the perception to lose geostrategic leverage and for domestic political consumption purposes.
Alemayehu Gessesse is a Practicing Civil Engineer from Ethiopia. He writes on civil engineering projects, hydro politics of the Nile and seldom in geopolitics of the Horn of Africa. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.