Fears were raised over an escalation in the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) dispute, involving Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia, which all lie on the Nile’s banks, after a statement made by US President Donald Trump on Friday 25 October.
“They’ll [Egypt] blow up that dam, and they have to do something,” Trump said during a televised announcement confirming that Sudan and Israel had normalised relations.
Ethiopia sees the GERD as a crucial national infrastructure project to boost its power supply but Egypt fears that the dam will siphon off Nile waters, endangering its water security.
Egyptian military action would be a “cataclysmic disaster” for Sudan, which lies 20km downstream from the dam that currently holds 4.9bn cubic meters of water, said William Davison, senior analyst on Ethiopia at Crisis Group.
“Bombing the dam has never been anything like a sensible idea. It’s not clear if Egypt has the military capabilities to do so and that dam has got huge amounts of water in it so it would be a cataclysmic disaster downstream in Sudan. It’s not clear how Egypt would secure their interests that way. They’ll just enrage Ethiopia, and there’ll be even less chance of cooperation.”
Ethiopia’s decision to begin filling the dam in July, before an agreement had been struck, shows Addis Ababa’s determination to proceed with the project, Davison believes.
“It does in many ways put pressure on Sudan and Egypt to cooperate and make some concessions to get some sort of agreement, because it really is only through cooperation and agreement that Egypt and Sudan can really secure their interests here.”
Negotiations led by South African president and current African Union chairman Cyril Ramaphosa will restart on Tuesday, nearly two months after Egypt quit the last round of talks.
The African Union took over the leadership of the negotiations in July after Ethiopia started filling the dam. Earlier US-brokered attempts to end the dispute failed, leading the US to consider cutting aid to Ethiopia.
The $4.6bn structure is the largest hydropower dam in Africa, and is set to transform Ethiopia’s economy by doubling its electricity output to 16,000 GW.
Currently, only 44% of Ethiopia’s households have access to electricity, with a quarter of these relying on off-grid solutions. By contrast, Egypt has already achieved full electricity coverage.
The Nile contributes 90% of Egypt’s fresh water and underpins irrigation and power generation, leading the government to cast the GERD as a national security threat. If the project goes ahead as Addis Ababa plans, Egypt fears water shortages and additional hydropower projects upstream. At the upcoming round of talks “incremental progress” can be expected, Davison says.