Africa Requires Ethiopia Fill Its Dam

Artist drawing of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam


Africa Requires Ethiopia Fill Its Dam

Lawrence Freeman

July 17, 2020

Ethiopia is entering a crucial period for the future of its nation, as we approach the second half of July. Ethiopia must use the forthcoming rainy season (July to September) to begin the partial filling of its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) being built on Ethiopia’s Blue Nile River. When fully completed, the GERD, Africa’s largest hydroelectric project is capable of producing over 6,000 megawatts (MW). This is not only a game changer for Ethiopia, but will contribute to transforming the Horn of Africa.

The Blue Nile, which joins the White Nile just north of Khartoum, Sudan, provides 86% of the water that becomes the Nile River. From there, the Nile flows north through the deserts of Sudan and Egypt before emptying into the Mediterranean Sea.  Ethiopia has been involved in intense discussions with Sudan and Egypt, downstream from the dam, about the amount of water to be withdrawn from the Blue Nile to begin filling the GERD’s 76 billion cubic meter storage/reservoir. Egypt continuously attempts to forestall the filling of the dam, alleging that since it is dependent on the Nile, if the volume of the Nile is reduced, its citizens will suffer irreparable harm. For most of the last century Egypt has received the majority of the Nile River’s 84 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water.

Electricity for Development

The GERD, which is 75% finished was entirely funded by the Ethiopian people, is a $5 billion water infrastructure project initiated in 2011. Its purpose is to provide much needed electricity to power Ethiopia’s transition from an agrarian dominated economy to one that encompasses manufacturing and industry. In the years ahead, Ethiopia envisions become a light manufacturing hub for Africa, increasing manufacturing output, and manufacturing jobs by 440%.

The functioning of the GERD is not an option for this emerging nation of 110 million people, but a categorical necessity.

As a physical economist, who has studied Africa for decades, and knows the key drivers of economic growth, I can tell you that nothing is more vital for the survival of Africa, than the production of electricity.  Without abundant and accessible electricity, poverty and disease will not be eliminated. Poverty is the number one enemy of Africa and is the cause of immense suffering for hundreds of millions of Africans.

Approximately 600 million Africans, almost half of the continent’s population, are not connected to a central energy grid. The overwhelming majority of them reside in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). More than 65 million Ethiopians, 40-45% of the population, do not have access to electricity. While Ethiopia suffers from one of the lowest per capita levels of electrical energy consumption, Egypt’s population of 100 million has 100% access.

When completed, the GERD will increase Ethiopia’s power generation from its current level of 4,500 MW to close to 11,000 MW, which will make it the second largest energy producer in SAA, behind South Africa. Ethiopia has already entered into agreements to export its excess electricity to other nations in East Africa.

“The Ethiopians officials have announced an annual investment of one billion dollars over the next decade in the development of specialized industrial parks.” (Courtesy

Ethiopia’s commitment to construct the GERD resonates with the same vision that compelled the nation to build the Addis-Ababa to Djibouti rail line; to expand their economy, eliminate poverty, and provide a meaningful future for their expanding young population.

While Ethiopia is blessed with several water systems, the Blue Nile provides between 70% of its surface water. Ethiopia suffers from water shortages, droughts, and food insecurity due to inadequate infrastructure and under development.

It is true that Egypt has one of the lowest water per capita consumption rates in the world at 570 cubic meters per year, well below the global average of 1,000. Ethiopia’s amount is a mere 125 cubic meters per capita, barely more than 20% of Egypt’s level.

However, the Ethiopia government has plainly stated that the intention of the GERD is not to provide water for irrigation or consumption. The motivation and sacrifice of the Ethiopian people in undertaking this mega infrastructure project is to provide electrical power for the purpose of developing their nation. Ethiopia intends on becoming a low-middle income nation. It can no longer allow its people to be without electricity, relegated to burning wood. Improving the lives of their citizens today and future generations is the objective of an operational GERD.

