Three Countries’ Livelihoods, a Dam, and the Nile River

Photo by Ondřej Žváček. ©

At the moment, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is close to completion and is starting to fill. However, its placement on the Blue Nile—the largest Nile tributary—poses a turning point for Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. With all three states depending on the Blue Nile’s flow, infrastructure developments upstream could re-envision the daily lives of Ethiopians, the Sudanese, and Egyptians.   

Historically, Egypt and Sudan have had a near-monopoly on the water resources of the Nile River and its tributaries despite being downstream. Most controversially, the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty and its modification in 1959 gave Egypt veto power of upstream dam projects. These agreements guaranteed Egypt and Sudan a fixed amount of water flow down the river’s tributaries.  

Critically, Egypt retains that these agreements are still valid. However, Ethiopia and other upstream countries reject the agreements and have proposed an alternative Cooperative Framework Agreement. Additionally, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia currently disagree on a time-table for filling the dam, dispute resolution mechanisms, and how water levels will be managed in times of drought. In short, states on either side of the Nile flow are at a political stalemate and possess fundamentally different vision’s of the region’s future. 

Regardless of these power plays, the people of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt face the real consequences of these deliberations. Particularly, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has the potential to reshape Ethiopian livelihoods for the better. For this reason, Ethiopians have a stake in seeing the dam built as soon as possible. On the other hand, Egypt and Sudan are dependent on the Nile. Fluctuations of flow could have negative impacts on infrastructure, agricultural production, and water supply downstream. 

Both sides of the conflict face the dilemma of sustaining growing populations. Although politicians may reduce the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam to a political power play, the dam poses real implications for communities along the Nile and its tributaries. Water rights, agricultural production, and development are at stake. Rather than heavily focus on the complex geopolitical issues facing this crisis, this article seeks to highlight the potential humanitarian implications of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and its associated conflicts. 

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Photo by शीतल सिन्हा. ©

The Ethiopian Perspective

For the dam project, the Ethiopian government has spent a total of $4.5 billion on the project. The government sourced 80% of its funding from taxes and 20% from bonds. Thus, the project is entirely self-funded in one way or another by Ethiopians.

Most importantly, if this investment succeeds, the dam would radically alter Ethiopia’s economic and social development. The dam will produce a 74 billion cubic meter water reservoir. In terms of raw energy, the dam will produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity at its expected capacity. In addition, by reducing the water content of other dams, the Renaissance Dam will conserve approximately six billion cubic meters of water.

At the moment, Ethiopia suffers from an energy crisis: more than 60 percent of its citizens have little access to the main electric grid, and the other 40 percent experience intermittent blackouts. Once fully operational, the Renaissance Dam would more than double Ethiopia’s energy production, and the dam would expand electrical access to all citizens and stabilize its main electric grid. Overall, reports project that 65 million Ethiopians will see stabilized, accessible electrical access. Furthermore, the dam will produce an excess amount of electricity that could be exported to neighboring countries. Thus, the dam will significantly extend socioeconomic opportunity across Ethiopia and transform its regional position. 

Other sectors are expected to see growth from the dam too. Ethiopian manufacturing is expected to experience growth because of greater electrical access. Additionally, the dam will probably expand the region’s irrigational and agricultural capabilities while reducing flooding in Sudan. 

Thus, it is no surprise that the dam is a plank of national pride amongst Ethiopians. Historically, Ethiopia has struggled with violence between ethnic groups, and as of now, Ethiopia is experiencing a civil war motivated by ethnic violence. Thus, the Renaissance Dam is a rare political issue that all Ethiopians support; it may be key in future years to alleviate sectional ethnic tensions and inequalities. Even Ethiopian opposition parties support the dam, and on Ethiopian Twitter, “#ItsMyDam” trended as international political leaders wrangled about the specifics regarding damming plans. 

On Al Jazeera, Mekdelawit Messay Deribe, an Ethiopian water researcher, described the project as the people “claiming [their] destiny” through “the Renaissance of Ethiopia.” Ethiopia argues that past agreements have unfairly positioned Egypt, and with this new dam, Ethiopia can regain regional autonomy and growth. When looked at from a humanitarian perspective rather than a political lens, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam stands true to its name for the Ethiopian people. It plans to revolutionize the quality of life and increase access to basic needs for millions of Ethiopians. 

