In arid regions, struggles over water resources can mean war. In the horn of Africa, a region vulnerable to chronic and severe drought, resilience in the face of this harsh climate is key to survival – particularly as these conditions are worsened by climate change.
In 2009, the Global Humanitarian Forum published a human impact report which estimates that climate change kills 300,000 people every year and seriously affects an additional 325 million people. But the influence of other variables such as livelihood, economic status and conflict make it difficult to identify definitive causes, which the report itself points out. But the increasing strain climate change is having on existing problems is difficult to ignore. One of its more obscure cases is that of the Nile – the world’s longest river and the region’s biggest lifeline.
A critical water source for the citizens of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, and countries that make up its larger river basin, such as Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania, the Nile is a precious commodity for the wider region. It is also one of the most contested. Bearing this in mind, in 2010 Ethiopia began constructing the long-dreamed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a $4.8 billion hydropower dam on the Blue Nile. Giving Ethiopia control over water flows, and a boost to its economy with 12,000 new jobs as well as significant geopolitical leverage, the GERD has been a point of friction with its neighbours. Its downstream stakeholders, Sudan and Egypt, have been particularly concerned that the dam will impact the water supply their core industries like agriculture rely on.
Ethiopian officials claim the GERD is currently over sixty percent completed, and the government plans to spend an additional $12 billion on hydropower. In the meantime, an estimated sixty one million Ethiopians lack access to safe water and another eight point five million face food insecurity. This raises the question of whether this costly investment is really the best option for both the country and the wider region, especially considering its geopolitical risks and environmental impacts.
Distribution of the Nile waters has long been unequal. In 1959, Egypt and Sudan signed an agreement which gave Egypt the right to over three times as much water from the Nile than Sudan. It also excluded many other Nile basin countries from the agreement, creating long-lasting grievances. New, more inclusive plans have since been developed to divide resources up more equally, but tensions remain high.
In 2013, Egyptian politicians were caught on tape calling for war against Ethiopia as the country had been diverting Egypt’s water source in preparation for the dam project. The dam has also been the source of tensions with Sudan, leading to a deadlock between the three countries over the distribution of regional water supplies.
A key flashpoint has been around the question of the dam’s impacts on its downstream neighbours – and especially its environmental effects. In an attempt to build common ground, the three countries’ water ministers appointed two international consultancy firms, BRL and Deltares, to conduct a closer study. But independent environmental studies of the dam are difficult to conduct, due in part to the dam’s remote and mountainous location, part due to government interference. Deltares, for instance, withdrew from a study of the GERD citing political pressure from the Ethiopian government – and that was not the only instance of government repression.
The existing preliminary research found that, amongst other things, the dam risks decreasing water quality in Sudan and Egypt, disrupting mammal and bird life, depleting groundwater levels in the Nile basin, and leading to soil salinization. These environmental impacts will undoubtedly seriously affect the lives of the inhabitants of the wider region, where agriculture is a key source of livelihood which depends heavily on the Nile’s water.
But Ethiopia insists that the dam will have no major environmental impact on its neighbours. The country has argued instead that the dam will be beneficial to all three powers, by reducing seasonal flooding in Sudan and keeping an emergency water reservoir for the region in times of drought. Nevertheless, it appears the GERD’s primary role is to produce electricity. Of course, Ethiopia has the right to utilize such a vast resource; both Egypt and Sudan have hydropower dams themselves, and investing in hydropower in Africa has been encouraged by experts globally to solve electricity shortages and spur development. As Ethiopia’s growing population is expected to demand 20% more power per year, the dam is the government’s answer to the current scarcity.
But hydropower dependency may not coincide well with Ethiopia’s vulnerability to climate change. Dams contribute to already changing hydrological systems, resulting in more droughts and changed rainfall patterns. This means the GERD could lead to its own demise, and be left without adequate water supplies to operate. A case from Zambia in 2015 illustrates this risk, a pattern which has been repeated elsewhere on the continent.
Whatsmore, the dam will also only increase energy supply for Ethiopians who have access to the energy grid – about 20% of the population. It is unlikely that Ethiopians with rural livelihoods who are the most vulnerable to climate change in the country, such as small farmers, will see benefits of the dam. Not only do these groups have restricted access to the power grid, they also face food and water insecurity. In this scenario, the GERD could potentially make matters worse. For these populations, environmentally focused projects and long and short-term investments in food distribution may be more beneficial.
Ethiopia has made ambitious commitments to invest in green energy, and relations between the Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia seem to have taken a positive turn: leaders from the countries held a meeting on the sidelines of the AU summit last month where they committed to a joint approach in tackling frictions over Nile resources. But if a project of this scale threatens to exacerbate the countries’ vulnerability to climate change, and if regional tensions rise again with the possibility of violent conflict, the dam may be a step in a costly direction.