In April 2011, Ethiopia announced its intention to proceed with the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of the country about 30km from Ethiopia’s border with Sudan. The main purpose of the dam is to generate electricity, with an expected capacity of 6,000 MW.
Egypt and Ethiopia have yet to reach an agreement on the specifications of the dam, the rules for filling its reservoir, the rates at which the stored water will be used for energy production or irrigation, and how to manage the operations of the dam and the amounts of water it releases in coordination with downriver dams. Nevertheless, Ethiopia has announced that the dam will go into operation at full capacity in 2022, making it the largest energy producer in Africa.
Egypt, with available water resources of 610 m3 per capita as of 2019, is among the countries that fall below the water poverty line that the UN has estimated at 1,000 m3 per capita. Egypt also suffers from a large food-production deficiency, forcing it to import about 55 per cent of its current food needs. This figure is expected to climb to 75 per cent after the GERD is complete because of the huge quantity of water held back during the filling of the reservoir, which has an estimated capacity of 74 billion m3 of water.
Ethiopia has said that it plans to fill the dam in only three years. That would cut 25 to 33 billion m3 from Egypt’s annual quota of Nile water which, in turn, would yield a five to six billion acre loss in cultivable land given Egypt’s climatic conditions and the current average of 5,000 m3 of water that the Ministry of Agriculture allots per acre of agricultural land. Even if the filling period of the dam were doubled to six years, that would result in a 12 to 17 billion m3 reduction in the amount of water that reaches Egypt. That too would be difficult for Egypt to sustain, as it would put about 1.5 acres of land out of cultivation.
Egypt is expected to fall even further below the UN water poverty line due to population growth on top of the reduction in the flow of Nile water to the country after the construction of the GERD. By 2022, the per capita quota will decline to 409 m3, bringing Egypt to the point of water paucity. If Egypt is to lose quantities of water equivalent to the GERD’s reservoir capacity due to the filling of the dam, which could come to 67 billion m3 at full capacity, then it needs to know about both the quantity and the timing in advance so that it can take the appropriate precautions in order to avert a severe water crisis when the dam first goes into operation.
Hydrology experts are also worried by the mere size of the GERD’s reservoir, which is situated in an earthquake zone. They warn of catastrophic damage to Sudan and Egypt in the event of seismic movement and the effect of the enormous weight of water and silt behind the dam.
Egypt wants the initial filling period of the reservoir to be spread out over ten years with allowances made for years of drought. Addis Ababa had initially insisted on three years, and Egypt then proposed to increase these to five. However, more recently, a new impasse reared its head when Ethiopia refused to sign a draft agreement prepared by the US acting as an intermediary in the negotiations on the dam.
Some analysts believe that a dam with such a huge reservoir capacity is not in Ethiopia’s interests and that its purpose is primarily political and serves the interests of outside powers. They say a series of smaller dams would better serve Ethiopia’s energy and agricultural needs. Smaller dams would cover a wider area more efficiently and cost-effectively, make it possible to optimise the use of the high levels of rainfall on the Ethiopian Plateau, and increase the quantities of stored water. The experts also believe that mega-dams are not suited to the geological circumstances of the GERD due to tremors, the nature of the subterranean bedrock, and other environmental factors.
It is hoped Nile Basin countries will realise before it is too late that regional cooperation is a safer, more cost-effective, and more peaceful way to realise their sustainable development goals than unilaterally pursuing mega-projects that threaten their neighbours’ welfare.
The writer is an associate professor of economics at Cairo University.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly