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The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: Evaluating Its Sustainability Standard and Geopolitical Significance

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In the pursuit of economic development, Ethiopia has prioritized renewable energy production, emphasizing development of its hydropower potential. As part of this strategy, it is presently constructing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile River, ignoring opposition from the downstream Egypt. In this paper, we use the seven commonly shared strategic priorities prescribed by the World Commission on Dams (WCD) to evaluate the sustainability standard and geopolitical significance of the GERD project.
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The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: Evaluating
Its Sustainability Standard and Geopolitical
Significance
Huiyi Chen 1, Ashok Swain 2
Uppsala Centre for Sustainable Development, Uppsala University, Sweden/ Villavägen 16, 752 36 Uppsala, Sweden
1whitneyandtom@gmail.com; 2 ashok.swain@pcr.uu.se
Abstract- In the pursuit of economic development, Ethiopia has prioritized renewable energy production, emphasizing development
of its hydropower potential. As part of this strategy, it is presently constructing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on
the Blue Nile River, ignoring opposition from the downstream Egypt. In this paper, we use the seven commonly shared strategic
priorities prescribed by the World Commission on Dams (WCD) to evaluate the sustainability standard and geopolitical significance
of the GERD project.
Keywords- Hydropower, Dams, Sustainability, Geopolitics, Nile River
I. INTRODUCTION
A. Sustainable Development and Hydropower
Energy is closely linked to human well-being and prosperity across the world. From cars to computers, water heating and
air conditioning, energy constitutes a critical part of our daily life. Energy development, which can be interpreted as increased
provision and utilization of energy service, is a fundamental component of boosted social and economic development (Toman
& Jemelkova, 2003). Besides our daily life benefits from energy, agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, construction,
health and social services also depend on the access to energy. The critical role of energy in the development process was also
recognized in the outcome of the Rio+20 conference in 2012 (United Nations General Assembly, 2012) that access to
sustainable modern energy services helps to eradicate poverty, save lives, improve health and supplies basic human needs.
There is a close correlation between an inadequate supply of energy and poverty. It is estimated that more than 1.3 billion
people, approximately one in five globally, still lack access to electricity, and almost all of them live in developing countries
(International Energy Agency, 2011). Meanwhile, about 2.6 billion people rely on solid fuels such as wood, coal, and charcoal
for subsistence, which cause emphysema and other respiratory diseases and kill approximately 1.5 million people annually,
therefore the access to electricity must be environmental and socially sustainable (World Bank, 2013). Moreover, the
population growth, urbanization, and its increasing demands for more food, goods and services have put enormous challenges
to the energy supplies and energy structure, which was dominated by fossil fuels nowadays. When energy supplies are
insufficient, employment is hindered. There will certainly be an abundance of health issues, lack of goods and services. Hence
economic growth will be stunted and poverty will remain. Therefore energy supplies must be sustainable and diverse.
As energy is the driver for development, sustainable energy is the stimulus for sustainable development. The importance of
sustainable energy was emphasized by the outcome report from Rio +20 (United Nations General Assembly, 2012). The UN
initiative “Sustainable Energy for All” focuses on “access to energy, energy efficiency and renewable energies” and with the
hope that this will help to “eradicate poverty and leads to sustainable development and global prosperity.” The Action Plan of
Agenda 21 (United Nations Environment Programme, 2013) also emphasizes that renewable sources of energy should be
encouraged to change consumption patterns. The distinguishing feature of renewable energy is that it is inexhaustible and thus
a critical part of sustainable development.
Among the renewable energy resources, hydroelectric power is the only renewable energy that can be used for large-scale
production to achieve environmental, social and economic development (Zhang, 2011). The World Summit on Sustainable
Development in 2002 specified that hydropower should be promoted and developed as stimulus to increase the share and use
of renewable energy all over the world (Schumann, Saili, Taylor, & Abdel-Mark, 2010). Hydropower is shown to have a wider
scale range of electrical output and much higher efficiency (80%-90%) compared to other renewable energy resources (World
Energy Council, 2004). Thus it can play a strategic role in energy transition and renewable energy promotion. Besides,
hydropower can effectively store energy, and is less climate-dependent and less unpredictable than other renewable energy
resources such as biomass, solar and wind power. Therefore, with almost certain occurrence of climate change, hydropower
should be given priority to develop for the sake of national energy security. The multi-services provided by the hydropower
development and its technical advantages could be driving forces for local, regional and national development, and a catalyst
for sustainable development.
Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in Africa, has the second largest population in the continent. Ethiopia is also highly
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vulnerable to climate change, particularly erratic rainfall. However, the country today stands at a crossroads. In recent years,
Ethiopian economy is one among the world's fastest growing economies. In the pursuit of economic development, Ethiopian
Government has made clear that renewable energy production will be its priority, emphasizing green growth and clean energy.
B. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
Ethiopia is a landlocked country in the horn of Africa and has a population of 85 million. The energy grid is only accessible
to 52% of the population in the country. With the urbanization, population growth and economic development, the energy
demand is bound to increase rapidly. It is estimated that electricity demand will grow by 32% during the period of 2011-2015
(Derbew, 2013).
The on-going construction of the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile River has been on the
Ethiopian Government‟s drawing board since the 1960s, but it was officially launched in April 2011 and it is the largest
engineering project ever planned in the country. The Grand Renaissance with a cost of $ 4.8 billion and an installed capacity of
5250 megawatts is situated in northwest Ethiopia, about 40 km from the Sudanese border. This dam will produce a reservoir
with a volume of more than 63 billion cubic meters, approximately 1.3 times the annual flow amount of the Blue Nile (Power-
technology, 2013). Italian Construction Company, Salini is contracted to build the dam, and Ethiopian military-run Metals &
Engineering Corporation (METEC) contracted to be in charge of the electro-mechanical works (Power-technology, 2013).
Ethiopia is short of water storage facilities, the demands of institutional and infrastructure investment is high and the
investment ability is low (Grey & Sadoff, 2007). Based on a study by the World Bank, the cost of hydrological variability
currently has been estimated to be more than one third of the annual GDP, which indicated that increased investment in
multipurpose water infrastructure could contribute to the long term economic development and mitigate the adverse impacts of
floods and droughts (World Bank, 2006). However, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is primarily built for
power generation instead of other purposes, such as irrigation and water storage. Due to reluctance of the World Bank to
support the project, the Ethiopian government is financing the project by selling bonds (Manson, 2012).
The motivation of the dam in Ethiopia is quite obvious that only 3% of its hydropower potential is tapped while 83% of
Ethiopians short of access to electricity and majority of the population still greatly depend on biomass fuel for subsistence
(Block & Strzepek, 2010). The Ethiopian Government also intends to supply surplus energy to the other countries and benefit
the wide region. Meanwhile, the Nile River basin is shared by 10 riparian countries, but the issue of the Grand Renaissance
Dam is mainly creating serious tension among Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. The Ethiopia highland region contributes almost
86% of the Nile flow, which probably rises to 95% during the rainy season. What concerns downstream countries, particularly
Egypt is limited understanding of how the dam would influence the water availability and downstream flows (Hammond,
2013). These disputes over the water management of the Nile River can be traced back to the water flows allocation
agreements in 1929 and 1959, which excluded the increasingly argued water use rights of the upstream countries (Swain,
2011). In the past decades, there is progress towards the basin wide cooperation and sustainable development, for example, the
Nile Basin Initiative in 1999, which is a transitional agreement to promote equitable utilization and benefits (Nile Basin
Initiative, 2011). Though the Cooperative Framework Agreement in 2010 has been signed by many upstream countries, Egypt
and Sudan continue to oppose it (Egyptian Chronicles, 2013). The lack of shared agreements indicates that there would be
tradeoffs in the regional geopolitical powers and the water hegemon position of Egypt would be faced with challenges of
emerging powers (Link, Piontek, Scheffran, & Schiling, 2011).
II. THE GRAND ETHIOPIAN RENAISSANCE DAM (GERD) AND ITS SUSTAINABILITY
It is critical to build large dams in a suitable and sustainable way to minimize different types of environmental and social
costs and maximize the benefits. The World Commission on Dams (WCD) was established by the World Bank and the World
Conservation Union in 1998, as one of the first established multi-stakeholder forums. The WCD report released more than a
decade ago offers comprehensive understanding of the impacts due to large dams and suggest a policy framework to achieve
sustainability of large dams according to the universally agreed five values (equity, sustainability, efficiency, participatory
decision making and accountability). Replacing the traditional top-down and technology focused way of building dams, WCD
introduces its constructive and innovative way for decision making with seven strategic priorities and corresponding policy
principles (World Commission on Dams, 2000).
Though it remains as the benchmark of best sustainability standards for many stakeholders, especially for the civil society
groups, the WCD report has not been as broadly endorsed as expected. Most institutions and stakeholders selectively accept
some strategic priorities, while ignoring critical guidelines by branding them as impractical. In order to complement some of
the features of the WCD framework, International Hydropower Association (IHA) released the Hydropower Sustainability
Assessment Protocol (HSAP) in 2011, but civil society groups are critical of these new additions as they consider them as
industry friendly (Sustainability Initiatives and standards, 2013). Thus, in this paper, we use the seven commonly shared
strategic priorities and integrated sustainability standards prescribed by WCD and endorsed by IHA to analyze the
sustainability situation, opportunity and development of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in Ethiopia. The seven
strategic priorities are: gaining public acceptance, comprehensive option assessment, addressing existing dams, sustaining
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rivers and livelihoods, recognizing entitlements and sharing benefits, ensuring compliance, and sharing rivers for peace,
development and security.
A. Gaining Public Acceptance
Gaining public acceptance for dam project means all the interested groups are informed about the issues at stake, their
entitlements are safeguarded, and their rights are recognized, by effective involvement and participation in the decision-making
process. The access to project and resettlement information should be provided to the affected people, and the agreements
should be concluded with the help of open, transparent and honest negotiation. The planning and execution of dam projects
should be open to public scrutiny. Moreover, special attention should be paid to the most vulnerable groups, such as women,
the poor and indigenous groups. These groups should be given the chance to provide prior consent and thus guide the decision
making process.
However, the planning of the GERD seems to have ignored the participation of affected people. The planning and
implementation of the large dam project has been a top-down approach and has not involved the participation of the local
people (International Rivers, 2012). Though the dam was already 14% completed by the end of 2012, however, till then very
little information regarding construction was released to public (Power-technology, 2013).
Moreover, a number of displaced people belong to indigenous „Gumuz‟ and „Berta‟ community with the lowest standard of
living even in Ethiopia, who are more vulnerable to the resettlement (International Rivers, 2012). The risks are loss of
livelihoods, unemployment and impoverishment. The local community is greatly dependent on the fisheries and forest
resources for their livelihoods (fishing, hunting, gathering fruits, honey, firewood, etc.). On the other hand, the former director-
general of Ethiopian Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) argues that displacement is not an issue considering the fact
that they have been given land and money to resettle and the employment opportunities from the dam project (Worldegebriel,
2013). However, the indigenous people have strong connection with the land and water resources, and under the involuntary
resettlement situation, it is harder for them to change to non-agriculture activities for livelihoods and compete in the job market
due to their limited education. Only if resettlement can be implemented in a proper and considerate manner, then there is a
possibility of poverty reduction and regional development.
House-to-house survey on local community should have been carried out about the mode of resettlement, which could have
been a good starting point for gaining public acceptance. All the stakeholders‟ participation and consultation at all the steps
and aspects of the dam project should have been guaranteed, resulting in a fair, informed and transparent decision making
process. Involving the people directly affected by the construction GERD in the resettlement, compensation, planning and
designing of the houses and farmlands in the future could have helped the project to gain the vital public acceptance.
B. Comprehensive Options Assessment
Before deciding to build a large dam, the full range of political, institutional and technical options concerning alternatives
to dams are needed to be comprehensively assessed in a participatory process having same significance of environmental,
economic and social aspects. The comprehensive options assessment for a large dam should also cover the whole planning and
implementation process. Through a collective political decision-making process, an acceptable level of risks and balance
between ecology and economy can be determined and affirmed. The avoidance and minimization of the detrimental impacts of
social and environmental aspects are basic criteria to guide the comprehensive option assessment before undertaking
construction of a large dam.
To identify the most appropriate dam development initiatives, it is vital to assess the food, water and energy needs and
objectives. Agriculture is the most important component of Ethiopia‟s economy, which contributes to half of its GDP, 83% of
the export income and provides employment to 80% of the population (International Monetary Fund, 2008). Ethiopia has
abundant water resources, fertile land resources, and a large labor force. However, the agricultural potential is still significantly
undeveloped (World Bank, 2010). Due to its high sensitivity and vulnerability to weather changes, the entire country easily
suffers from famine under the erratic or insufficient rainfall (allAfrica, 2010). Over half of Ethiopian people live in poverty
(Agwater Solutions, 2013).
Ethiopia‟s potential irrigable land is approximately 4 million hectares, but only less than 10% of it is actually irrigated
(Agwater Solutions, 2013). Ethiopia has tremendous irrigation demands to address its agriculture productivity potential in the
near future. There is also a huge gap between the country‟s actual hydropower production and the potential. The installed
hydropower only contributes to 3% of the hydropower potential in Ethiopia (Swain, 2011). In addition, when it comes to
energy security, 83% of Ethiopians lack access to electricity and majority of them still use biomass fuel for subsistence (Block
& Strzepek, 2010). The decision to build the GERD is critical for the Growth and Transformation Plan of Ethiopia by the
means of acquiring sustainable cheap power (Consulate General of Ethiopia, 2013). Ethiopia needs to meet an annual 32%
growth in energy demand to sustain its growth during 2011-2015 (Derbew, 2013). Given the circumstances of the relative fast
economic development and stable political environment, Ethiopian government has gone ahead with the construction of the
GERD in spite of serious opposition from Egypt in order to meet the significant demands and development trends.
Furthermore, both benefits and adverse impacts should be considered during the comprehensive option assessment. By
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building GERD, Ethiopia hopes to meet its Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and sustain the economic growth for
poverty reduction (Consulate General of Ethiopia, 2013). As the project is only for hydropower generation, Ethiopia argues
that downstream Sudan and Egypt will continue to receive the water from the Blue Nile as before (Worldegebriel, 2013).
However, there are also other issues to be considered during the comprehensive option assessment, such as climate change and
rainfall variability. Along the Sudanese border, the air temperature has increased by 0.03°C/year and the rainfall has decreased
by 0.4 mm/month/year during the period of 1948-2006 and these trends are predicted to continue till 2050 (Jury & Funk, 2012).
In addition, there has been a significant decline in the rainfall during June to September (Kiremt rainy season) in the
southwestern and central part of Ethiopia (Cheung, Senay, & Singh, 2008).
The water management and assessment in the Nile basin has become more complicated due to the synergies of the climate
change and high variability of rainfall. This may hinder Ethiopia‟s ambitious hydropower strategy and therefore, it remains
necessary and urgent to make a comprehensive assessment (Hammond, 2013). It is a fact that no environment impact
assessment or social impacts report of the GERD have been disclosed publicly till now (International Rivers, 2012). An open
and comprehensive option assessment of the GERD can help the riparian countries to solve the conflict and promote
cooperation for a win-win situation.
C. Addressing Existing Dams
The benefits and impacts of dams may not be static over time with the change of priorities for water use, land development
and energy demands in this area, technological improvement and public policy changes. Thus, management and maintenance
of existing dams should be continuously assessed and enhanced to maximize the benefits and minimize the social and
environmental damages, according to the changing conditions. Comprehensive post-projects or programs can evaluate, monitor,
improve and even restore the benefits of existing dams and remedy the affected communities. The lessons from the existing
dams can enhance the future policy and regulations establishment of building new dams.
No such big dam like the GERD has been built on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia before. However, Sudan has built large
Merowe Dam (1250 MW) and Egypt the famous Aswan High Dam (2100 MW) in the Nile basin. Egypt built the Aswan High
Dam to control the flow of the Nile during 1960s. It provided an increase in agricultural production, employment and
electricity production but was blamed for soil salinity and relocation of more than 100,000 people. The Merowe Dam, which
was completed in 2010, is the largest contemporary hydropower project in Africa. By the time of contracts, it was the largest
international project the Chinese industry participated in. Its peak output almost doubled Sudan‟s electricity supply. However,
the environmental impacts of the Merowe Dam are still unknown to the public and several dam-displaced people have not
received compensation (Abbas, 2012).
