Grand Renaissance Dam in doubt as Ethiopia edges towards civil war

Ministers from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia launched a new round of talks on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) this week, amid growing political tensions in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. The resumption of negotiations follows a failure by the three countries to reach an agreement on a workable mechanism for the talks earlier this month.

Sudan's Irrigation Minister Yasser AbbasThe latest discussions are part of efforts mediated by South Africa, current leaders of the African Union (AU), to reach a legally binding agreement on filling and operating the controversial dam. Egypt insists that resumption of the talks – that Ethiopia broke off last month – are required to reach a ‘fair and balanced agreement’ that preserves the water rights of all three countries.

The stakes are high. Formerly known as the Millennium Dam, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GRED) is a gravity dam approximately the size of London that is located 15 km upstream from where the Blue Nile Rive river flows in to Sudan. First proposed some 50 years ago by the late Emperor Haile Selassie, the GRED will eventually have the capacity to generate 6,000 MW of electricity and so simultaneously turn Ethiopia into Africa’s largest power exporter, diversify its economy, and raise the country to middle-income status within as little as five years.

From an Egyptian point of view, however, it potentially spells economic and social disaster. Egypt’s 100 million inhabitants currently draw 90% of their water from the Blue Nile, and the dam’s construction has raised serious concerns among Egyptians and the neighbouring Sudanese over its potential to trigger droughts and power shortages downstream.

Although Ethiopia later confirmed that officials at this week’s meeting reached an understanding on the need to continue talks around the rules dictating the Renaissance Dam’s first mobilisation and its ongoing annual operation, Sudan’s Irrigation Minister, Yasser Abbas, later went on record to say that negotiations had now been ‘paused indefinitely’.

The uncertainty surrounding Sudan’s commitment to future talks reflects the growing turmoil within Ethiopia that has been sparked by the escalation of the armed conflict in Ethiopia between the government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Tensions began to rise after the Tigray region rejected Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s decision to postpone the parliamentary elections because of the coronavirus pandemic and decided unilaterally to hold its own polls in September. On November 5, Ahmed declared a wide-scale war on the TPLF after an attack on a federal military base.

Some of the current conflict’s bloodiest reported incidents have been taking place in the western region of Benishangul-Gumuz, where the Renaissance Dam is located, and 34 people were recently killed in an attack on a bus there. But it is not only through the threat it poses to construction workers safety that the conflict is is putting the dam’s future in jeopardy. It could also have serious long-term financial consequences for Ethiopia as a whole and by extension to the GRED.

“Ethiopia is witnessing a fierce civil war that will affect the Renaissance Dam crisis,” Hani Raslan, head of Sudan and Nile Basin studies department at Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, explained to Al-Monitor“Ethiopia’s resources are scarce. Therefore, when the Ethiopian government engages in a large-scale military operation against Tigray, this will definitely affect the funding allocated for the construction of the GERD, because the country’s resources will be channeled to financing the war,” he explained. That war, he added, was going to be ‘a protracted one.’