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Explained: How a dam on River Nile may trigger water wars in East Africa

Ethiopia’s mega project on the Nile may just allow the country to control the river’s waters, and this is essentially what concerns Egypt because it lies downstream.

During the construction of the dam in 2014 (Wikimedia Commons)

Africa’s longest river, the Nile, has been at the center of a decade-long complex dispute involving several countries in the continent who are dependent on the river’s waters. At the forefront of this dispute however, are Ethiopia and Egypt. Later this year, talks are set to begin between the two countries in Washington D.C. on the future of the hydropower project on the Nile that is at the center of these disputes.

What is the dispute about?

When completed, the Grand Rennaissance Dam hydropower project being constructed by Ethiopia, will be Africa’s largest. While the main waterways of the Nile run through Uganda, South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt, its drainage basin runs through other countries in East Africa, including Ethiopia.

Ethiopia began construction of the dam in 2011 on the Blue Nile tributary that runs across one part of the country. Egypt has objected to the construction of this dam and in Sudan has found itself caught in the midst of this conflict. Due to the importance of the Nile as a necessary water source in the region, observers are concerned that this dispute may evolve into a full-fledged conflict between the two nations. The US has stepped in to mediate.

How can this lead to conflict?

Ethiopia’s mega project on the Nile may just allow the country to control the river’s waters, and this is essentially what concerns Egypt because it lies downstream. Last year, Ethiopia announced that it planned on generating power using two turbines by December 2020.

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However, Egypt has objected to these plans and has proposed a longer timeline for the project because it does not want the water level of the Nile to dramatically drop as the reservoir fills with water in the initial stages.

For the past four years, triparty talks between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have been unable to reach agreements. Egypt isn’t alone in its concerns. Sudan is hardly a passive observer caught in the conflict just because of its location. It too believes Ethiopia having control over the river through the dam may affect its own water supplies.

Why does Ethiopia want this dam?

Ethiopia believes this dam will generate approximately 6,000 megawatts of electricity when it is done. According to a BBC report, 65% of Ethiopia’s population suffers due to lack of access to electricity. This dam will reduce those shortages and help the country’s manufacturing industry. The country may also be able to supply electricity to neighbouring nations and earn some revenue in exchange.


Neighbouring countries like Kenya, Sudan, Eriteria and South Sudan also suffer from electricity shortages. If Ethiopia sells electricity to these nations, they may also reap benefits.

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What is happening now?

In the latest developments on this front, Egypt announced this past Thursday that it is willing to resume neogtiations with Ethiopia and Sudan concerning the dam. According to Egypt’s foreign ministry, any agreement would have to take into account the interest of Ethiopia and Sudan, the two countries in the Nile basin that are directly involved in this issue.


Following the announcement in April by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that his country would proceed with the first stage of filling the dam, Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok held a virtual meeting with Ahmed to discuss the issue.

Observers believe Egypt’s latest stance on the issue follows the virtual meeting between the leaders of Ethiopia and Sudan. While Ethiopia has stated that it does not need Egypt’s permission to fill the dam, Egypt on the other hand, wrote to the UN Security Council on May 1, saying the dam would jeopardise food and water security and livelihoods of ordinary Egyptian citizens. In the letter to the UNSC, Egypt also implied that the dam would cause armed conflict between the two countries.

First published on: 24-05-2020 at 09:46:13 am
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