The dam projects in the Nile have been rarely reviewed or revisited while primary attention has been given to planning new
dams. Reviewing existing dams, addressing outstanding problems and optimizing the use of infrastructures can be more cost
efficient and can promote improved decision making on building new dams and their alternatives (United Nations
Environment Programme, 2004). In the case of Itaipu dam, a new agreement, which has reviewed the historical partnership
since 1984, resulted in growth for both Brazil and Paraguay and improved collaborating relationship of the neighboring
countries. Reviewing the historical agreement on existing dams in the basin might also promote better relationship between
riparian countries. Learning from the experience of existing dams on the Nile can certainly improve to effectively plan the
sustainability aspects of the GERD.
D. Sustaining Rivers and Livelihoods
It is vital to protect and restore the ecosystem in the river basin, which could be greatly transformed by the large dams, in
order to mitigate and limit the harm to the health and integrity of the river system and those livelihoods rely on it. It is crucial
to promote the equitable human development and welfare of all species. Avoidance of significant impacts on threatened and
endangered species should be given priority when designing large dams and selecting sites for them. Moreover, if impacts
cannot be avoided, adequate compensation measures should be provided. There is a need for establishing national policy and
mechanisms to sustain natural condition of the river systems with given priority to high ecosystem values.
Although no environmental impact assessment report or socio-economic study of the GERD project has been officially
available till now, there are civil society led serious criticisms over environmental changes related with the project, such as loss
of biodiversity, flooding of forests, sediment issues and impacts of changes to river flows.
Benishangul-Gumuz region, where the GERD is being built, is one of the last few places in Ethiopia with remnant forest
vegetation. The dam reservoir is expected to flood 1680 square kilometers, 90% of which is forest resources (International
Rivers, 2013). At least 150 indigenous freshwater fish species, with dozens of endangered species, live in Ethiopia‟s portion of
the Nile. Though there are claims that some reforestation programs have been successful and the percentage of forest cover is
increasing, it is not clear about the possible survival of these endangered species. There will be also loss of terrestrial ecology
due to the dam and reservoir, which can possibly be mitigated to some extent by building fish ladders, setting up nature
protection zone and afforestation programs.
Ethiopian highland is one of the most erosion-prone places on earth, and sedimentation of the reservoir is a big risk for the
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GERD‟s potential power output and lifespan (International Rivers, 2013). The mountainous terrain of Ethiopia is highly fragile
in terms of slope stability, which may easily lead to landslides and slope failures. Rainfall is the main trigger of landslides in
the highlands of Ethiopia (F.Batisha, 2013). There is no official sedimentation risk analysis of the GERD available to the
public. Climate change may make the situation worse.
There are some reports that the Nile flow into Egypt could be cut by 25% during the GERD reservoir‟s filling period
(Hydratelife, 2012). Some Egyptian experts are worried that the current design of the GERD would have harsh negative
impacts on the share of the water flow to Egypt and also on the power generation of High Dam and Aswan Dam, particularly
during the filling and operation periods (Egyptian Chronicles, 2013). On the other hand, Ethiopia argues that the GERD is
going to stop water from flowing because the water is only used for hydropower generation (Worldegebriel, 2013). There are
claims that if GERD is cooperatively regulated, it can significantly reduce the risk of downstream flooding.
There are also general adverse impacts of dam building, such as the flooding of land and breaking down of organic matters
into the reservoirs, would contribute to the greenhouse gas emission and increase the health risk. Civil society groups are
seriously worried about the social and environmental adverse impacts of the GERD, and demand for more open and scientific
studies. The main concerns are sediment issues and loss of terrestrial ecology. However, for Egypt, the main concern is still the
deleterious effects on its water supply, which probably can be solved by establishing a riparian institution for joint
management of the GERD.
E. Recognizing Entitlements and Sharing Benefits
In most of the cases, dam-affected groups are only aware of the negative impacts of the project and demand for
compensation. However, there is a need for effective information dissemination about the benefits of the dam and possibility of
sharing them. Based on the identification of rights and evaluation of risks, a joint negotiation with unfavorably affected people
is required to redress the balance, resulting in the mutually agreed and legally enforceable mitigation and development
provisions. These provisions need to recognize entitlements that improve livelihoods and quality of life. Successful mitigation,
resettlement and development are all fundamental commitments and responsibilities of the state and developer.
