A potentially dangerous regional war may be developing in Northeast Africa thanks to the Chinese-funded Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). It seems that, wherever people grab onto Chinese money, despair follows.
The Nile is the longest river in Africa and may be the longest in the world. (The Amazon competes with it for that title.) While Egypt’s historic prominence means that most people instinctively associate the Nile with that country, the great river actually runs through eleven nations. The White Nile begins in Rwanda or Burundi, flowing north through Tanzania, Uganda, and South Sudan. The Blue Nile begins in Ethiopia, flowing north into Sudan, where it joins the White Nile at Khartoum. The main river itself then flows into Egypt, ending at the Mediterranean. (The other nations it touches are Congo, Kenya, and Tanzania.)
The almost-completed GERD project spans the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, and will ultimately hold 74 billion cubic meters of water. Filling the dam started last summer and could take as many as 15 years to complete. The dam’s purpose is electricity. The $5 billion project (which includes $1.2 billion in financing from China) will ultimately bring millions of Ethiopians into the 21st century.
That sounds laudable, but the Egyptians and Sudanese are extremely worried:
The Chinese-financed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), despite a recent breakdown in talks on Africa’s largest development project, risks powering up a range of downstream tensions and rivalries.
These run from rising rivalry between Egypt and Ethiopia to a festering border war between Ethiopia and neighboring Sudan. At stake, too, is the future of almost 90% of the water in the Nile River, the world’s longest waterway.
Egypt, where millions depend on the river for their livelihoods, considers control of the Nile an “existential” issue. Sudan, meanwhile, fears the GERD may seriously endanger its own dams, which depend on water flowing from upstream neighbor Ethiopia.
The African Union is trying to mediate these disputes but has currently hit a “dead end.”
It’s obvious why the Ethiopians are on board with the dam since large swaths of the country are pre-modern rural regions. That’s why most of the dam’s funding comes from Ethiopians from all regions and ethnicities who have invested in its development. Sudan and Egypt are less enthused. Much less enthused:
“Egypt and Sudan have been using water from the Nile for centuries,” says [Ashok] Swain [UNESCO Chair on International Water Cooperation], “with between 86% and 90% of this – depending on the season – coming from the Blue Nile.”
The prospect of this flow being reduced, while also coming under Ethiopian control, has therefore rung alarm bells in these two downstream nations.
The dam “could endanger the security and very survival of an entire nation by imperiling its wellspring of sustenance,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri told the UN Security Council last summer after Ethiopia began filling unilaterally the dam’s giant reservoir.
Shoukri estimated that for around 100 million Egyptians, the Nile’s waters are their “single source of livelihood.”
Sudan was initially somewhat more favorably inclined to the project, believing that it could control flooding, but it’s now worried about Ethiopia’s sudden power. If there is a drought (and Ethiopia is known for them), that Ethiopia could stop the water flow to Sudan’s hydroelectric dams.
And sitting at the center of this existential fear is China. That nation has invested $16 billion into Ethiopia. Presumably, it did so both to get a cash return on investment and because it will a foothold in African – and that foot will be at the starting point of the Blue Nile, which provides 80% of the Nile’s total water flow.
China is investing in poor nations all over the world. These investments seem altruistic, but somehow they never turn out that way. Its Belt and Road Initiative, by which it funds infrastructure projects in poorer nations the world over, puts those nations in China’s debt.
Those who are worried about this debt essentially see China doing something similar to the scam that the robber barons of the gilded age carried out: The companies would have stores that would give employees credit. However, the company would never pay the employees a sufficient salary to enable them to get out of debt. That debt meant the employees were trapped working for the company forever, at starvation wages, with terrible working conditions.
Currently, Ethiopia is in the catbird seat, gaining electricity and regional power. However, not only might this spark a dangerous regional war, but Ethiopia may also find that, like the company employee of yore, it never manages to shake off the “gift” of credit from a predatory China.