Blue Nile joins White Nile in Khartoum, Sudan


Sovereignty Versus Colonialism  

The Blue Nile descends from Lake Tana, deep inside Ethiopia’s mountains, traveling through Ethiopia before entering Sudan. The GERD will capture Blue Nile waters about 40 meters before the Sudanese border. Ethiopia intends to fill the dam’s reservoir with 14.5 bcm of water over the first two years for testing. The withdrawing of this amount from the Blue Nile’s 49 bcm will not adversely affect downstream nations (Sudan, Egypt). In fact, the GERD will benefit these nations by regulating the flow of the Nile, preventing flooding, reducing silt, and decreasing evaporation.

Ethiopia has the wonderful distinction in Africa of having never been colonized. Unlike my beloved American July 4th, celebrating our independence from the British Empire, Ethiopia has no Independence Day. Instead, Ethiopia celebrates Adwa Day, March 1, 1896, when they defeated the Italian army on the battlefield in northern Ethiopia. Yet Ethiopia is fighting the remnants of British colonialism today in its determination to generate energy to free its people from the bondage of poverty.

Contrary to Egyptian claims, the negotiations between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan are not about water sharing or water allocation. There have been two water allocation agreements regarding the Nile waters, that involved only Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia was not a signatory nor participants to either accord, yet Egypt asserts historical rights over the Nile River, including Ethiopia’s Blue Nile. The most recent such agreement was in 1959, three years after Sudan’s independence from Britain, which recodified the 1929 British Imperialist agreement guaranteeing 55 bcm of Nile waters to Egypt and 18.5 bcm to Sudan. At the time of the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, both Egypt and Sudan were colonies of Great Britain as stipulated by the 1899 Anglo-Egyptian Condominium.  This treaty also “granted Egypt veto power over construction projects on the Nile or any of its tributaries in an effort to minimize any interference with the flow of water into the Nile.”

To maintain geo-political domination and control of trade along the eastern spine of Africa, Britain maintained authority over the Nile waters from Cairo down to Khartoum and beyond into southern Sudan.

Ethiopia, an independent nation was not subject to Britain’s edicts and retained sovereignty over the Blue Nile.

Thus, from whence does Egypt’s historical claim to dominance of the Nile originate.

In a statement signed by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, sent to the Honorable Congresswoman Karen Bass, Chair of the Black Caucus, dated May 19, 2020, Rev. Jackson reveals that Egypt’s “historical rights” over the Nile are derived from the British Queen.

He cites a letter dated May 7, 1929, from Mahmoud Pasha, Chairman of the Egyptian Council of Ministers, to the British requesting affirmation of Egypt’s “natural and historical” rights to the waters of the Nile. Lord Lloyd, Britain’s High Commissioner in Cairo, responded on behalf of the Queen:

“I would like to remind your Excellency [Mahmoud Pasha] that her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom has already recognized the natural and historical rights of Egypt to the waters of the Nile. I am entrusted with the responsibility of declaring that Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom considers the observance of these rights as a fundamental principle of the policy of Great Britain.” 

Rev. Jackson stresses in his letter, that Ethiopia should not be pressured “into signing a neo-colonial agreement will make Egypt a hegemon over the Nile River.”

U.S. Gets Involved

In September, Egyptian President Al-Sisi requested U.S. assistance in negotiating the operation of the GERD. President Trump asked Treasury Department to host a series of meetings in Washington DC, beginning in November 2019. Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt attended along with a representative of the World Bank, with Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, to act as an impartial observer, not a mediator. Ethiopia compromised by indicating they would extend the filling beyond 3 years, to 5-7 years and increased the amount of water to be released from 35 bcm to 40 bcm in seasons of healthy rain. With the negotiations failing to lead to a resolution, Ethiopia requested to postpone the February 27-28 meeting. The meeting proceeded without Ethiopia. Sudan and Egypt attending, but Egypt alone initialed an agreement prepared without Ethiopia’s input, which the Ethiopia Foreign Ministry characterized as “unacceptable and highly partisan.”

