Africa Watch – Dammed

1st March 2022

Ethiopia began producing electricity on Sunday from its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a multi-billion-dollar hydropower plant on the River Nile that neighbours Sudan and Egypt have worried will cause water shortages downstream. After flicking a digital switch to turn on the turbines in the first phase of the project, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sought to assure those countries that his country did not wish to harm their interests. “Ethiopia’s main interest is to bring light to 60% of the population who is suffering in darkness, to save the labour of our mothers who are carrying wood on their backs in order to get energy,” Abiy said.

Abiy’s government says the project is key to its economic development, but Egypt and Sudan depend on the waters of the Nile and have worried it will affect them. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry accused Ethiopia of further violation of a preliminary deal signed between the three nations in 2015, prohibiting any of the parties from taking unilateral actions in the use of the river’s water. The first violations of the initial agreement related to the filling of the dam, the ministry said in a statement on Sunday. There was no immediate comment from Sudan.

Ethiopia, the second-most populous country on the continent, has the second-biggest electricity deficit in Africa according to the World Bank, with about two-thirds of the population of around 110 million lacking a connection to the grid. The project will ultimately cost $5 billion when it is completed and become the biggest hydropower plant in Africa by generating 5,150 MW of electricity, some of which will be exported to neighbouring nations, the government says.

Ethiopia’s insistence on carrying on with the dam project has no doubt complicated the geopolitics of northeastern Africa. Sudan’s silence, in particular, is telling. Despite Sudan potentially benefiting from the project by having access to cheap electricity (a commitment Ethiopia has rhetorically made), it is worried about the impact of GERD on its own dams, particularly its Roseires dam which is just upstream from the Ethiopian border.

This explains why, along with Egypt, it wants assurances on how much water Ethiopia will release downstream once the dam is fully running; and how the three countries will settle any future disputes. Another thing to note is that while the GERD might affect the flow of water downstream, Sudan and Egypt have also not been most prudent at managing the Nile within their countries, a point Addis Ababa is quick to point out.

Sudan’s silence may also not be unconnected with the Ethiopian civil war where it retook the Al Faqsha in December 2020, possibly as a bargaining chip. It has also been suggested that Egypt has been involved in fanning the embers of the Ethiopian civil war by backing the Tigrayan forces as a way of delaying the completion of the dam or going as far as considering a military strike; however, there has been no evidence provided for this.

Generally, the talk of a joint Egypt-Sudan military offensive to stop the dam from operating seems to have taken the backseat, a product of the Biden administration’s preference of diplomacy in stark contrast with Trump’s blanket support for Egyptian intent on the use of force. That does not mean that concerns over the dam’s operational birth have dissipated. This is merely the opening salvo in a series of moves by all sides of this issue.