This is no such process that has been undertaken in ensuring stakeholder participation, entitlement recognition and benefits
sharing in the decision making of building the GERD. There is an important need to ensure the sharing of all the direct and
indirect benefits of water resources development to the people and the local community. An evolving and dynamic interaction
and negotiation of interests will make people‟s voices heard and will help to achieve sustainability of the dam project.
F. Ensuring Compliance
In order to win and maintain public trust and confidence, governments, developers, regulators and operators are required to
meet all the commitments made to the people while pursuing the policy of dam building. An appropriate mix of regulatory and
non-regulatory mechanisms, incorporating mutually strengthening stimulus and sanctions, is needed for the social,
environmental and economic measures. Moreover, a clear and consistent set of criteria and guidelines should be used by
financial institutions to ensure compliance, and that should be reviewed independently and clearly to eliminate corruption
practices.
In the GERD project, more than 5000 people will be resettled from the reservoir and downstream area. Villages near the
reservoir (home to over 7000 people) may also need to be relocated. This independent estimation of dam induced population
displacement is much higher than the official figure of 800 people (International Rivers, 2012). Ensuring public trust and
confidence requires that Ethiopian Government and the dam building companies need to sincerely fulfill all the promises of
resettlement and compensation that they have made to the affected people. They also have to follow a clear and transparent
plan for the implementation of the dam building project and its operation. Compliance with national or international guidelines
and policies will keep coherence and facilitate in achieving sustainability of the dam project.
G. Sharing Rivers for Peace, Development and Security
Conflicts and considerable tension over trans-boundary rivers will appear if there is a power imbalance among riparian
countries with regards to specific interventions for diverting water. Therefore, storage and diversion of water resources
requires mutual self-interest for regional collaboration and constructive peaceful cooperation in the whole river basin. Sharing
rivers and their associated benefits for peace, development and security can broaden the successful negotiation among riparian
countries, which goes beyond simply allocating or fighting for a finite resource with no outcome. Equitable and reasonable
utilization of the water and energy resources in the basin can promote the optimal sustainable use of the river and mitigation of
any potential harm. Moreover, it can also provide a fertile ground for cooperation in other remained unresolved spheres of
bilateral and regional relations.
The current distribution of the Nile‟s waters is laid out in the 1959 Nile Agreement between the two downstream riparian
states Egypt and Sudan, allocating 55.5 km3 to Egypt and 18.5 km3 to Sudan (Deng, 2007). However, Ethiopia refuses to
acknowledge this agreement, arguing that since most of the river flow originates in its territory, it is entitled to an equitable and
reasonable share. Yet despite its high water development potential, for a long time Ethiopia had lacked the political stability
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and technical and financial means to develop its water systems. Ethiopia‟s past efforts were also blocked by Egypt, which
continuously campaigned to persuade international creditors and donors not to finance Ethiopian projects.
In the 1990s, the Nile River situation was considered to have great potential to induce interstate conflict in the rivers‟ basin.
But with World Bank support, a basin-wide cooperation program, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), was launched in 1990. Yet in
spite of a great deal of hope and efforts over the past 14 years, the NBI has been unable to shift the mindset of the basin
countries. The increasing threat of global climate change has brought further insecurity to the basin. Moreover, geopolitical
changes including political uncertainty in post-Mubarak Egypt that has weakened Cairo‟s global leverage have changed the
historical power equation in the region, providing opportunities for Ethiopia and Sudan to be able to raise capital and technical
support for their own hydro-projects. Not surprisingly, the GERD project came into being in the midst of the Egyptian
revolution. Moreover, the emergence of China as a superpower in Africa has further shifted the situation in Ethiopia‟s favor,
and many Chinese firms are already involved in helping Ethiopia to harness its hydropower.
In the last decade, North-East Africa has witnessed a significant shift in regional power relations. Upstream basin countries
of the Nile have developed a cooperative strategy to contest hydro-hegemony of Egypt. In 1960 and 1970s, Egypt was a Soviet
ally and that helped the country to get financial and technical support from Moscow to develop and control the Nile River.
