Waiting to Die of Thirst: Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, and the GERD

Photo Credit: Olof von Gawinski 

By Michael Keene
Staff Writer

In northeast Africa, a tragedy of epic proportions has been playing out for decades. 

Ethiopia’s ongoing construction of a massive $4.5 billion dam over the Nile River’s largest tributary has led to an increasingly volatile East African environment, in which old colonial practices, climate change, and ongoing civil conflicts loom large. For the nations involved, the construction of the dam has become cloaked in questions of identity and age-old national myths, raising tensions and increasing the likelihood of conflict as climate change makes the life-giving waters of the Nile ever more scarce. 

In the early 1960s, the Ethiopian government considered the building of a massive dam over the Blue Nile– a tributary which accounts for approximately 86% of the river’s overall flow. While construction was continually delayed until 2011, its progress has since been inexorable. As of 2023, the dam is over 90% complete and the resulting reservoir has been filled three times, with a 4th filling planned for later this year. 

Construction of the so-called Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has the potential to reap colossal benefits for Ethiopia. Aside from the thousands of jobs created in its construction, harnessing the power of the Nile would allow the Ethiopian government to provide power to 60% of the 110 million Ethiopians living without electricity while still allowing them to export excess energy to neighboring states. Of these citizens, many are concentrated in the region of Tigray, a northern territory torn apart by the 21st century’s bloodiest conflict: a war many blame on decades of neglect on the part of the central government in Addis Ababa. Thus, in recent years, the project has come to promise not only economic revitalization, but perhaps lasting stability and a return to peaceful coexistence within the country as well. 

For Africa’s oldest independent state, the GERD is a national symbol; a chance to assert its status as a rising, independent power capable of exerting influence across the Horn of Africa and beyond. The pride felt by Ethiopians toward the dam is palpable. Members of the Ethiopian diaspora donated over $50 million to the completion of the project, while at home the start of construction was met with hashtags like #itsmydam trending on social media platforms. 

Photo Credit: Nina R 

However, the reaction from Ethiopia’s northern neighbors, Egypt and Sudan, has been lukewarm at best. In 2021, Lt-Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Sudan’s military strongman, noted that completion of the GERD would result in a war “that would be more horrible than one could imagine” unless some form of compromise could be reached. Meanwhile, Egypt made a slightly more subtle threat by indicating that peace talks could not “continue indefinitely.”  

Indeed, both Egypt and Sudan perceive the Nile as central to their national security, with Egypt in particular perceiving the presence of the GERD as nothing short of an existential threat. Over 95% of Egyptians live on or near the banks of the river and depend on its continued flow to survive. The Aswan High Dam, constructed in the 1960s under the direction of Gamal Abdel Nasser, provides power to millions of Egyptian citizens while simultaneously eliminating the threat of downstream flooding, ensuring the survival of Egypt’s rich agricultural sector. Currently, approximately 90% of Egypt’s total water needs are met by the Nile, and with an ever-expanding population, its dependence on the ancient river is likely to expand before it contracts.

Given this heavy dependence on the Nile, any act which could impact its current flow has the potential to inflict devastating consequences on Egypt, including drought and billions of dollars in economic damage. Though many experts have argued that the effects of filling the GERD are overstated and would only result in a temporary reduction in overall flow, such rosy predictions offer little comfort to a country already struggling with political and economic turmoil. In particular, the threat posed by the GERD to Egypt’s agricultural sector has the potential to be earth-shattering. Some models have predicted that the resulting increase in food prices as Egypt’s agricultural output slows due to the filling GERD would massively increase popular opposition to Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s administration, particularly if his government was perceived to have been too inactive in stopping the completion of the project. The specter of political instability as a result of high food prices bears an ominous similarity to both the 2011 Arab Spring and 1977 Bread Riots; two cases of civil unrest wherein the high price of food contributed to the downfall of two powerful regimes. 

Even if such impacts are overstated, Egyptian officials nevertheless balk at the idea that they would allow Ethiopia to obtain so much influence over what they perceive to be Egyptian water, with one negotiator insisting that his country would not be turned into a “hydrological colony.” Indeed, as in Ethiopia, Egypt’s stance on the GERD is a matter of national pride as well as practical economics. For thousands of years, Egyptian culture has been inextricably linked with the Nile. It is the waterway that has given life to Egyptian society since its inception and an entity that many Egyptians have come to see as fundamental to their heritage. 

Aside from framing the conflict as a question of national identity, both sides have additionally sought to cast the dispute over the GERD in terms of broader, regional identifications. 

For its part, the Ethiopian government has consistently highlighted the pan-African nature of the project, emphasizing the dam’s potential to benefit the entire continent and accusing Egypt of monopolizing control over a river to which upstream states are equally entitled. It has consistently advocated for an African Union-backed resolution to the conflict, seeking to gain support among other African states in order to protect their interests. 

This pan-African thrust has been bolstered by the fact that Egypt justifies its opposition to the GERD by citing a 1929 British colonial policy that granted it and Sudan veto power over all up-river projects. Thus Ethiopia has been able to cast itself as a nation engaged in a struggle against those who would maintain imperial practices and ensure that Africa remains beholden to old European rulings. 

In contrast, Egypt has primarily appealed to other Arab States for assistance; painting it as an issue of broader Arab national security. Earlier this year, Egypt sought and successfully obtained a resolution from the Arab League calling on Ethiopia to moderate and seek compromise with her northern neighbors. 

The conflation of a disagreement over water allocation with both national and regional identifications spells disaster as climate change backs both parties into a corner. 

Some estimates have concluded that even without the GERD, Egypt’s overall agricultural output may decrease by between 11% and 51% as a result of climate change. Indeed, the Nile Delta’s shores are already retreating by 60 feet annually– a trend that is unlikely to reverse unless serious international action to reduce carbon emissions is taken. 

Cooperation between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt will be crucial in order to ensure that this ever-depleting resource is allocated fairly in the years to come. Yet this possibility becomes ever more distant when the conflict becomes framed as a conflict of pride and self-identification; a national struggle pitting Northern and Sub-Saharan African identities against one another. 

While there are undoubtedly reasons to be hopeful, such as Sudan’s increasing willingness to accept Ethiopia’s right to construct the GERD, such signs of progress offer little hope in the long run. Though some have predicted that military conflict is largely off the table given Egypt’s overall geopolitical weakness, it is uncertain how long such gains can hold as the tap starts to run dry.

The seeming inevitability of conflict can perhaps best be summarized by Egypt’s long-dead President Anwar Sadat, who, speaking in 1978 on a hypothetical Ethiopian dam, asserted that Egyptians would not “wait to die of thirst in Egypt.” Rather, they would “go to Ethiopia and die there.”

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