The Egyptian Perspective

Downstream, Egypt has culturally, economically, and politically depended on the Nile River since its inception. As a water-scarce nation, the Nile is its most significant source of water and agricultural production. Although Egypt was unable to stop the construction of the Renaissance Dam, Egypt has shifted its focus to try and guarantee water flow to its territory, especially in times of drought.

90 percent of Egyptians reside near the Nile and rely on its water. According to the World Bank, countries that possess less than 1,000 cubic meters of fresh water per capita per year are water-scarce. Every Egyptian resident on average has a little over half that number. In short, Egyptian citizens are exceptionally susceptible to the Nile’s fluctuations. 

For these reasons, Egypt has claimed the right to 55 billion cubic meters of water flow per year to sustain its growing population. This water flow is barely enough to adequately sustain its economy and livelihood. The Egyptian government has adopted agricultural water recycling programs, desalination projects, and water-saving irrigation practices. Yet, these projects may not—and probably won’t—protect Egypt’s water stability in the event that Ethiopia significantly cuts its downstream flow. 

During interviews with Al Jazeera, Egyptian farmers expressed growing concerns about increased water level fluctuation because of climate change. In fact, Egyptian farmers already feel the real constraints of global warming on their production yields. Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam could further constrain those yields and remain a long-lasting negative factor inhibiting Egyptian agriculture. Further, even a small decrease in water flow may cause Egypt to lose significant amounts of farmland. Thus, Egyptian leaders have labeled the dam as an “existential threat” to their citizens’ livelihoods. 

Consistently, talks between Egypt and Ethiopia have failed to set up standards regarding water flow as Ethiopia is reluctant to set binding standards. Additionally, if Egypt can’t garner an agreement from Ethiopia, Egyptian leaders have alluded to possible military action. In the event of a water crisis, both mass displacement and or military conflict could ensue. In either scenario, a failure to formulate a comprehensive agreement could enthrall Egypt with a humanitarian crisis.

The Sudanese Perspective

Similar to Egypt, Sudan is heavily dependent on the Nile and its tributaries to sustain its population and economy. At the moment, approximately 97% of Sudan’s water use goes into agricultural production, and about two percent is available as drinking water. Additionally, Sudan suffers from a growing desertification crisis. Like Egypt, the coordinated and consistent flow of water to Sudan is necessary to avert a humanitarian crisis because of their shaky water resources. 

Additionally, Sudan possesses several dams downstream of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Fluctuations in flow from Ethiopia could damage the water infrastructure in Sudan as a result. In contrast, the Renaissance Dam could also reduce the possibilities of flooding in Sudan. Further, Ethiopia’s excess energy production could be sold and exported to Sudan too. 

Thus, from the Sudanese perspective, an agreement is imperative to its stability. A lack of water coordination and data sharing between Sudan and Ethiopia may pose a humanitarian threat to Sudanese civilians.  

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Photo by Alonso de Mendoza. ©

Human and Cultural Implications

As previously stated, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will live up to its name as “rebirth” in African human and social relations. The Nile waters are central to the cultural and historical legacies of the societies that depend on its flow. As a result, the saliency of the Nile and its prosperity are not a matter of simple regional politics. Dependence and perceptions of its waters are at the heart of this humanitarian conflict. 

Debates over the filling process, dispute resolution mechanisms, and drought contingencies center around concerns of how these processes will impact people downstream. Egypt’s calls for international support and efforts by the African Union to mediate exemplify that there are human stakes to this water conflict. 

In addition, Egyptians and Ethiopians have echoed those debates on social media. Citizens from both nations frequently clash online over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, and Egyptian hackers have conducted cyberattacks against Ethiopian government websites. In real life, Ethiopian migrants in Egypt face potential harassment, and in Ethiopia, voices that criticize the dam are often met with mockery. Ultimately, these personal and virtual clashes exemplify that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a nationalist conflict in which national legacies and quality of life are on the line.

Hopes and fears are on the line with the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam. Ethiopia views the dam as a humanitarian Renaissance, and it is eager to ensure the Renaissance Dam’s improvements occur as soon as possible. In contrast, Sudanese and Egyptian citizens reasonably fear its potentially destabilizing effects and desire an international agreement to ensure their national stability. 

In the midst of political fighting between diplomats, the long-term human impacts of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam ought to be central to political considerations. Power politics is important, but the human and cultural implications are far more salient. When looking at finalizing negotiations, regional politicians and the international community ought to recognize that their political scrambles have human consequences.