Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam: Disaster Looms for Egypt and Sudan

Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam
A farmer walks in a field in Kafr al-Dawar village in northern Egypt’s Nile Delta. MOHAMED EL-SHAHED / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article has been translated from Arabic to English.

Ethiopia successfully inaugurated phase 1 of its power generation project on February 20, bringing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam one step closer to completion. The country had been progressively filling the dam reservoir with the Nile’s water over the past two years. As expected, Sudan slammed this development, as it is located northwest of Ethiopia and receives the waters of the Nile after it travels through its neighbor’s territory.

This inauguration, according to the Sudanese government, is a unilateral decision that ignores the need for a formal legal agreement between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt to fill and run the dam. Sudan’s downstream neighbor Egypt, for its part, opted for escalation by writing to the UN Security Council, denouncing Ethiopia’s operation as a “fundamental breach of international law” and warning against direct consequences for “Egypt’s rights and interests as a riparian state” of the Nile river.

The Ethiopian media exacerbated the conflict between Egypt and Sudan on one hand, and Ethiopia on the other, over the Renaissance Dam and its consequences for both downstream neighbors. The main source of concern was the likelihood of a reduction in Nile flow, which would have an impact on both countries once the dam was built and while it was being filled. Given its location as the last downstream country, Egypt would be the most affected by such a situation, as its ability to gather Nile water would be reduced, although Sudan would still be able to retrieve a considerable amount of its share before the water reaches Egyptian land. Despite both countries criticizing Ethiopia’s handling of the situation, this issue underscores Egypt’s harsh attitude against the Renaissance Dam, compared to Sudan’s milder posture.

The Renaissance Dam is the subject of a long-running dispute. The three countries have been at odds since Ethiopia began construction of the dam in 2011. All rounds of talks between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt have failed to establish an agreement on the dam’s operation. Even the “Declaration of Principle” agreement inked by the three nations at a tripartite meeting in Khartoum in 2015 did not result in a detailed plan for the dam’s operations. The Declaration of Principle agreement itself was confined to broad recommendations, omitted any implementation tools, and came before any discussions of common ground, good intentions, and equitable water resource management.

Ethiopia began filling the dam reservoir in July 2020, after completing the majority of the construction work, much to the chagrin of Egypt and Sudan. On the other hand, the Ethiopian government has shown very little desire to alter its plans. Ethiopia continues to reject Egypt’s demands for participation in the Renaissance Dam’s operation or the signing of any legal agreement detailing operational procedures. Addis Ababa has also declined to construct any dam spillways to ensure a larger Nile water flow toward Sudan and Egypt, and it has dismissed Egypt’s request to pump 40 billion cubic meters of water a year from the dam, stating that doing so would hinder the dam’s filling process. Sudan, for its part, continues to demand that Ethiopia adhere to timelines for the amount of water stymied and yearly deadlines for filling the dam reservoir, as well as laying out clear avenues for future dam-related disputes.

Ethiopia went ahead with its ambitious project despite these demands, and constructed the Renaissance Dam, over a surface exceeding 1800 square kilometers, reaching 170 meters in height, thus making it the largest dam on the African continent. As a result, Ethiopia will be able to produce around 6000 megawatts of power, 2000 of which can be exported to neighboring countries. This will make it Africa’s largest exporter of electricity. This milestone comes at a cost of more than USD4.7 billion, making it the most expensive strategic project in Ethiopia’s history.

In summation, despite the expected horrific humanitarian repercussions and Egypt’s several escalations in response to the Renaissance Dam, Ethiopia’s inflexibility with regard to this project is reinforced by its ambitions. As Ethiopia reserves Nile water to complete the dam reservoir in the next years, the implications will be a reduction in water flow to Sudan and Egypt.

