Modern dam engineers in Africa could inadvertently trigger a water war in Africa.

It all started when Egypt was distracted by a governmental crisis - the Arab Spring Uprising was consuming most of the attention of the tenuously positioned Egyptian Government. At this juncture the Ethiopian government mobilized its dam engineers to begin work on a project to create hydro power.

So began a hydro-politics disagreement that Egypt says may lead to a war.

Image: Render of GERD Source: International Rivers

The Ethiopian project involves damming one of Africa’s greatest sources of water; the River Nile. By harnessing this river the Kingdoms of Egypt, Ancient and New, were enabled. And modern Egypt is still very reliant on its water. Ethiopia’s industrialization and modernization, however, continues, and as it does, there is a growing demand for electricity. The government plans to have this source of power as part of their future energy mix.

More than 80% of Egypt’s water is provided by the Blue Nile which flows from Ethiopia. The proposed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), destined to be filled by water from the Blue Nile, may impact on Egypt.

The dam has been under construction since 2011. The entire project will cost Ethiopia US$5 billion - roughly 15% of the country’s GDP as recorded in 2012 (and 60% of its annual budget).

Egypt is rightly concerned that their water source may be disrupted by the GERD. The success of agriculture in Egypt is still dependent on the Nile, as it was in ancient times. If their scant rainfall levels drop and the filling of the dam begins Egypt could run dry.

Upon its completion, the GERD will be the biggest dam in Africa. It will be 1,800 meters long, 155 meters high, and will hold 74 billion liters of water. The project, as of 5 months ago, was 60% completed. It is expected to be operating by the end of 2018.

Ethiopian sources say the hydro power setup (including 16 hydroelectric turbines) will neither divert nor disrupt the water that is Egypt-bound. Experts, on the other hand, are worried that when the dam begins filling it could cut off Egypt’s water supply for a full year; unless, of course, it is filled very slowly indeed.

The middleman and the naysayers

Source: FANA Broadcasting Image: GERD progress

The African country right in the middle (figuratively and literally) of the Ethiopian and Egyptian water dispute, is Sudan.

Sudan is siding with Ethiopia. The benefits for them include a potential strengthening of their already strong agricultural output and they hope to share in the electricity generated by the turbines at the GERD. Being outnumbered two to one Egypt would struggle to prevent the completion of the GERD.

Resources Ministers from the three African countries have been engaged in talks to settle concerns, but to no avail. Egypt has appealed to the UN Security Council to intervene, but the matter has again been referred to the leadership of the countries involved.

BBC News spoke to Osama Daoud Abdellatif, head of the DAL Group, a group that operates farms and irrigation setups in Sudan. He said:

“For Sudan, it’s wonderful. It’s the best thing that’s happened for a long time and I think the combination of energy and regular water levels is a great blessing.”

Engineering professionals, however, warn that the estimated figures published around the impact of the GERD on electricity output may be a little off. Asfaw Beyene, a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at San Diego State University, speaking to International Rivers said:

“More than half of the turbines will be rarely used. GERD’s available power output, based on the average of river flow throughout the year and the dam height, is about 2,000 megawatts, not 6,000. There is little doubt that the system has been designed for a peak flow rate that only happens during the 2-3 months of the rainy season. Targeting near peak or peak flow rate makes no economic sense.”

Works Cited
“The 'Water War' Brewing over the New River Nile Dam.” BBC News, BBC, 24 Feb. 2018, www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-43170408.
“The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Fact Sheet.” International Rivers, www.internationalrivers.org/resources/the-grand-ethiopian-renaissance-dam-fact-sheet-8213.