War Over Water

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The Blue Nile in Guba, Ethiopia: Ethiopia has begun diverting the Blue Nile as part of a giant dam project resulting in unease from downstream nations Sudan and Egypt.

For the past six years, Ethiopia has been building a dam on the Blue River Nile, which when completed, will be the County’s main power source. The power generated from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will triple Ethiopia’s domestic power market, allowing it to sell the excess energy to neighboring countries. The total cost of the project is $6.4 billion, a massive sum for a country whose GDP is only about 40 billion USD. The dam has been a nationwide sign of pride and prosperity for a country being catapulted into the modern world.

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The Economist
The White Nile and the Blue Nile converge in Khartoum, Sudan. From there, the Nile River passes north through the deserts of Sudan to Egypt, supplying the fresh water which has been the lifeblood of both modern and ancient civilizations. While European explorers often focused on the White Nile as the main tributary and famously followed it to find the Nile’s source near Lake Victoria, it is the Blue Nile, whose source is the Ethiopian Highlands, that supplies most of the water and silt.

Currently, Ethiopia is the fastest growing economy in Africa, but without energy, the country will struggle to maintain its current growth. Ethiopia has a population of 102 million people, and only about a third have access to electricity.

While there are many benefits of the Grand Renaissance Dam for Ethiopia, for the two nations downstream of the Blue Nile, Egypt and Sudan, there is much distress. Experts suggest that as a result of the dam, there will be an accumulation of salts in the Delta Nile (the land surrounding the Nile), which would cause the soil to become less farmable. However, the decrease in fresh water is the most significant concern for Egypt. As the GERD fills its reservoir, less water will temporarily reach Egypt, and 60% of Egypt’s water comes from the Blue Nile. 

Since the announcement of the Grand Renaissance Dam Project, there have been multiple meetings between representatives from Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt to come to an agreement over the use of the water in the Nile River. Despite these talks, tensions are still high. The dam is currently expected to be finished in the next 6 months. 

Sudanese sources from one of the meetings claim that Ethiopia has been reluctant to give in to Egypt’s requests. The dam is such a crucial aspect to Ethiopia’s success that they need it to run exactly as planned. On the other hand, Egypt has a population of 96 million people; 40% of those people live on the Delta Nile. Because of the GERD project, the farming and drinkable water could be affected by both the rising salt levels and the drop in the total water supply. Conversely, Sudan is not as threatened as Egypt because Ethiopia has promised to sell energy to Sudan once the dam is complete. The dam is only dozens of miles away from the border of Sudan, making it simpler to create power lines and a successful energy trade between the two countries would be mutually beneficial.

On many occasions, Egypt has requested Ethiopia to stop constructing the dam. They have also attempted to bring the disagreement to the United Nation Security Council arguing that the dam violates agreements signed in the past. The extent of Egypt’s fear of the dam was made evident in June 2013 when Egyptian officials, unaware their conversation was being aired on live T.V., were caught plotting different ways to destroy the GERD. In March 2017, a group of terrorists attacked the dam construction site with RPGs and light machine guns, but guards at the dam managed to fend them off. While the attack was attributed to Eritrea, Ethiopian officials also accused Egypt of destabilizing the country.

Ethiopia is in a difficult situation; the GERD project will supply much needed energy to the population, but the affects to Sudan, and specifically Egypt are significant.  Egypt has stated in the past that they do not want war but will keep “all options open” with regards to the outcome of the GERD project. As Anwar Sadat, former Egyptian president, said, “The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.”

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