On February 28, 2020, an official statement from the US Treasury Department praised Egypt’s “readiness to sign the agreement,” and instructed Ethiopia that “final testing and filling should not take place without an agreement.” The next day, Ambassador Shinn (ret), former ambassador to Ethiopia, whose has spent decades in the State Department, questioned whether the U.S. was “putting its thumb on the scale in favor of Egypt.”

In a June 22, 2020 bipartisan letter addressed to Ambassador David Hale, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, seven former Assistant Secretaries of State for African Affairs, asked the U.S. to embrace neutrality regarding the GERD talks. They wrote:

“The U.S. position at this sensitive juncture will also have long term implications. It will either strengthen or seriously weaken our future relations with Ethiopia. While there is no question that resolution of the Nile issue will require flexibility and compromise on all sides, it is not politically viable for Prime Minister Abiy (or any Ethiopian politician) to indefinitely delay filling the GERD. However, the perception—rightly or wrongly—that the United States has sided with Egypt in the negotiations will limit our ability to support efforts aimed at reaching a settlement.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa, Chair of the African Union convening the teleconference on the GERD

 Discussions Move to Africa

Egypt, not satisfied with the negotiating process, attempted to involve the United Nations in forcing an agreement on Ethiopia that violated its sovereignty over the GERD. On June 29, 2020, Egypt with the support of the U.S. brought the matter to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The UNSC is not the normal forum to settle such matters, but Egyptians were hoping to mobilize international pressure against Ethiopia. The UNSC has instead preferred to have the African Union (AU) resolve the issue of Ethiopia’s right to operate the GERD. On the previous Friday, June 26, the Extraordinary African Union Bureau of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government conducted a video-teleconference meeting on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat noted that more than 90% of the issues between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan had been resolved.

South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, in his capacity as the Chairperson of the AU is committed to have “an African led process in the spirit of African solutions to African problems.”

In a June 23rd statement, the U.S. Congressional Caucus emphasized the pivotal role of the AU in these tripartite negotiations. They went on to discuss the importance of the GERD for Africa.

The GERD project will have a positive impact on all countries involved and help combat food security and lack of electricity and power, supply more fresh water to more people, and stabilize and grow the economies of the region.”

The Conference of Black Mayors, in a June 29th statement, expressed their support for the filling of the GERD

“Today, on behalf of global leaders throughout the African diaspora that hold the office of mayor, the Conference of Black Mayors released the following statement in support of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and the impact GERD would have on Conference of Black Mayors member cities…

“It is known that Ethiopia generates 86% of the Nile waters but has been unable to use this considerable natural resource effectively in the past. Now, following more than a decade of impressive economic growth, Ethiopia desires to utilize its naturally endowed resource for its nation’s critical growth and development. Countries throughout Africa are in dire need of electric power to enable and sustain their respective nations rise out of poverty. The creation of a sustainable energy source will create a national infrastructure that directly contributes to the wellbeing of citizens our mayors represents through our global mayors’ association…

“We strongly support a timely fill of the dam without further delays to avoid the economic impact on Ethiopia and neighboring countries.”

 Ethiopia is desirous to cooperate with downstream nations, but it will not have its sovereignty violated by having the operation of the GERD jointly managed or contingent on the requirements of water for Egypt’s downstream High Aswan Dam.

Ethiopia should and will begin filling the GERD. It would be irresponsible not to use this year’s rainy season to begin filling the reservoir, with the dam already 75% constructed. Ethiopia’s leadership will not disappoint the aspirations of the Ethiopian people, who view the GERD as emblematic of their national identity, and a critical vehicle to raise their standard of living and secure a more prosperous future for their posterity.

Ethiopia’s use of the word Renaissance in describing its new dam is not metaphorical. When fully functional, the GERD will lead to a rejuvenation of Ethiopia’s economy and that of its neighboring nations.

Lawrence Freeman is a Political-Economic Analyst for Africa, who has been involved in the economic development policy of Africa for 30 years. He is the creator of the blog:


4 thoughts on “Africa Requires Ethiopia Fill Its Dam

  1. What an education! Amidst the turbulence within the USA, this report really shows a fight for real parity among Nations! I never knew this history. Thanks!

