Since construction began in 2011, Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has been a source of regional tension between the East African nation and its northern neighbors, Egypt and Sudan. Although a trilateral agreement was made in 2015 regarding the dam, Ethiopia’s announcement last month, that the three year process of filling the dam with water was complete, has caused Egypt to claim that the agreement was violated. The International Security Council has warned there is a notable risk of crisis escalation, as Ethiopia and Egypt have begun to appeal to the UN Security Council to weigh in on the issue. Egypt and Sudan have previously conducted military exercises in response to tensions in 2021, and cooperation for a military intervention remains a possibility. But, with so much regional concern about the project’s completion, why did Ethiopia decide to move forward with the plan in the first place?

The GERD is a massive project for Ethiopia from a financial perspective, costing just under 4 billion euros. This cost may be worth the benefits to Ethiopia though, as the electricity output from the project’s operation would more than double Ethiopia’s total output. This is a necessity for Ethiopia as a whole, which currently depends on electricity imports to supply power to its citizens.  The GERD is in fact the largest in a network of projects spanning the entire country. Being constructed over the past 11 years, with further constructions planned up to 2025, the projects alongside the flagship GERD are predicted to provide the necessary electricity to meet Ethiopia’s rising consumer demand. While the smaller projects in this wave of development have been completed without issue, the GERD specifically threatens Egyptian water security.

What makes the GERD a problem for Egypt is its location. The project was built on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile River, which makes up about 80 percent of the Nile’s water flow. The Nile River and its water flow are of grave importance to Egypt, as a stunning 97 percent of the nation’s population relies on its water to live. 

Allowing Ethiopia unrestricted control over the flow of their only water supply is a dealbreaker for Egypt, despite Ethiopia’s promise to use the dam solely for electricity generation and not as geopolitical leverage. According to Cairo, even allowing Ethiopia to prioritize electricity output over potential impacts on water flow could cause significant devastation across Egypt. This has led Cairo to insist on international regulation concerning how Ethiopia manages the GERD, something Ethiopia is not enthusiastic about accepting, for fear that its major investment into the dam will have been wasted.

Further claims made by Egyptian ministers indicate that if even two percent of water flow is lost, over 200,000 acres of land used to feed Egypt’s population could stop being arable. On top of this, climate change is already diminishing access to water along the Nile, which UNICEF says could cause the nation to run out of water by 2025. If the GERD exacerbates this issue, Egypt would be heading for a humanitarian disaster it is not prepared to handle. Both Egypt and Ethiopia have agreed to continue negotiations about the future of the GERD, though no solution has been reached so far, with a variety of actors intervening to influence the outcome.

Firstly, Egypt is pushing for regulations, appealing to the United Nations, and attempting to use its contacts in the Arab League to pressure Ethiopia to agree to Egyptian proposals. The government has claimed that Ethiopia is not agreeing to compromise plans or internationally supported technical arrangements as solutions for the fate of the dam. Egypt was mainly supported by Sudan in this dispute, but Sudanese instability has prompted the interim Sudanese government to give Ethiopia its approval regarding the dam operation. 

On the other side of the debate, Ethiopia has justified its actions as necessary to jumpstart electricity production from the GERD, and sees no reason to change the agreements reached in 2015. Although the government has claimed it will continue negotiations in good faith, little progress is being made due to Ethiopian hesitation to make major revisions to previous agreements.

Interestingly, due to the legal ambiguity of the dispute, negotiations have seen both nations appeal to international organizations to garner support for their side of the debate, resulting in an unexpected mediating force: BRICS. The five-nation group has agreed to grant membership to both Egypt and Ethiopia, bringing the dispute within the organization’s jurisdiction. China especially hopes to see negotiations go smoothly due to its investment in both Egyptian and Ethiopian development, which could be hampered if the dam is limited by Egypt, or if Ethiopia threatens water security in Egypt. Further rounds of negotiations could be handled with mediation from BRICS as a bloc, or even from China alone.

Negotiations regarding the dispute are set to continue through the coming months, and while publicly both sides are willing to find a solution acceptable to everyone, the dispute will continue to be a possible flashpoint for humanitarian issues and potential conflict within Northeast Africa. Regardless of the outcome, the conflict serves as a stark reminder of the increasing water security concerns presenting themselves throughout Africa and the Middle East, which will be important issues to follow in the coming years.

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