Egypt switched the side in 1978 with the Camp David Accord and became a close partner of the United States in the region. It
helped Egypt to get Western backing to uphold its hydro hegemony in the basin. However, in the last decade, the arrival of
China in Africa in a big way has brought significant transformation to the power relation in the basin. With Chinese financial
and technical support, Sudan and Ethiopia have started to develop the Nile Water in their territories ignoring the opposition
from Egypt.
China‟s rapid economic growth demands sustained supply of huge energy, which has been the reason for its increasing oil
import from Africa (Hanson, 2008). Official figure of Chinese aid and investment in Sudan is more than four billion US dollar
between 2002-2007, but the real amount can be much more than that. With support from China, Sudan has already built
Merowe Dam, and is heightening the Roseires Dam. It has also planned to build at least two new dams in the basin. Similarly,
Ethiopia has unilaterally taken up a number of dam projects in the Nile basin with the help of Chinese financial and technical
support. Due to Egypt‟s opposition, Ethiopia was not successful to raise finances from the World Bank and African
Development Bank for its water development project for many years. However, China‟s emergence has brought new
opportunities for Ethiopia.
Thanks to Chinese assistance, Ethiopia has been able to complete its Tana Beles dam project. Many Chinese companies are
presently engaged in Ethiopia in developing the country‟s hydropower potential. The China Water Resources and Hydropower
Engineering Construction Company and the National China Gezhouba Construction Group Corporation for Water Resources
and Hydropower have recently constructed a large hydropower dam on Tekeze River, a tributary of the Nile. Thanks to
China‟s support, Ethiopia not only aspires to exploit its huge hydropower potential, but also has begun to challenge the
historical status quo over the use of the Nile water.
The Ethiopian government believes that the GERD will become an image of national pride and a symbol of the recent
development. Ethiopia has also received support from other riparian countries like South Sudan and Uganda as they argue that
Egypt should not undermine Ethiopia‟s right to the Nile (George, 2013). Although there were some initial hesitations in Sudan,
it has now officially declared its support to the construction of the GERD. Sudan‟s support is driven by the economic
considerations rather than political reasons as it has called upon Egypt to utilize the shared benefits (Sudan Tribune, 2013).
Sudan hopes that the GERD will help to prevent seasonal flood, regulate the river flows and extend the life span of Sudanese
dams by preventing silts in the upstream. Ethiopia has also promised to sell the hydropower to Sudan and Egypt at a much
cheaper price. Thus, Sudan has supported the GERD and suggested establishment of a coordination mechanism with Ethiopia
to efficiently regulate river water flow (Salman, 2014).
For downstream Egypt, which is going through a serious internal political crisis, increased upstream unilateral development
is alarming. For centuries, Egypt is almost completely dependent upon the Nile for its water supply and irrigation. Increasing
water diversions in the upstream regions of the river will have severe impact on Egypt‟s food production and public health.
Moreover, the fear of losing historical control of the Nile water will further destabilize Egypt‟s precarious political situation as
the country is experiencing serious domestic turmoil. Egypt has tried to mobilize other powerful countries like Saudi Arabia to
openly oppose Ethiopia‟s GERD project (George, 2013). Egypt‟s unequivocal opposition to GERD project has been diluted to
some extent in recent months. When Ethiopia came up with a proposal for the joint management of the GERD, Egypt viewed it
as a positive movement to reach a consensus on the large dam project in spite of its earlier sharp criticism of it (Kloosterman,
2013). In 2013, three rounds of technical negotiations among water ministers from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia were carried out
in Khartoum. However, in January 2014, Egypt decided to withdraw from the negotiations with Ethiopia and Sudan and
announced that it would use diplomatic and political measures to maintain and even increase its water share while Ethiopia
stated that it would continue the construction of the GERD in spite of the suspension of the negotiations (Wiyiyit, 2014). Egypt,
though putting up a tough stance in public, at the same time it is trying to find ways to be part of a collaborative mechanism to
regulate the GERD project.
