In 2011, construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), located in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia, began. The dam, whose location and construction are Ethiopian, is controversial in Egypt, which is concerned about reductions the dam may cause to water supply downstream. The GERD’s construction has led to tensions between Ethiopia, Egypt and neighbouring Sudan, with disputes over water supply threatening to delay the dam’s completion. This leads to an important consideration- as water shortages loom around the world, how can countries share water?

85% of the River Nile flows through Ethiopia, while Egypt depends on the Nile for 90% of its water-related needs. The dam project is managed by Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation.

Tensions between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia are, as yet, unresolved, particularly as Ethiopia prepares to begin the operation of two of its sixteen turbines later this year.

Egypt’s reliance on the Nile’s waters is due to water scarcity in the country. A treaty in 1929 granted Egypt and Sudan the rights to most of the Nile’s water and, crucially, granted Egypt the power to veto any projects by upstream countries that would affect Egypt’s share of the Nile. Egypt is reluctant to relinquish its control of the Nile, as the downstream flow of the river will be affected by the dam. Its worries are that the Lake Nasser reservoir, located behind the Egyptian Aswan Dam (itself possessing under half the power capacity of the GERD), will be affected by a diminished water flow, and that this will in turn affect the Nile’s scarce water supply to Egypt – the only primary source of water for Egyptian citizens. Transport on the Nile could also be disturbed if the water level recedes too much and farmers can no longer depend on the Nile for irrigation. Sudan has similar worries about the effects of the dam on its Roseires Dam. 

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All this should be balanced with the benefits of the dam, however. The government of Ethiopia argues that the GERD will boost its economic and energy security, doubling its power capacity and ensuring its status as a competitive East African energy exporter.  Meanwhile, Ethiopia is a landlocked country, with little access to groundwater resources, aquifers or seawater. The risk of famine, caused by climate change and drought, is pervasive, and almost 60% of the population has no access to power, with the small amount available obtained from biomass.

Despite the dam’s benefits, the conflict centres around the fact that Egypt relies on the Nile for a vast majority of its fresh water, which must serve a rapidly expanding population of approximately 100 million. It is largely desert, meaning it imports around half of its food and recycles around 25 billion cubic metres of water every year. Droughts such as those seen in the Nile Basin in the 1970s and 1980s could cause devastating job losses and affect USD$1.8 billion in annual economic production.

A similar scenario befell Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay in the 1970s; the Itaipu Dam project initiated by Brazil and Paraguay on the Paraná River provoked significant resistance from downstream Argentina, which was concerned about its water supply. The solution to the problem came in 1979, with the Acuerdo Tripartito (Tripartite Agreement) signed by all three countries. The treaty established regulated water level changes and agreed environmental protection and water quality initiatives. Compliance monitoring safeguarding measures were also put in place, with information exchange prioritised. 

The continuing disputes concerning the GERD could be resolved by learning lessons from the Itaipu Dam. The conflict between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay demonstrates the need for stable, methodical communication between all parties involved. The implementation of treaties and international law is crucial in avoiding delays to what could be environmentally-beneficial projects, and in preventing an escalation of conflict. 

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