The UN must mediate a deal between Egypt and Ethiopia over Blue Nile Dam
By Maya Garner
At U.S. urging, the Egyptian government has agreed to resume talks with Ethiopia in their ongoing dispute about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile.
Over the past several years, talks involving Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, the three countries directly affected by its construction, have failed to resolve differences about the controversial dam project. However, following a Washington D.C. meeting, the parties in question have now agreed to four more rounds of talks with the U.S. and the World Bank also participating. The talks were scheduled to get underway mid-January.
Given this undertaking, it behoves the United Nations on behalf of the international community to do its utmost to help mediate a successful settlement for sake of the region or to have a contingency plan in place lest negotiations stall.
GERD a $5 billion hydropower project on the Blue Nile of Ethiopia, began construction in 2011. From the outset, the project has been a source of friction between the governments of Egypt and Ethiopia. Egypt has raised its alarm at the prospect of its Nile water resources being depleted and views the dam’s upriver construction as an existential threat. Concerns raised by Cairo include the possibilities of temporary reductions in water flow and availability as well as permanent reductions, including the threat to Egypt’s own Aswan dam’s power generation capacity. Since the exact effects of the dam construction have yet to be ascertained, minimizing its negative impact requires close coordination between the countries involved. Tensions over GERD have been rising rapidly since Ethiopia is expected to begin filling the water reservoirs in 2021.
Ethiopia views GERD as essential to the country’s development. With an estimated capacity of over 6,000 megawatts once started, the dam is expected to play a major role in Ethiopia becoming Africa’s biggest exporter of hydro-power. Despite the associated disputes and complications, Ethiopia has pledged to continue and complete the controversial project.
Most of Egypt’s fresh water supplies are drawn from the Nile. Historically, Nile water fluctuations and periodic water scarcity have been of vital concern to the nation’s wellbeing and the welfare of its people. Those concerns have become more acute in light of the likely effects of climate change. Water scarcity is defined as a supply of less than 1,000 cubic meters per person per year. As of now, according to the Egyptian government, the country has a supply of approximately 570 cubic meters per person per year, but this is expected to drop to 500 cubic meters by 2025. This estimate does not factor in the potential impact of the new dam once it comes online after construction of the GERD is completed.
Egyptian hydropower could be affected by anywhere between 25-40%, which, given the country’s limited reliance on hydropower, could mean an overall reduction of just under 3% in Egypt’s electricity generating capacity. Storage capacity in Ethiopia might lead to permanent reductions in Lake Nasser’s water levels, which, in turn, could minimize annual evaporation rates (currently, 10 billion cubic meters annually). On the plus side, storage in Ethiopia could serve as a fall-back resource in the event of droughts and water shortages in Sudan and Egypt, but this requires a political deal between the countries. Additionally, silt retention by the new GERD dam would be of benefit to several Sudanese dams as well as Egypt’s Aswan dam and help prolong their functionality. GERD could also help reduce flooding in areas adjacent to Sudan’s Roseires dam.
As indicated, the Egyptian government’s concerns are real and legitimate. In the circumstances, the reason for the protracted dispute appears to be inherently political indicating that a successful resolution is dependent on political developments and a commitment to negotiations over the coming year.
Egypt and Ethiopia are powerful countries with large populations, and if a settlement is not achieved, the dispute poses a significant threat to peace and stability in the region. The Ethiopian government has accused Egypt of perpetuating colonial interests in terms of control over the Nile. The Ethiopian government has denied stalling three-way talks and instead claims it is the Egyptian government that is avoiding negotiations. Recently, Ethiopia rejected a proposal by Egypt calling for a flexible approach to reservoir-filling and an assurance of a guaranteed annual flow of 40 billion cubic meters. The two governments have flagged their concerns about what they perceive to be a widening gap between them. Egypt had proposed that the World Bank or the European Union serve as mediators along with the United States, which is currently set to host the mediation talks.
The significance of the dispute, its potential effects on the region and on the disputant’s respective populations, makes it imperative that the international community seek to mediate a deal between the countries. The matter is complicated by the legacy of British colonial rule, which arbitrarily allocated water resources and claims to the Nile in the service of its own imperial interests at the time. That deal, brokered in 1929, granted Egypt a veto over any construction projects that might affect the flow of the Nile, and was subsequently reaffirmed in 1959. The allocation of water favored Egypt, as well as the Sudan. Both countries were given rights to annual supplies of billions of cubic meters of water, prioritising their needs over other countries drawing on Nile waters. Over time, the favourable allocations have proved disproportionate to population growth, with estimates showing how by 2050 the respective populations of Egypt and Sudan will be far less than some of the other countries that rely on the Nile. Whatever settlement is arrived at must first unravel the inequities of this colonial legacy if progress is to be assured.
As the next series of trilateral talks hosted in Washington D.C. gets underway, the UN must throw its weight behind measures to preserve stability in the region and diffuse political tensions. In so doing, all involved in the process should keep in mind that in line with the UN 2030 Sustainability Agenda, the new dam can be key in helping achieve a sustainable future in a region that is all too vulnerable to climate change and water scarcity. As talks resume, the UN can play its part as an international mediator to ensure a fair and sustainable deal between the countries involved. Time is running out and, unlike the water levels, the stakes are rising.