Humanitarian repercussions on Sudan and Egypt

While the political spat between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan over the Renaissance Dam continues, scientific studies have begun to reveal the project’s estimated humanitarian effects on Egyptian and Sudanese communities, particularly in terms of the reduction in their share of Nile water. When it comes to use, an individual’s share of water in Sudan is capped at 787.5 cubic meters per year, while in Egypt, it is capped at 660 cubic meters per year. Individual water shares in Sudan and Egypt, according to the UN, are less than the minimum required (1000 cubic meters per year). Due to overpopulation, rapid demographic expansion, and a failure to conserve rainwater, among other concerns, water scarcity has long been an issue of concern in both countries prior to the dam’s construction. The Nile provides 73 percent of Sudan’s fresh water, whereas the Nile provides 97 percent of Egypt’s. Due to a projected population rise in both countries, the crisis is predicted to deepen. By 2025, Egypt’s population is expected to reach 95.9 million people. Sudan’s population is predicted to reach 54.3 million people by 2025. Water scarcity is forecast to rise in tandem with this degree of expansion, given the restricted water supply accessible in both countries, on top of challenges such as agricultural land irrigation and food security.

The construction and filling of Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam overlaps with a water crisis in Egypt and Sudan, which threatens to deteriorate in both downstream nations as a result of the reduction in water flow from the Nile River. Sudan and Egypt are likely to lose 14 to 24 billion cubic meters of water over the next three years, on top of additional amounts owing to anticipated water breaches from the dam’s base. The proportion of water evaporating from the dam reservoir is expected to rise to 5.9%, increasing the Nile’s salinity and reducing the amount of fresh water required to irrigate agricultural lands in both countries.

Studies reveal that agricultural fields in Upper Egypt have decreased by 29.47 percent, and agricultural lands in the Nile Delta have shrunk by 23.03 percent, turning a water safety issue into a food security issue in a country struggling to feed its population. Furthermore, due to the reduction in Nile water flow to Egypt, the level of water in Lake Nasser is predicted to drop by roughly 10 meters, resulting in a loss of 20% to 40% of the power provided by the lake dam.

The looming water crisis in Egypt and Sudan will have a number of humanitarian effects, including a decrease in people’s annual water share, a rise in food prices, a higher reliance on imported food, and an increase in rural-to-urban migration as the agriculture sector collapses. Reduced water is also predicted to have an impact on power supply from dams built in both countries, resulting in a decrease in the quality of life of rural communities and their capacity to practice sustainable agriculture. Reduced water supply will also result in desertification of agricultural fields, which will have a long-term strategic impact on land reclamation and people’s ability to recommence agricultural activities.

An increase in salinity of the Nile will lead to a reduction of the fish resources in the river that Egypt depends on to secure a large portion of its food needs. Studies have also revealed that decreases of up to 4 to 5 billion cubic meters of water automatically result in a 12% shrinkage in agricultural production. Such catastrophic repercussions will widen the food gap – a shortage in the quantities of food needed to provide for the population’s needs – from 55% of their current needs to more than 75%.

The agriculture sector alone employs a quarter of Egypt’s workforce, and 80 percent of Nile water entering Egypt is used to cultivate agricultural regions. The annual water shortfall in Egypt has topped 43 billion cubic meters, as anticipated around the time the dam reservoir was being filled, and will trigger a recession in the agrarian sector in particular. In other words, any reduction in the amount of water flowing into the country will have an impact on employment, the quality of life of farming families, and their ability to remain in rural areas.

Repercussions on gender equity

In Egypt and Sudan, the agriculture sector employs millions of women who depend on the land to make a living, despite being underpaid and lacking job security. Women comprise a small percentage of agricultural land owners in both countries; nonetheless, the agriculture sector in rural areas continues to provide an opportunity for women to participate in the economy and earn an income. According to statistics, the agriculture industry employs 42.8 percent of Egypt’s female workforce, signifying that any reduction in agricultural operations will have an immediate impact on women’s economic participation.

Taking into account the projections indicating that millions of rural Egyptian and Sudanese families would be impacted by water scarcity, it is fair to assume that this crisis will lead a large percentage of women to leave the job market in both countries in the absence of alternative economic sectors available to them. Furthermore, due to a spike in the rate of evaporation caused by water collection in the Renaissance Dam and a decrease in water flow in Sudan and Egypt, female workers in the agriculture sector will be exponentially exposed to increased pollution and salt in the Nile River.

Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam is now nearing completion in the absence of any prior agreement with Sudan and Egypt, Ethiopia’s downstream neighbors. The world can only watch as the humanitarian ramifications of reduced water flow emerge, ranging from water and food security to increased migration and unemployment, as well as a drop in women’s economic participation.


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