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Worldview: Ethiopia’s grand dam and the end of Egypt’s control of the Nile


In 2011, Ethiopia began construction of a massive dam located in the headwaters of the Blue Nile River. At the project’s onset, the dam was named the Millenium Dam, but has since been given a far more grandiose title: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, otherwise known as GERD. For Ethiopia, the potential of the GERD is tremendous. The $4.7 billion investment is expected to have a power generation capacity of 6,450 MW upon completion, making it the largest dam in Africa. Salini Impregilo, the group responsible for constructing the dam, stated on its website that the GERD “will triplicate Ethiopia’s consumed energy and will be the country’s driving force for exporting energy to its neighbouring countries.”

For Ethiopians, the dam is a symbol of their nation’s ascension in the world. Not only will the dam be Africa’s largest, but it will also have been constructed solely by Ethiopians and with Ethiopian funds. In this sense, it is an emblem of the nation’s ability to take control of its own fate. “It will change our future,” Iskander Baye, a resident near the dam, said. “Ethiopia’s time has come.”

Ethiopia’s decision to construct a dam along the Nile has sparked a regional conflict amongst the nations along the Nile, most significantly, Egypt. The Egyptians have long held a dominant position over the river, having a 69 percent share of the waters due to a 1959 treaty with Sudan. Ethiopia, despite being the source of 86 percent of the river’s water, has never been included in these water-sharing agreements.  

To Egypt, the construction of a dam along the Nile is perceived as a direct threat to their hegemony over the river. Ethiopia maintains that the dam will not affect Egypt or any other Nile-basin country. In 2011, the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who spearheaded the project, called it “an expression of our commitment to the benefit of all the countries of the Nile Basin.” Despite this, experts have concluded that at full capacity, the dam could cut freshwater flow to Egypt by 25 percent, which would exacerbate the problems that currently threaten the river including climate change, population growth and saltwater intrusion from rising sea levels.

To combat this impending crisis, Egypt, along with Sudan, which supports the dam, have committed to resolving the dilemma. In 2013, tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia flared when former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was inadvertently broadcast on live TV discussing taking military action against Ethiopia. Tensions have simmered down since then, but with the completion of the GERD coming closer to reality, Egypt has redoubled their efforts to find a solution. In late January, the leaders of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia met in Addis Ababa, but little could be done until a more concrete assessment of the dam’s potential effects was competed.   

On top of this, relations between Egypt and Sudan have begun to deteriorate, threatening to undo progress in these negotiations. With tensions over the Hala’ib Triangle flaring up once again, Sudan retracted their ambassador from Cairo in early January, sparking a series of military motions and posturings around the Eritrean-Sudanese border. All this bodes well for Ethiopia, which can continue construction without impediment while its two regional rivals bicker. Of course, Ethiopia itself is experiencing dangerous internal rumblings that threaten to destabilize the nation. As a whole, the volatility of the entire region is immensely troubling, and one can only hope that the Nile River dispute won’t escalate into full scale international war.

These tensions may be attributed to transitionary pains that occur whenever one nation concedes power to another. In this case, Egypt is in the process of losing its hegemony over the Nile, and the fear of this prospect is the true basis of the nation’s conflict with Ethiopia. Rashid Abdi, head of Horn of Africa research at the International Crisis Group, said “What you are seeing is a proxy conflict of who should be the regional hegemon, Egypt or Ethiopia.” Perhaps after the storm has passed, the nations of the Nile River basin will be on a more equitable plane, capable of benefiting from the world’s most famous river’s riches.

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