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Is Diplomacy Running Out On Egypt-Ethiopia Dispute Over Nile Dam?

Courtesy of STRATFOR (subscription required), a look at the Grand Renaissance Dam and ongoing regional tensions over the Nile:

A general view of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam near Guba, Ethiopia, on Dec. 26, 2019.

A general view of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam near Guba, Ethiopia, on Dec. 26, 2019.

The filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s reservoir was not initiated by Ethiopian government action, but rather the alignment of the project’s construction timeline and weather patterns. But while this will mitigate the near-term impact on the flow of the Nile Basin river system into Egypt, tensions between Addis Ababa and Cairo will likely again increase when water availability decreases after the rainy season. The concept of Addis Ababa restricting the Nile River flow to fill the dam’s reservoir has become controversial due to Egyptian opposition and failure to reach a negotiated arrangement. But according to Ethiopia’s water minister, recent heavy rains caused its water levels to grow rapidly without the government taking direct action.  

 As water levels continue to rise, the reservoir will eventually surpass an intended spillover section on the unfinished dam and restore the typical seasonal flow of the Nile River, providing little reason to inflate tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia in the near term. Given the current state of construction on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the reservoir was bound to swell far beyond levels it had reached during previous rainy seasons. In past seasons, the unfinished main structure of the dam allowed water to flow over and into the Nile River at a lower level. As this segment of the dam was built up during the first half of this year, the ability of water to pass through became limited to bottom outlets. The reduced outflow has since caused the lake to grow rapidly at the start of the rainy season regardless of the Ethiopian government’s intentions. The planning of the construction process accounted for this and the lake will soon reach the level to which the water will flow over the dam, restoring the volume of water flowing down the Nile River into Sudan and Egypt. 

Egypt and Sudan will still be able to keep water flow at normal levels through the management of their own dams and reservoirs, but it will come at the cost of reduced power production. Several existing dams on the Nile River, particularly the Aswan High Dam in Upper Egypt, will enable downstream countries to temporarily accommodate reductions in river flow. By releasing additional water from their reservoirs and bypassing hydropower turbines (limiting power output), these dams can make up for the volume lost during the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and guarantee seasonal flooding patterns. 

 Ethiopian actions after the current rainy season ends in October will be much more critical in defining a potential Egyptian response. A key question that remains is whether Ethiopia will maintain flows at typical seasonal levels or whether it will restrict the flow of the Nile River. Outstanding issues relating to the long-term management of water flow during droughts or the handling of dispute mechanisms still need to be resolved as well. 

Cairo, however, has largely exhausted all feasible options to counter Ethiopia’s filling of the dam at any stage. This means Egypt will ultimately have no choice but to at least cooperate on technical issues to manage the flow of water between releases at its Aswan High Dam and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. 

  • Bilateral negotiations between Ethiopia and Egypt, including some mediated by the United States, have failed to result in an agreement on a procedure to fill Addis Ababa’s damn or guarantee water flow in times of drought.
  • Since the project was first announced in 2011, Egypt has continuously tried to elicit the help of the African Union, Arab League and United Nations to mediate talks with Ethiopia, but to little avail. 
  • Egypt will also try to strengthen its diplomatic standing with Ethiopia’s neighbors, such as Somaliland and Eritrea, though such moves have failed to change Addis Ababa’s behavior in the past and are unlikely to do so now.
  • Cairo is unlikely to resort to military action as well, especially given the current situation in neighboring Libya, where the Turkish-supported Government of National Accord is preparing for an offensive that could provoke an Egyptian military intervention.

This entry was posted on Saturday, July 18th, 2020 at 7:44 am and is filed under Egypt, Ethiopia, Nile, Sudan.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. 

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