The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile River which is 66% completed. 

In June 2010 shortly after the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in Ethiopia was proposed, Egypt was reported to have considered bombing it. “If it comes to a crisis, we [Egypt] will send a jet to bomb the dam and come back in one day, simple as that. Or we can send our special forces in to block/sabotage the dam.” With Egyptian air superiority, financed by US military aid, Ethiopia’s puny air force would have no change of thwarting such an action. Fortunately, even though Ethiopia has continued construction of the dam, Egypt backtracks on this idea and has been in continual negotiations with Ethiopia over the dam. What’s the story behind this?


The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, when finished, will be the largest dam in Africa and the seventh largest in the world. Its rated capacity is a 6450 MW, more than Ethiopia total current capacity of 4300 MW (2018). The proposal is that the excess electricity will be sold to Egypt and Sudan, partly in order to cover the expected $4 billion cost of the dam. The downside to this is that expensive transmission lines would need to be built to carry the electricity.


Why does Egypt object? The problem is that the dam is being built on the Blue Nile River and 85% of the Nile River water that flows to Egypt comes from the Ethiopian Blue Nile River. Egypt is afraid that this dam will seriously reduce the amount of water that it receives from the Nile River which accounts for 98% of the water used in the country. In particular Egypt is worried about the five to fifteen years it will take to fill the lake behind the GERD dam. 


In 1929 Britain ruled Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. They made a Nile River agreement that gave 85% of the Nile’s water to Egypt and 15% to Sudan with absolutely nothing for the other up steam countries. The then weak Ethiopian government where most of the water came from wasn’t even consulted. Here is a section of the agreement as reported by Wikipedia:

May 7, 1929 – The Agreement between Egypt and Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. This agreement included:

    • Egypt and Sudan utilize 48 and 4 billion cubic meters of the Nile flow per year, respectively;
    • The flow of the Nile during January 20 to July 15 (dry season) would be reserved for Egypt;
    • Egypt reserves the right to monitor the Nile flow in the upstream countries;
    • Egypt assumed the right to undertake Nile river related projects without the consent of upper riparian states.
    • Egypt assumed the right to veto any construction projects that would affect her interests adversely.

In effect, this agreement gave Egypt complete control over the Nile during the dry season when water is most needed for agricultural irrigation. It also severely limits the amount of water allotted Sudan and provides no water to any of the other riparian states.


While there have been ongoing negotiations on this agreement over the years, Egypt hasn’t been willing to give up an inch, I mean, a gallon. Since the rain was falling on their country, Ethiopia just ignored the agreement which they had never agreed to; they felt they had the right to use that water.


In another aspect, I am not sympathetic to Egypt. They waste the water. Unlike nearby Israel that uses every drop of water including recycling waste water, Egypt misuses the water it does have. For example they grow paddy rice which is one of the most water intensive crops in the world because fields are just flooded with water – no drip irrigation here. With a 2018 fertility rate of 3.41 children per child bearing woman, Egypt’s population is going to increase considerably over the coming decades. Since it is already a water stressed country, the situation is only going to become worse. While this is obvious to Egyptians and they are trying to address the problem, it is nowhere near what will be needed. Their stance on continuing to receive most of the water of the Nile River is part of their survival strategy.


Egypt and Ethiopia have been in continuous negotiations on the dam, particularly in the years needed to fill the lake behind the dam. The first two turbines totaling 750 MW are supposed to begin producing electricity next year. The dam is slated to be completed in 2022.


This is one of those tricky problems in the world. My own opinion is two-fold: (1) Egypt should work at conserving the water it does receive from the Nile River and (2) Ethiopia should refrain from building large dams like this. There are additional dam sites on the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia that it could dam. Ethiopia has substantial geothermal electricity generation potential and Kenya is now going to advise Ethiopia on this development. Moreover many smaller but numerous wind, solar, and battery storage projects could be developed more quickly and economically than mega-dams. I have no doubt that Ethiopia, having put so many resources and prestige into the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (notice the grandiose name for the dam), will not back out at this late stage. How Egypt will respond as the lake fills is still an open question. 



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