  2. Lawrence’s article speaks for all unfairly treated countries across the world in general and that of Sub-Saharan Africa in particular. The Renaissance Dam is environmentally friendly and structurally sound by the admission of both Sudanese and Egyptian experts. If donors expect Ethiopia to come out of poverty, they should strongly support the construction of the Dam and enable 65% of its population, numbering more than 110 million, get electricity to save the destruction of the forest for fuel wood. Denied to have loans from international financial institutions, due to Egypt’s pernicious lobbying, Ethiopians themselves are financing the Dam construction. The moral support the country now gets from fellow Africans here in the continent and overseas, together with informed scholars like Lawrence, has given it hope for a brighter future along the path to eradicating poverty.

  3. Don’t you mean Ethiopia provides?
    The Blue Nile, which joins the White Nile just north of Khartoum, Sudan, provides 86% of the water that becomes the Nile River.

  4. Please save Ethiopia from the people of evil who exploit the kindness and goodwill of its people, and build a dam that will be a disaster for them and their neighbors.
    The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Fact Sheet


    Friday, January 24, 2014

    Rendering of GERD

    Ethiopia is building one of the largest dams in the world, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), on the River Nile near the Sudan border. The dam will flood 1,680 square kilometers of forest in northwest Ethiopia (an area about four times the size of Cairo), displace approximately 20,000 people in Ethiopia, and create a reservoir that will hold around 70 billion cubic meters of water – equivalent to the entire annual flow of the Blue Nile at the Sudan border. The project’s projected electricity capacity of 6,000MW seems to have been exaggerated.

    Poor Planning

    Although it is Africa’s biggest dam project and will have lasting impacts on its longest river, the GERD has been developed under a veil of secrecy. The dam will impact Ethiopians and downstream neighbors, yet its planning process has been top-down and unilateral. The public and dam-affected people have not been given a meaningful opportunity to critique the project or process. The Ethiopian government has stated it will not make changes to the project.

    Even donor governments were taken by surprise when the project was suddenly begun. Norway, which had been designing two Nile dams for the Ethiopian government, was blindsided by the GERD project, which nullifies the work already done on the other two dam projects. Development Today magazine reports that Norway wasted about US$2-3 million in work done on the now-obsolete projects.

    Damming a shared river in a secretive and unilateral fashion goes against best practices for managing shared rivers. Says Mohamed Allam, former minister of irrigation and water resources in Egypt: “This is not just about Egypt and Sudan. International rivers are governed by laws and conventions, in accordance with which any action that affects water quotas requires advanced notice and guarantees against possible harm.”

    After construction began, Ethiopia agreed to the formation of an international Panel of Experts, with members from Egypt and Sudan, to review the GERD’s social and environmental impacts on downstream nations. The 10-member panel submitted its report to the governments in June 2013; International Rivers received a leaked copy of the report in March 2014, which we published with our summary. The panel found numerous important gaps in the project documentation, and noted:  “The (hydrological study) is very basic, and not yet at a level of detail, sophistication and reliability that would befit a development of this magnitude, importance and with such regional impact as GERD.”

    Egypt is calling for a new “neutral” panel to adjudicate differences over the project’s downstream impacts. In January 2014, after a series of high-level meetings between the three governments, talks broke down. At this writing, Egypt was reportedly considering taking the dispute to the UN Security Council, and construction continues at a fast clip.


    Where: Blue Nile, about 20 miles from Sudan border

    Dam size: 145m high, 1,708m long

    Reservoir size: Floods 1,680 sq km; holds about 70 bn cubic meters of water (equivalent to annual flow of Blue Nile at Sudan border)

    Resettlement: At least 20,000 people

    Dam Cost: US$4.8bn (equal to about 15% of Ethiopia’s GDP in 2012, and about 60% of the annual budget). One Egyptian dam experts believes the cost could expand to $7bn.

