On 5 July 2021, Ethiopia informed Egypt and Sudan that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia is undergoing its second filling. Cairo once again took the matter to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC discussed the matter on 9 July, under ‘threat to peace and security.’ It did not approve the Tunisia-led resolution asking for Ethiopia to desist from unilateral actions regarding the GERD. The UNSC has cautioned parties to maintain peace and continue negotiations, including technical discussions to arrive at a solution. It supports the African Union (AU) led negotiation process.
Located in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region of Ethiopia, the construction of this giant hydropower dam on the Blue Nile began in 2011, to be completed in 2022. With a generating capacity of 6.45 GW, it will be the seventh-largest globally and the biggest in Africa.
The White Nile rises in the Great Lakes of East and Central Africa. The Blue and shorter Nile rises in Lake Tana in the Amhara region of Ethiopia and flows to Khartoum. This is a rare river that runs northwards from Khartoum and is harnessed by Egypt through the gigantic Aswan Dam project.
Ethiopia had never previously tapped the Nile’s resources. Sudan has the Al-Ruṣayriṣ and Sannār dams on it. Egypt’s economy is dependent on the Nile River.
Egypt opposed the GERD as it saw its share of the waters reducing. Till the GERD idea, Nile waters flowed unhindered through Sudan to Lake Nasser. Ethiopia believes there will be no impact on annual flows to Egypt.
Mutual suspicion between the two populous neighbours has been at the root of the problem. Though differences have narrowed, the issue is awaiting resolution. The GERD contract for $4.8 billion was awarded to Salini of Italy (now Webuild). The German company Voith Hydro, will install the turbines along with the American company General Electric and the French company Alstom.
Ethiopia has committed nearly 5% of its GDP to GERD and hence does not want a delay in its completion. Itsdomestic fundraising contributed $3 billion while China provided $1.8 billion for linked works. The GERD is an opportunity for Ethiopia to develop its power infrastructure, as 65% of people are not connected to the power grid. It can become a power exporter as well as expand agriculture for its own development.
However, the politics impede. Ethiopia listens to everybody but consults none. It participates in all meetings called by the UN, AU, World Bank, on the issue, but does what it believes to be right. It has continued to build the dam and now has had its second filling. The filling is based on the larger flows of the Blue Nile in the rainy season, which the reservoir captures, if Ethiopia does not open the sluice gates. Ethiopian sources say that they are proceeding as per the plans shared with Egypt and Sudan. At meetings, Ethiopia is always represented by its Water Resources minister while Egypt and Sudan invariably field their foreign ministers. Ethiopia projects the issue as one of water resources and not of security – unlike the latter two countries.
Egypt first took the matter to the UNSC in June 2020, but that lost steam because the AU chair, South Africa, initiated a dialogue among the 5-member bureau of the AU, the three parties and invitees, including the US and the EU. This process has not been fruitful and meanders along, much like the Nile.
Since then, the situation has altered. The AU chair has passed to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). President Tshisekedi of the DRC visited all three contending capitals in May 2021, but Ethiopia lacks confidence in the DRC as Chair. Moreover, the League of Arab States, of which Egypt and Sudan are both members, has adopted a harder line which makes it difficult for the position of the League and the AU to coalesce. Ethiopia prefers the AU process, because it can better control the narrative of the Addis Ababa-headquartered organisation.
And there are now consequences of the Tigray conflict. With the start of the civil war in Tigray in November 2020, Sudan acquired a new role. Previously, Sudan played the middle between Egypt and Ethiopia on the GERD. With the Tigray conflict, Sudan directly and Egypt quietly started to play a forward role. There is suspicion that Egypt, through Sudan, has been providing succour to the Tigray Peoples Liberation Front (TPLF). The cost of the conflict, estimated at $2.5 billion, has dented the Ethiopian economy.
Sudan took the opportunity to reclaim al-Fashaga lands on the border, which were occupied by Ethiopian farmers under military protection. Consequently, Sudan retains the area from where a humanitarian corridor can be opened into Tigray since Ethiopia has blocked southern routes into Tigray. Ethiopia resists this.
Now both Egypt and Sudan are united in asking Ethiopia to agree to a legally binding agreement on water flows, not mere guidelines. They seek clarity on how disputes will be resolved in the future. The tension has increased as they see the balance of power in the region shifting due to the Tigray war and the degrading of Ethiopian forces. The efforts to reduce it to a technical negotiation have now slowed. It is again a political and strategic pressure point on Ethiopia.
Ethiopia rekindles focus on the GERD to raise national consciousness which is dented by the Tigray civil war and the incomplete impact of the recent elections. The GERD is the main symbol of Ethiopian pride now – though ironically, it is the brainchild and effort of the previous leadership that the current regime disowns.
Gurjit Singh is Former Ambassador of India to Germany, Current Chair of the CII Task Force on Asia-Africa Growth Corridor and Professor at the IIT, Indore.
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