Ethiopia in deadlock over Blue Nile Dam as stumbling blocks in place

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The U.N. Security Council will meet on Monday to discuss spiraling tensions over plans by Ethiopia to begin filling its new hydroelectric dam, the largest in Africa, after almost 10 years of construction. Sudan and Egypt, which are downstream from the dam on the Blue Nile River, fear that it could seriously disrupt their water access. Years of negotiations over the dam’s operations have not led to a deal, and last week the latest round of talks again ended in deadlock.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a 145-meter-high, 1.8-kilometer-long concrete colossus is set to become the largest hydropower plant in Africa. Across Ethiopia, poor farmers and rich businessmen alike eagerly await the more than 6,000 megawatts of electricity officials say it will ultimately provide. Yet as thousands of workers toil day and night to finish the project, Ethiopian negotiators remain locked in talks over how the dam will affect downstream neighbors, principally Egypt.

Ethiopia
A general view of the Saddle Dam, part of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia (Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS)

Now, time is running out: Ethiopia has vowed to begin filling the dam next month as the rainy season begins—regardless of whether a deal is reached. On Thursday, Sudan sent a letter to the United Nations Security Council cautioning that millions of lives could be put at risk because of flooding if Ethiopia moves ahead with plans to fill the dam before an agreement is reached. On Saturday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said that Cairo asked the Security Council to intervene in the hopes of restarting talks. “We are always keen to take the diplomatic and political path until its end,” he said.

Existential threat

The construction of the $4 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was announced in early 2011. With a projected capacity of 6,000 megawatts, the project is central to the country’s efforts to become the continent’s biggest energy exporter. The dam wouldn’t change Ethiopia’s water consumption, but it would affect the flow of water downstream.

Egypt relies on the Nile, which the Blue Nile feeds into, for 90 percent of its water and views the project as an existential threat. Sudan is caught in the middle in the dispute: It could benefit from cheap electricity, and controlled water flows could help to prevent flooding. But Khartoum fears that a lack of coordination could lead to its own Roseires Dam becoming overwhelmed, increasing the flood risk for millions downstream.

Stumbling blocks 

Two key obstacles remain. The first is the disagreement over how to manage a multiyear drought. Egypt has asked Ethiopia to commit to releasing extra water during prolonged drought, but officials in Addis Ababa object over concerns that it would undermine energy generation. The second point of contention is how to resolve future disputes brought about by the dam that may arise between the countries. Egypt has called for disagreements to be resolved through binding international arbitration, while Ethiopia wants the three countries to resolve issues among themselves.

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