    Water Security Concerns

    Although Ethiopia says the dam will benefit downstream neighbors and will have no ill effects on their water supply, there is no denying that the dam will give the upstream country greater control over the river’s flow. A major concern is how filling the huge reservoir will affect water security in Egypt, which relies almost totally on the Nile for its water supply. Depending on how long it takes to fill the reservoir (it has been estimated it will take from 5-7 years), the Nile flow into Egypt could be cut by 12-25% during the filling period. One hydrologist estimates that the reservoir could evaporate 3bn cubic meters of water a year – three times Egypt’s annual rainfall, and enough to meet the basic needs of up to half a million people. A major shortcoming is the lack of gauges on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, which means data on the river’s flow is inadequate.

    According to a Bloomberg reporter who has reviewed the Panel of Experts report, the project document concludes that “Egypt faces a 6% reduction in the High Aswan Dam’s electricity-generating capacity and no water loss if the reservoir is filled during years of average or high rainfall. If the reservoir is filled in a dry year it would ‘significantly impact on water supply to Egypt and cause the loss of power generation at High Aswan Dam for extended periods’.” The Panel is calling for a “comprehensive” additional study of the dam’s impact on water resources, stating: “The analysis presented is very basic, and not yet at a level of detail, sophistication and reliability that would befit a development of this magnitude, importance and with such regional impact.”

    Climate change risks are another concern. Dams in Ethiopia are not being evaluated for how they will be impacted by climate change, nor for how reducing water and other natural resources for downstream users will affect their ability to adapt to a changing climate. According to a US Bureau of Reclamation economist who has studied proposed dam projects on the Blue Nile, “Climate change influences could play a major role in determining the success or failure of the proposed hydropower and irrigation projects…. Climate change scenarios indicate potential for small benefit-cost increases, but also reflect the potential for noteworthy decreases, relative to historical climate conditions.”

    Engineers’ Concerns

    A number of experts believe the dam is not going to produce as much power as is claimed, and that the dam should be smaller in size for efficiency and cost. Asfaw Beyene, a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at San Diego State University (California) says the dam is 300% over-sized. “More than half of the turbines will be rarely used,” he says. “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.” Beyene notes that that the issue is so highly politicized that “it seems to suppress legitimate engineering inputs and environmental discussions.” He suggests that the concerned authorities should make the project transparent, and resize the hydroelectric power output by reducing the number of turbines.


    Ethiopia has not succeeded in getting outside financing for the project, in part due to its lack of competitive bidding for the project’s construction contract, an in part because of the project’s potential for increasing water conflict in the region. The government says it will finance the costly project itself, and has developed a plan to sell dam bonds directly to citizens at home and abroad, and to private companies. Various reports say bond sales are not meeting expectations, due to “risk perceptions”” among investors. Meetings to sell the bonds have met with protests in a number of cities around the world (for example San Diego and Canada).

    Pressure to buy the bonds is intense. The Brookings Institute reports: “Government employees have been encouraged to devote as much as one or two months of their salaries to the purchasing of the GERD bonds. Most public workers in Ethiopia earn relatively low wages and face a significantly high cost of living. Hence, they are not likely to be able to sacrifice that much of their salaries to invest in this national project. Nevertheless, many of them have been observed purchasing the GERD bonds, primarily because of pressure from the government and the belief that participation in this national project is a show of one’s patriotism.”

    Unanswered Questions

    In addition to concerns about climate change risks, there are many unanswered questions about the project, including:

    How long will it take to fill the reservoir, and how will this disruption in flows impact downstream communities’ water security?

    How will the life of the dam be affected by siltation?

    What is known about the ecology and biodiversity in the reservoir area and in downstream reaches?

    What is known about the link between the dams proposed on the Blue Nile and the expansion of land leasing and irrigation in the basin?

    What is known about the region’s seismicity? What about the potential for the dam to be overwhelmed during flooding? What is known about dam safety standards in Ethiopia?

    More information:

    The Human Security Dimensions of Dam Development: The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, By Jennifer Veilleux, 2013

    Triumph and Tragedy: Ethiopia’s hydropower binge, seen particularly in the controversial Renaissance Dam, raises questions about the nature of its objectives and their legitimacy, by Hdeel Abdelhady


    Related Information

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    Ethiopia’s Dam Boom

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