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Row over Africa’s largest dam in danger of escalating, warn scientists

Ethiopia wants to start filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam this summer. Egypt calls it an ‘existential threat’.

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A radio operator at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam is two-thirds built and designed to supply electric power to rural areas.Credit: Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty

Researchers are warning that Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan need to move faster to resolve a long-running dispute over the building of Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam.

Seasonal rains are starting to fill the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, set to become Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant, on the Blue Nile river. Two-thirds of the dam has been built.

Ongoing talks between the three countries hosted by South Africa's president Cyril Ramaphosa, on behalf of the African Union (AU), ended without agreement on 13 July. According to hydrologists and political scientists, already strained relations between the riparian neighbours could worsen if a deal isn't quickly reached.

Egypt’s government, which has opposed the project since it began in 2011, calls the dam an ‘existential threat’. It is concerned the dam will reduce the nation’s water supplies, which come almost entirely from the Nile, particularly during times of drought.

Ethiopia, by contrast, calls the dam an ‘existential necessity’. Its citizens — whose taxes mostly paid for the dam’s nearly US$5-billion price tag — are anticipating electric power, a boost for industry and new jobs. The World Bank estimates that nearly half the country’s population lacks access to electricity.

Since discussions last autumn that failed to produce a deal, the three nations have resolved some key issues, including the volume of water and time needed to complete the fill. But there is still an impasse over what would happen in the event of a drought, as well as some other technical and legal issues.

On 15 July, Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s minister of water and irrigation, is reported to have said on state television that the dam's construction and filling its reservoir go hand in hand. "The filling of the dam doesn’t need to wait until the completion of the dam,” he added. This was widely interpreted to mean Ethiopia has begun filling the dam. But the government later clarified that the flow of water into the reservoir was because of heavy rainfall and runoff.

Earlier, Mohamed Fouad, a member of the Egyptian parliament, told Nature that if Ethiopia needs electric power, then involving a third party, such as the World Bank, in financing Ethiopian power stations could help to break the stalemate.

Egypt’s water minister Mohamed Abdel Aty has proposed that Egypt could potentially share electricity with Ethiopia, similar to its arrangements with other countries such as Sudan. Such a proposal would mean that Ethiopia has access to energy and so could slow the filling of the dam until the nations reach an agreement, Fouad says. “One nation’s need for electricity is pinned to another nation’s need for water.”

Map showing the Nile and the location of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

Summer filling

From the Ethiopian government’s perspective, if it misses the summer window, the country would have to wait another year to start filling. There is also pressure on each government to not be perceived as giving into the other, says Ashok Swain, who studies peace and conflict research at Uppsala University in Sweden.

The AU stepped in after earlier talks brokered by the United States and the United Nations failed to achieve an overall agreement. But there has been progress on key technical disagreements. Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have now effectively agreed on the volume of water and time needed to complete the fill. After an initial 2 years of filling, the dam’s reservoir would reach 18 billion cubic metres (b.c.m.). After that, Ethiopia would retain around 10 b.c.m. each year to operate electric power from the dam if conditions are normal to wet, researchers familiar with the talks have told Nature.

In the case of a drought year, the filling period would extend to seven years. However, both sides have yet to agree on what to do in this case — one of the sticking points in the current negotiations.

According to Kevin Wheeler at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, UK, there is no single standard definition of ‘drought’. But the countries have agreed that when the flow of Nile water to the dam falls below 35 to 40 b.c.m. per year, that would constitute a drought. In such an event, Egypt and Sudan want Ethiopia to release some of the water stored in the dam’s reservoir.

Representatives of both countries say this would still allow Ethiopia to continue generating electricity. But Ethiopia prefers having the flexibility to decide how much water to release during drought conditions, because more water equates to more power per unit of water. The country also wants to reduce the risk of running the dam’s reservoir to low levels.

Law in action

The agreement’s legal status and how disputes will be resolved are other impasses.

Egypt wants any final agreement to have the status of an international treaty. It also wants a third party, such as the AU or the UN, to resolve any disputes. Ethiopia prefers disagreements to be settled between the riparian states, with no foreign parties involved.

Egypt and Ethiopia do not have a formal water-sharing agreement. Under the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement between Egypt and Sudan, Egypt takes 55.5 b.c.m. of water from the Nile each year, and Sudan takes 18.5 b.c.m.. That agreement was reached shortly before Egypt began constructing its own mega dam, the Aswan High Dam. Ethiopia, however, was not part of this agreement and therefore does not recognize it.

Swain says that the countries might decide to sign a short-term agreement, perhaps lasting a year, if they are unable to agree on all outstanding issues.

“There have been several examples of one-year agreements in these kinds of treaties, like the 1975 one of India and Bangladesh on the Ganges,” he says. “The two countries couldn’t agree how to operate, so they started with one year first and then extended to 3, 5 and then 30 years, which I think could be the case [here] as it will buy both sides some time.”

He says a military confrontation is unlikely, but that goodwill between the countries is in short supply.

Nature 583, 501-502 (2020)

Updates & Corrections

  • Update 21 July 2020: This story was updated after reports emerged that rising waters in the dam’s reservoir were due to rain water, and not due to Ethiopia filling the dam, as first reported.

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