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Cooperation among the three major riparian states Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia with good faith and sincerity will guarantee
the optimal utilization of the Nile River. Egypt is in need of additional water to reduce its increasing food import while Sudan
also needs water to promote development after losing petroleum to the South (Salman, 2014). Ethiopian highlands provide
better water storage facilities than the present one at Lake Nasser. Moreover, by building dams like the GERD in Ethiopia,
huge hydropower potential could be tapped, enabling basin countries to efficiently use the underground water as an alternative
source of supply. These upstream dams could also help prevent silts and prolong the life of the downstream dams. There is a
need to build trust among Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt, for helping them to enter into a mutually dependent cooperative
framework, which will not only ensure best possible use of scarce Nile River water, but also promote regional cooperation and
development.
III. CONCLUSION
The GERD project has huge potential to be a massive source of sustainable energy production for energy-starved Ethiopia.
This will certainly help to facilitate economic development not only in Ethiopia, but also in the region. It also helps to break
the long-lasting stalemate of Egyptian domination in the basin. Ethiopia is trying its best to bring in Egypt and Sudan for the
joint management of the project, but has not been successful due to Egypt‟s unyielding attitude. If that initiative becomes
successful, it will be a major landmark for the transboundary water cooperation in the Nile basin. However, Ethiopia‟s pursuit
of the project in a rushed and non-transparent manner and almost ignoring the guidelines prescribed by the WCD has raised
serious questions about its sustainability aspects. It is not too late for Ethiopia to address many of the environmental and social
concerns raised by civil society groups. Ethiopia needs to open itself to available lessons learned from experiences of large
dam building in countries like China, India, Canada and the USA. With the increasing transparency and willingness to
accommodate attitude, the GERD project can be a great opportunity for the region to work together. Thanks to this project,
Ethiopia has become a major stakeholder of the Nile and in the basin‟s interest there is a need to increase riparian dialogue and
to share the river in the way that benefits all.
However, the GERD project has not prioritized the WCD prescribed framework for achieving sustainability, this brings
new opportunities for the basin in breaking an age-old stalemate. Egypt is fast realizing that it cannot continue to maintain the
role of hydro-hegemon, and that might force its leadership to behave in a more cooperative and accommodating way. It is
important that Egypt adopts a cooperative posture because without the transformation of Egypt‟s stance, it will not be possible
to establish sustainable and lasting cooperation over the Nile‟s water. The equitable utilization and cooperative management of
the Nile water will not only foster development in the basin countries, but also be a catalyst for peace and cooperation in the
region.
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Huiyi Chen (born in China, 1987-12-1). She earned a Bachelor Degree of Environment Science from Fudan University in Shanghai, China
in 2011 and a Master Degree of Sustainable Development from Uppsala University, Sweden in 2013.
She worked as Trainee, focusing on the research on Integrated Water Resources Management in the Uppsala Center of Sustainable
Development in Uppsala, Sweden in 2012. Then she worked as intern, focusing on Water-Energy-Food Nexus in United Nations Economic
and Social Commission of Asia Pacific (UNESCAP) in Bangkok, Thailand till February of 2013. She also worked as research intern in
Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) with Water-Energy-Food Nexus issues in China.
Ms. Chen has written research papers for ECRAN project on water security and three redlines water management policies in China for the
decision makers of European Commission.
Ashok Swain (born in India, 1965-02-19). He received his PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi in 1991, and since then he
has been teaching at the Uppsala University.
He is a Professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research and at the Department of Earth Sciences, CSD of Uppsala University
Sweden. He has been a Mac Arthur Fellow at the University of Chicago, visiting professor/fellows at UN Research Institute for Social
Development, Geneva; University Witwatersrand, South Africa, University of Science, Malaysia, University of British Columbia, University
of Maryland and Stanford University.
Prof. Swain has written extensively on emerging security challenges, international water sharing and migration issues and democratic
development.
... In recent years, the Nile basin countries, particularly Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt, have seen massive population growth [34]. Sudan built the large Merowe Dam (1250 MW) in 1936 and later Roseires Dam was begun in 1950 to add additional 420,000 hectares of irrigated land while, Egypt built the Aswan High Dam (2100 MW) to control the flow of the Nile in the 1960's, resulting in increased agricultural production, employment, and electricity [35,36]. The Ethiopian government has planned to construct a mega hydroelectric dam on the Abbay (Nile) river since the 1960's [36]. ...
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