Diplomatic Dispute Over Ethiopian Hydroelectric Dam Reignited

Egypt’s Irrigation Minister Abdel Aty received official notice from Ethiopia that it had resumed, for a second year in a row, the construction process of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on 5 July. Ethiopia began filling the reservoir with water behind its giant hydroelectric dam, a process expected to capture 13.5 billion cubic meters of water, in early July, a move that drew harsh criticism and diplomatic tension from Egypt and Sudan—both downstream nations that sit upon the Nile River. Immediately after Ethiopia’s announcement, Egypt informed Ethiopia of its categorical rejection of the measure, citing the development of the dam as a “threat to regional stability,” said Aty. The move reignited a nearly decade-long bitter diplomatic standoff between Ethiopia and its downstream regional neighbors. 

For Ethiopia, the GERD stands as a crucial step towards increasing economic development and providing power to its population. According to Al Jazeera, 65 million Ethiopians—over half of the nation’s population—are not connected to the electricity grid. For these citizens, the dam is a symbol of hope. Many residents of villages are passionate about the project and, as of June 2021, have contributed millions of dollars to the dam by buying government bonds. The $4 billion project is expected to be the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa and the seventh largest in the world and boasts a projected capacity of more than 6,000 megawatts (enough to easily power up to 12 large cities). “For Ethiopia, it’s life and death because without enough electricity this country cannot progress at all. So being such an important commodity for us, [citizens] are contributing willingly from our pockets,” said Moges Alemu, an employee of Universal Power Company. 

Egypt views the GERD as a grave threat to its Nile water supply which provides water to almost the entire country. Sudan has also expressed concern over the operation and safety of the dam as well as its impact on its own water stations. Governments in both Cairo and Khartoum fear the dam could restrict their citizens’ access to reliable water. The crux of this dispute centers around the frequency and speed with which Ethiopia should fill and replenish the reservoir and how much water it would release downstream in case of a prolonged drought. 

On 8 July the United Nations Security Council met in response to this second phase of construction on the GERD. The open session came after Egypt and Sudan turned to the UNSC and urged international leaders to intervene in the standoff on the Nile. Ethiopia’s government, on the other hand, has resisted the intervention of the UN, European Union, and the United States in favor of the previously arranged diplomatic talks hosted by the African Union (AU). According to Al Jazeera, Addis Ababa has maintained that diplomacy outside this AU process was “demeaning” to the group’s efforts. The Arab League announced in June it was backing Security Council intervention despite Ethiopia’s objections. Talks hosted by the United States broke down in 2020, and efforts to revive them failed earlier this year in Kinshasa. 

Ethiopia has accused Egypt of trying to maintain a colonial-era grip over the Nile’s waters by commanding the imposition of strict rules over the dam’s operation. From a diplomatic standpoint, the highly polemic nature of this issue demands multilateral cooperation and a commitment to a binding agreement between the three nations; however, Egypt’s insistence on circumventing the diplomatic process led by the AU stands as an obstruction to a resolution rather than an advancement towards it. The levels of community investment into the project among some of Ethiopia’s most impoverished populations evidences the necessity of the dam for the overall economic development of the nation. Ethiopia’s human development index (HDI) is staggeringly lower than that of upstream Egypt; increased access to the electrical grid is imperative for Ethiopians. “Ethiopia does not intend to harm other countries. Our intention is to work with other countries and improve our status,” said Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.