Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: Friend or Foe?

The business of national economic development is always multi-faceted with blurry lines, with politics, economics, technology and ecology interacting all the time. There is even a peculiar additional complexity when we deal with strategic national resources such as water. This complexity amplifies when there are other stakeholders to the same resource but outside the national borders. Such, it seems, is the story of the recent Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

This article will not attempt to argue conclusively for or against. It aims at highlighting the multiple aspects related to the issue, to give the reader(s) an objective background. It should also be noted that this article is written by a Sudanese. If it was written by, say, an Ethiopian or an Egyptian, it would have probably been different in some perspectives.

“Ethiopia has started diverting a stretch of the Blue Nile to make way for a $4.7bn (£3.1bn) hydroelectric dam that has caused a dispute with countries downstream, state media say… The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is currently under construction, is part of a $12bn (£8bn) investment project to boost power exports”, says the BBC report of May 28, 2013 (BBC News website). “Egypt and Sudan object to the dam. They say it violates a colonial-era agreement, which gives them rights to 90% of the Nile’s water”, adds the report. Earlier however, the Sudan Tribune Newspaper reported, on April 5 2013, that “Despite long-standing protest against its execution, Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, told the newly appointed Ethiopian ambassador to Sudan, Abadi Zemo, that his country supports the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project.” Sounds conflicting? Maybe, but that is the world of politics. Anyway, We shall focus more on the big picture.

The Political History:

Competition among states on water resources has been a persisting characteristic of regional politics in history. Competition over fresh water resources is even more significant within this category. Today, in the world of territorial and strictly border-defined states the competition is taking larger measures, as every country is trying to secure as much fresh water as possible, for present and future consumption, with primary focus on only its own interests. The growing scarcity of fresh water resources is making the situation more critical.

The Nile is widely known as the world’s longest river. It originates from and runs through a number of countries in East Africa (Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, DR Congo, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya and Egypt). It starts as two distinct rivers, the White Nile and Blue Nile, with the White Nile originating from the great lakes of Central Africa and through Lake Victoria, and the Blue Nile originating from Lake Tana in Ethiopia, until they meet in Khartoum, Sudan, and continue north as one river towards the borders of Egypt, cutting it from south to North, where its delta is, and ending at the Mediterranean Sea.

The historical civilizations that rose and demised on the Nile basin (Kush, Ancient Egypt, Ethiopia, etc) had to compete to gain their desired share of the river’s water and access to the fertile land surrounding it [1]. However, the scale of those civilizations’ disputes, and the level of accessibility that they disputed for, are of no relevance to those of the 20th century and after, since the stream of modernization starting from that time has become heavily dependant on large consumption of fresh water for several developmental projects inside states, from urban life-style consumption to agriculture to hydro-power demand.

Since the first decade of the 20th century conflicts of interest between Egypt and Sudan regarding securing enough water for agriculture and hydropower, besides other uses, for each country was an issue that colonial Britain had to deal with [2]. Britain, which was in control of most of the “countries” it had created along the Nile, played a key role in establishing the first “international water treaty” about the Nile water. Because Britain had the most interest in Egypt, the so-called treaty clearly favoured Egypt against the future development interests of Sudan and the other countries [2].

“In 1902, British authorities constructed the low Aswan Dam on the Nile River, subsequently raising it twice to over 100 feet in height by 1933”[3; pg 5]. From the beginning, the British understood that this move is to the benefit of Egypt but with the loss of Sudan, and this was fine with them, because their investment in Egypt was more important than theirs in Sudan. General Gordon – the British general governor who was killed in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, by the Sudanese rebelling armies of  Mohamed Al-Mahdi – wrote in his way to Sudan: “The Sudan is a useless possession, ever was so, and ever will be so… I think Her Majesty’s Government is fully justified in recommending the evacuation” [2; pg 320]. Other British men of authority have been more ‘diplomatic’ in expressing their opinion about their ‘possession’ of Sudan, and regarding their clear favouritism of Egypt, by saying that “It was not that Britain loved the Sudan less; it was that she loved Egypt more” [2; pg 327]. The British, with their European colonial partners in East Africa, designed some treaties between the states that had shared the Nile and its sources to mainly secure Egypt’s unequal share of the river’s water.

