Why is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam contentious?

DAMS HAVE several uses. They generate electricity, store water for crop irrigation and help to prevent floods. They can also cause dispute and heartache—for example, over damage to the environment or the displacement of people whose homes are lost beneath dammed waters.

The construction of one on the Nile has sparked a quarrel between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), costing $5bn, will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric-power project once fully operational later this decade.

Located on the Blue Nile in northern Ethiopia, upstream from Egypt and Sudan, it will produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity, twice as much as Ethiopia’s entire current output.

Even though the dam could give the region a big economic boost, officials from the three countries have failed to strike a deal on how it will be operated. And the Egyptian government has even considered bombing it. In January yet another round of virtual talks failed. So why is the GERD so controversial?

Egypt frets that the dam will choke off the life-giving waters of the Nile. It has good reason to worry. Some 95% of the water consumed by the country’s 115m people is drawn from the river.

Previous dams on the Nile have altered the floods and flow of sediments that the country relies on to grow food. The Nile Waters Agreements of 1929 and 1959 granted Egypt and Sudan the right to use all of the water between them, and gave Egypt the right of veto over upstream construction projects.

Ethiopia, which was left out of the agreements, does not recognise them, prompting the disagreement over the impact of the GERD.

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