Explained: Why Ethiopia’s dam on River Nile is triggering water conflict in East Africa

Explained: Why Ethiopia’s dam on River Nile is triggering water conflict in East Africa

The long-standing dispute has been a cause of concern for international observers who fear that it may increase conflict between the two nations and spill out into other countries in the Horn of Africa.

The Blue Nile flows downstream towards Sudan as cement trucks sit parked in the foreground at the site of the under-construction Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region of Ethiopia, on Wednesday, May 22, 2019. Photographer: Zacharias Abubeker/Bloomberg

(indianexpress)—Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt agreed on Sunday to resume negotiations to resolve their decade-long complex dispute over the Grand Renaissance Dam hydropower project in the Horn of Africa. The latest round of talks comes six weeks after Sudan had boycotted the ongoing negotiations.

What is the dispute about?

The Nile, Africa’s longest river, has been at the center of a decade-long complex dispute involving several countries that are dependent on the river’s waters. At the forefront of this dispute are Ethiopia and Egypt, with Sudan having found itself dragged into the issue.

Spearheaded by Ethiopia, the 145-meter-tall (475-foot-tall) Grand Renaissance Dam hydropower project, when completed, will be Africa’s largest. The main waterways of the Nile run through Uganda, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt, and its drainage basin runs through several countries in East Africa, including Ethiopia, the portion where this dam is being constructed

The construction of the dam was initiated in 2011 on the Blue Nile tributary of the river that runs across one part of Ethiopia. The Nile is a necessary water source in the region and Egypt has consistently objected to the dam’s construction, saying it will impact water flow.

The long-standing dispute has been a cause of concern for international observers who fear that it may increase conflict between the two nations and spill out into other countries in the Horn of Africa.

Why can the dam cause conflict?

Given the dam’s location on the Blue Nile tributary, it would potentially allow Ethiopia to gain control of the flow of the river’s waters. Egypt lies further downstream and is concerned that Ethiopia’s control over the water could result in lower water levels within its own borders.

When Ethiopia had announced in 2019 that it planned on generating power using two turbines, Egypt had strongly objected. In addition, Egypt proposed a longer timeline for the project over concerns that the water level of the Nile could dramatically drop as the reservoir fills with water in the initial stages.

Construction machinery stands on the side of the dam wall at the site of the under-construction Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region of Ethiopia in 2019. Photographer: Zacharias Abubeker/Bloomberg

Sudan’s location between Egypt up north and Ethiopia down south has caused it to become an inadvertent party to this dispute. But that isn’t all; Sudan too is concerned that if Ethiopia were to gain control over the river, it would affect the water levels Sudan receives.

Why does Ethiopia want this dam?

Ethiopia’s goal is to secure electricity for its population and to sustain and develop its growing manufacturing industry. Addis Ababa anticipates that this dam will generate approximately 6,000 megawatts of electricity when it is completed, that can be distributed for the needs of its population and industries.

Researchers believe that in addition to its domestic requirements, Ethiopia may be hoping to sell surplus electricity to neighbouring nations like Kenya, Sudan, Eritrea and South Sudan, that also suffer from electricity shortages, to generate some revenue.

Construction machinery stands in the center of the dam wall at the site of the under-construction Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in the Benishangul-Gumuz Region of Ethiopia in 2019. Photographer: Zacharias Abubeker/Bloomberg

What is happening now?

The latest round of talks between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt occurred through video conference due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with South Africa observing the proceedings in its role as the current head of the African Union’s rotating council, in addition to other international observers.

Despite previous talks, the point of contention hasn’t changed: Egypt and Sudan are concerned about the filling and the operation of the dam. Ethiopia continues to insist that the dam is required to meet the needs of its population and has said that downstream water supplies will not be adversely affected.

But this has done little to pacify both Egypt and Sudan, with Cairo saying that the dam would cut its water supplies — concerning for a country that depends on the Nile for approximately 97% of its drinking water and irrigation supplies. According to a DW report, Sudan believes that the dam will reduce flooding, but is concerned about the path forward if the negotiations end at a stalemate.