“Although the Nile Waters Agreement reached in 1929 consisted only of an exchange of notes between the British High Commission in Cairo and the Egyptian Government, it provided for the regulation of the river until the Nile Waters Agreement of 1959… The detailed 1929 arrangements `appeared to work solely for the benefit of Egypt whose established and historic rights were recognized’. Egypt was assured a minimum of 48 billion cubic metres of water per year, as against 4 billion for the Sudan, and this left approximately 32 billion unallocated. The agreement did not include Ethiopia, and stipulated that `no works were to be constructed on the Nile or its tributaries or the equatorial lakes, so far as they were under British jurisdiction, which would alter the flows entering Egypt without her prior approval” [4; pg. 677].

Most of these treaties are still in play today even long after the colonial powers are gone, as can be seen in the agreement between the Egyptian and Sudanese governments, mentioned above, in 1959 (bearing in mind that the treaties the British signed in the name of their colonized nations in East Africa do not legally carry the obligation of being honoured by the newly independent and sovereign countries), mostly due to the political power of Egypt among its neighbouring states, which was challenged more than once, but eventually prevailed. Many political events happened after colonization was over, but not necessarily to balance the domination of Egypt. In July 1970, the High Aswan Dam was constructed by the Egyptian government with the help of the Soviet Union. Much bigger than the low Aswan Dam, the artificial lake created by the High Dam came to be known as Lake Nasser. “Lake Nasser extended 150 kilometres into Sudanese territory, and the Government [of Sudan] was paid 15 million Egyptian pounds in sterling [in the early 1960s during the construction] as compensation for having to resettle as many as 50,000 [Sudanese citizens] who had been displaced”[4; pg 679]. This agreement with Egypt was signed by a Sudanese military government that had clear favouritism for the Arabization politics led by the Egyptian government at the time.

Nonetheless, the political atmosphere of today is significantly different from that of the 1950-60s. International law is more involved in regulating regional water treaties. Recently, other African countries that share access to the Nile’s water with Egypt and Sudan started to voice their concerns again about the unfair share of its water. A BBC report on May 15, 2013, said that, “Four East African states have signed an agreement to seek more water from the River Nile – a move strongly opposed by Egypt and Sudan… Upstream countries including Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Ethiopia say [the colonial era agreement] is unfair and want a new deal but nothing has been agreed in 13 years of talks.”

The Ecological and Technical Problems with Large Dams:

There is sufficient evidence to assume that any large dam built along the Nile, and its two white and blue parents, would eventually face the same fate of the High Aswan Dam downstream. There is no doubt that the economic and developmental benefits of the High Aswan Dam have been very big to Egypt. However, in the long term, Egypt started to feel the repercussions of the environmental damage the dam has accumulated through the years. These can be concluded in “water logging, salinisation, and river bed erosion” [4; pg 680]. Severe problems are occurring from these results, and can be mainly summarized in 3 points:

  1. By blocking the sediment flowing with the river’s water through Egypt, the dam has drastically deteriorated the fertility of the land shoring the Nile in Egypt. Moreover, the sediment compiling behind the dam has also dramatically decreased the efficiency of the dam in generating hydropower and controlling the water reservoir in Lake Nasser.
  2. The delta region in the North of Egypt lost its great fertility and even its level against the sea water, since it was historically created and preserved by the flow of the sediment with the river’s water. Today 15% of the power created by the dam goes to operating huge water pumps that keep the sea water from flooding the delta region. Another 30% of the dam’s power goes to the factories developed to produce fertilizers for the lands that lost their fertility due to the loss of the sediment [5].
  3. The need for more water in Egypt is increasing, due to the increase of its population, while Lake Nasser is losing its capacity to the accumulated sediment behind the dam and the evaporation of water from the lake (since the location of the lake is one of the hottest regions in Africa and the world).

This is a story of a large dam structure, not only the High Aswan Dam. But wait, there is a twist to it. It is precisely because of such problems of large dams that eventually Egypt would want to transfer the problem upstream:

“While Egypt is seriously averse to the idea of any water being diverted upstream for agricultural purposes, it has actively encouraged the exploitation of the Nile’s hydropower potential. The dams which were built in the Sudan after the 1959 agreement have been advantageous for Egypt in so far as they have acted as `siltation basins’ that have stopped a considerable quantity of sediments from reaching Lake Nasser… Egypt continues to show interest in the creation of more hydropower upstream, particularly in the Sudan, since this would not decrease the flow of the Nile, and is also proposing that the huge groundwater potential in southern Sudan should be exploited” [4; pg 686].

