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The Renaissance Dam: intense diplomatic efforts to distribute the water of the Nile

For more than eight years, Egypt and Ethiopia have confronted each other over the construction Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a project launched by Ethiopia (cf. previous article). Many high-level meetings are being held to prevent tensions resulting in a war over water, with disastrous consequences for the populations.


A mega dam

Photo : Gioia Forster/dpa

This dam is scheduled to start producing electricity from now to the end of 2020 and become fully operational in 2022. It is gigantic in terms of both finance – investments totalling $4 billion – and technology: 145 metres high; a reservoir with a capacity of 70 billion m3 and 6,000 MW of production capacity. It will be Africa’s most powerful hydroelectricity dam. The problem is that it is built on the Blue Nile, upstream of Khartoum, and risks depriving Egypt of part of the river’s discharge. Egypt depends on the Nile for 85% of its water supply, and the country known as the “gift of the Nile” and its 100 million inhabitants fear being condemned to a desert, with its leaders evoking “a question of life or death”. As for Sudan, it is claiming a share of the water and electricity.

A new regional balance of power

This hydropower project has rekindled the debate on how water resources should be shared. With a length of 6,650 kilometres, the Nile crosses ten African countries and its basin covers more than 3 million km2. It provides water needed for agriculture, industry and the population (to know more).

Egypt has long claimed a “historic right” over the river, guaranteed by a number of treaties since 1929. At the time, Egypt obtained the right to veto the construction of projects on the Nile. In 1959, following an agreement with Khartoum on water sharing, Egypt acquired a quota of 66% of the annual discharge of the Nile, in contrast with 22% for Sudan. However, the balance of power has changed. Ethiopia, an emerging regional power with Africa’s second largest population, wants to become energy independent to ensure its development.

In 2010, a new treaty was signed by the countries of the Nile basin, despite opposition from Egypt and Sudan. It removed Egypt’s power of veto and authorised irrigation and hydropower projects.

The construction of the Renaissance Dam started in 2011 but was interrupted in 2018 due to growing diplomatic tension, before starting again. Since then, successive meetings have been held to find an agreement acceptable to the three countries, which claim “the need to share a single vision of the subject of the dam, giving precedence to the principle of non-violation of the interests of the three countries, in the framework of common property”.

But Egypt continues to claim a minimum annual guarantee of 40 billion m3. It has resorted to international mediation: on 6 November 2019, a ministerial meeting between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia was held in Washington, under the mediation of the American President Donald Trump. The three countries have agreed to the deadline of January 2020 to reach a compromise. Finding an agreement today rather than waiting for the completion of the project appears a reasonable option, taking into account the gravity of the human consequences that a conflict over the Nile would cause

Lac Tana, à la source du Nil Bleu

On the source and the age of the Nile

The distribution of the Nile’s waters is not the only subject of uncertainty, although it’s the most sensitive. Already, at the time when it was being explored, questions were being asked as to where its source lay and how its floods could occur in such an arid region. It was long known that two huge rivers joined to form the Nile at Khartoum, the city built at their confluence. Later, it could be asserted that the Nile known as Blue due to the dark colour of its waters came from Lake Tana, at the heart of the Ethiopian highlands, while the Nile baptised White due to the clarity of its waters, came from Ruanda. The Ethiopian river Atbara is the third tributary.


Just recently, an international team specialised in geology and geophysics tried to determine how long the course of the Nile has remained stable, by studying sediments in the field and conducting numerical studies of changes in the fluvial landscape. The results of their studies, published in mid-November in the British scientific journal Nature Geoscience, put forward 30 million years for the Blue Nile. Thus, it is much older than previously thought (6 million years).

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