What’s the Chop?

75 million Ethiopians (65% of their population) do not have access to electricity. Their government has started building a dam to change that. However, this is being derailed by a decade-long tug-of-war between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt.

What’s going on?

This dam, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (‘GERD’ for short) is a hydro-electric power plant that will provide electricity for Ethiopians and for neighbouring countries. The dam is seriously massive — once it’s done, it will be Africa’s largest-ever hydro-electric dam, bigger than Greater London. Ethiopia has constructed about 70% of it, and plans to use water from the River Nile to fill it up. However, this has caused a lot of conflict, with Egypt especially, because Egypt and Sudan called dibs on the Nile.

LOL. Seriously? Can they even do that?

Technically, yes. In 1929, Britain, ‘representing’ its colonies, signed a treaty with Egypt that gave them ‘ownership’ of 57% of the Nile, and Sudan 4%. This also gave Egypt veto power over any construction projects along the Nile or its tributaries. Years later, Sudan and Egypt agreed to increase their allocations — 66% for Egypt, 22% for Sudan. This would be fine if the Nile flowed into only these two countries, but it flows through eleven countries — one of which is Ethiopia.

The construction of the dam has kicked off a wave of back-and-forths, and negotiations that don’t seem to be letting up. The whole thing has gone something like this:

  • Egypt: This is a threat to our food and economic security. You have to stop construction. 90% of our water comes from the Nile, and the dam will reduce our water levels. Sudan, back me up here.
  • Sudan: I mean . . . it isn’t the worst thing for us. We get a lot of flooding during the rainy season, and the dam will help to reduce that.
  • Egypt: Ugh. You’re only saying that because they’ve offered you electricity on the cheap.
  • Ethiopia: Look, this dam is important for our nation’s development, and for regional electricity supply. And frankly, we cannot be tied to a colonial agreement that we weren’t even a part of. We need equitable water distribution; let’s come to an agreement of our own.
  • Egypt: Have you considered that some of our own electricity supply also relies on water from the Nile? We don’t mind drawing up a new agreement, just as long as you guarantee us 48% of the Nile.
  • Ethiopia: That makes no sense! We are the main source of the Nile! The Blue Nile flows from Lake Tana in Ethiopia, and accounts for 85% of the Nile. Technically, you don’t have any claim to it.
  • Egypt: Wrong. We have the 1929 and 1956 receipts. What do you have?
  • Ethiopia: *Sigh* We have to come to a mutually-beneficial agreement. We are meeting you halfway already. We have agreed to spread the filling of the dam over 7 years. Typically, it could take 2–3 years. This should keep your water levels relatively decent. How’s that?
  • Egypt: Now you’re talking. But 7 years is not enough. We’d need you to extend this to between 12 and 21 years. Otherwise, we’ll take military action.
  • Ethiopia: Try us, we can get millions of our own ready!
  • Sudan: *crickets*
  • Egypt: We can’t keep going back and forth like this. Clearly we’re at a dead end. Let’s get an external mediator.
  • Russia: We’d love to help you out.
  • All: *crickets*
  • US and the World Bank: What about us?
  • All: Fine.

What now?

After talks led by the US and the World Bank, an initial agreement was drafted earlier this year. But Ethiopia pulled out of these talks, saying that the mediators were biased. Sudan has remained neutral. Egypt has gone on the offensive, and is now seeking support from its neighbors in the region — including Sudan — to force Ethiopia to give in. So, the saga continues.

Your Takeaway.

As Egypt continues to say “You can’t sit with us” and grows its posse, the tug of war goes on. But just like Zimbabwe, Ethiopia is on the edge and may not sustain its defiance to the US much longer. The African Union has been particularly quiet on this issue, and has missed a major opportunity to gain relevance as the continent’s frontman. COVID has thrown a spanner in the public aspect of this drama, but as things ease up in the next few months, it’ll be interesting to see who blinks first.

What can I do?

Well, hydropower generation cannot be done at an individual level, so your hands are tied on that front. But, there is something to be said for letting the little guy win, for once, and maybe that’s where you come in — find new ways to stick up for the underdogs in your sphere of influence.

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