So, we now have two conflicting interests of the big and strong Egypt downstream: (1) that it wants to keep its share of the Nile’s water unchanged, but (2) it would encourage dam projects upstream that help reduce the quantity of sediments reaching Lake Nasser. So, basically, as long as dam projects upstream do not affect Egypt’s share of the quantity of the Nile’s water, then Egypt is OK. However, the other countries who share the Nile basin are not OK with this, because they want both the hydropower and a more share of the water. So the summary of the conflict is this: Egypt wants to keep the lion’s share of the Nile’s water, and Sudan is simply supporting Egypt’s interests for no logical reason other than that Sudanese governments are accustomed to saying ‘yes sir’ to Egypt. The other countries of the Nile basin don’t like that (rightly so, one might add).

Are Large Dams Worth Fighting for?:

In the case the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the claim of Ethiopian authorities is that it is mostly a hydropower generation dam (i.e. less for irrigation and/or water supply). The question of development policy here is about the compromises taken by governments for the sake of hydropower, and whether hydropower is worth these compromises, because development cannot achieve its goals when one sector’s gain is another sector’s loss. Questions of sustainable development also arise, since sustainability is gaining more legal ground every day.
International standards, such as the guidelines of the World Commission on Dams (WCD), require that an environmental impact assessment report (EIAR) is prepared or contracted before conducting the project. The report is required to critically address certain issues regarding the impact of a large dam project, which are: (a) social issues – i.e. consequences of people’s displacement and resettlement from future flooded area; (b) archeological issues – resulting from destruction or submerging important archeological sites or places of high cultural value; and (c) environmental issues – i.e.effects of large scale hydrological alteration of the natural river system with major impacts on the environment and water quality.
Large dams are known to cause long-term social and environmental unfavourable impacts – to say the least – and that the environmental impacts usually catch up with the technical functionality of the dams themselves—i.e. even the dams’ productivities are eventually affected negatively because of the accumulating environmental ‘side-effects’. Furthermore, large dams are usual violators of the peoples’ right to development. “The right to development is the right of individuals, groups and peoples to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy continuous economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights and fundamental freedoms can be fully realized”, says the United Nations [6; pg 21].

There exist legitimate alternatives to large dams for hydropower production and water harvesting. These alternatives are usually more sustainable and often more effective in addressing the direct needs of communities rather than the state’s central agenda. These alternatives include a range of decentralized models for solar power, wind power, micro-hydro and water harvesting schemes. The 2000 report of the WCD stipulates that, “large dam projects should only be approved where they demonstrably meet the goal of human development – and that alternatives including decentralised energy schemes should be considered from the start.”[7]           

So, with all that in mind, one has to ask: Are the recent large dam projects along the Nile, such as the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and Merowe Dam in Sudan, really promoting a people-centered development agenda, or are they actually serving the agenda of elite groups in the guise of governments?


This article gave a historical background on the political record of administrating the water of the Nile basin. It also gave a general background on the ecological and technical challenges of large dams. The article then asked a number of critical questions that beg for objective answers—answers that take all the different aspects in consideration: political, economic, technological and ecological. The readers will have to find their own answers.

As for my own general stance, I can say this: On the political and economic fronts, I support Ethiopia’s right to optimal utilization of its natural resources, (and please let’s not talk about the so-called historical water agreements. They were simply colonial agreements, unworthy of honoring today). On the technological and ecological fronts, however, I remain in general opposition to large dams and loyal to the alternative approaches of hydro-power and water harvesting. Rare exceptions might change my default stance if I’m presented with overwhelming evidence.


[1] Robert W. July. 1998. A History of the African People. 5th ed. Illinois: Waveland Press.
[2] Pierre Crabitès. 1912. “Egypt, the Sudan and the Nile.” Foreign Affairs 6(2): 320-328.
[3] Sanjeev Khagram. 2004. Dams and Development: Transnational Struggles for Water and Power. Ithaga: Cornell University Press.
[4] Ashok Swain. 1997. “Ethiopia, the Sudan and Egypt: The Nile River Dispute.” The Journal of Modern African Studies 35(4): 675-694.
[5] Abubakr El-Khalifa. 2007 (March). “Is the Hidden Intent of Merowe Dam to Rid Egypt of the High Dam’s Problems?” (Arabic). Sudanile.(أبوبكر الخليفة – هل الغرض الخفي لخزان مروي هو تخليص مصر من مشاكل السد العالي؟)
[6] H. Zafarullah & A.S. Huque, eds. 2005. International Development Governance. New York: Dekker/CRC Press. (quote from a UN document).
[7] World Commission on Dams. 2000. Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-making. (official report). (quote from the website of Practical Action, a participant organization in the development of the report).

(published in the Citizen Newspaper, Sudan, June 2, 2013)

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