Ethiopian dams water level drops forcing the regime rationing electricity

May 22, 2019 in Water Crisis

The Gibe III dam on the Omo River, Ethiopia (Mimi Abebayehu/CC BY-SA 4.0)

The drop in water levels behind the 1,870MW Gibe III dam on the Omo River, which began full operations in 2016, had caused a deficit of 476MW, more than a third of the country’s electricity generation of 1,400MW, Reuters reported.  Thus, forcing Ethiopia to start rationing electricity for domestic and industrial customers after a drop in water levels in hydroelectric dams.

Minister for water and electricity Seleshi Bekele said on Friday that the drop in water levels at the country’s Gibe 3 dam led to a deficit of 476 megawatts (MW), more than a third of the country’s electricity generation of 1,400 MW.

Drop in water levels at Gibe dam led to a deficit of 476 megawatts, more than a third of Ethiopia's electricity generation [Eric Lafforgue/Getty Images]
Drop in water levels at Gibe dam led to a deficit of 476 megawatts, more than a third of Ethiopia’s electricity generation [Eric Lafforgue/Getty Images]

Ethiopia also suspended electricity exports to neighboring Djibouti and Sudan, which earns the country $180m a year, the minister said.

Under the rationing programme, which runs until July, domestic consumers will face blackouts for several hours each day, while cement and steel firms will have to operate fewer shifts due to the cuts, Seleshi said.

Ethiopia’s $4bn dam project on the Nile river, which has been beset by construction delays and criticism from Egypt, is expected to start initial operations in December 2020.

The project has caused problems with Egypt, which fears the dam will restrict Nile river waters coming down from Ethiopia’s highlands through the deserts of Sudan to the Egyptian fields and reservoirs.

The planned 6,000-megawatt Grand Renaissance Dam is the centrepiece of Ethiopia’s bid to become Africa’s biggest power exporter.

Nile a Great River Faces a Multitude of Threats : Vanishing

April 7, 2017 in Nile vanishing

The Nile River is under assault on two fronts – a massive dam under construction upstream in Ethiopia and rising sea levels leading to saltwater intrusion downstream. These dual threats now jeopardize the future of a river that is the lifeblood for millions.

hough politicians and the press tend to downplay the idea, environmental degradation is often an underlying cause of international crises — from the deforestation, erosion, and reduced agricultural production that set the stage for the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s to the prolonged drought that pushed rural populations into the cities at the start of the current Syrian civil war. Egypt could become the latest example, its 95 million people the likely victims of a slow motion catastrophe brought on by grand-scale environmental mismanagement.

It’s happening now in the Nile River delta, a low-lying region fanning out from Cairo roughly a hundred miles to the sea. About 45 or 50 million people live in the delta, which represents just 2.5 percent of Egypt’s land area. The rest live in the Nile River valley itself, a ribbon of green winding through hundreds of miles of desert sand, representing another 1 percent of the nation’s total land area. Though the delta and the river together were long the source of Egypt’s wealth and greatness, they now face relentless assault from both land and sea.

The latest threat is a massive dam scheduled to be completed this year on the headwaters of the Blue Nile, which supplies 59 percent of Egypt’s water. Ethiopia’s national government has largely self-financed the $5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), with the promise that it will generate 6,000 megawatts of power. That’s a big deal for Ethiopians, three-quarters of whom now lack access to electricity. The sale of excess electricity to other countries in the region could also bring in $1 billion a year in badly needed foreign exchange revenue.

GERD can only begin to meet these promised benefits, however, by holding back river water that would otherwise pass down the Nile to Sudan and then Egypt, and that’s obviously a big deal for both those countries — so much so that, according to Wikileaks, government officials in Cairo at one point talked about aerial bombing or a commando raid to destroy the dam.

The dam will create a reservoir more than twice the size of the Hoover Dam’s Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States. It will ultimately store 74 billion cubic meters of Blue Nile water. (That’s about 64 million acre feet, or the amount of water need to cover 100,000 square miles of land one foot deep.) Filling it could take anywhere from five to 15 years.

“During this period of fill,” a new study in the Geological Society of America’s journal GSA Today reports, “the Nile’s fresh water flow to Egypt may be cut by 25 percent, with a loss of a third of the electricity generated by the Aswan High Dam.” That is of course Egypt’s own massive dam on the Nile, completed in 1965, roughly 1,500 miles downstream. The GSA study, led by Smithsonian Institution geologist Jean-Daniel Stanley, says Egypt faces “serious country-wide freshwater and energy shortage by 2025.” Agriculture in the delta, which produces up to 60 percent of Egypt’s food, could also suffer from shortages of irrigation water.

The GSA study makes clear, moreover, that the new dam is only one of a series of environmental threats now facing Egypt. Rising sea levels, brought on by climate change, are the most obvious of them. Much of the Nile Delta is only a meter or so above sea level, and a 2014 analysis led by Assuit University geologist Ahmed Sefelnasr predicted that a half-meter rise in sea level would shrink the delta by 19 percent, an area equivalent to all of metropolitan Los Angeles. That was the conservative scenario. If the sea level rises by one meter in this century, as many climate scientists think likely, a third of the delta could disappear under the Mediterranean. That analysis did not consider the likely effects of the significantly greater rise predicted by a 2016 study in Nature.

Egypt is already one of the poorest nations in the world in terms of water availability per capita.

It also ignored the compounding effect of land subsidence in the delta, particularly along the Mediterranean coast. In an interview, the Smithsonian’s Stanley attributed subsidence there to continuing compaction of underlying geological strata and to seismic activity. “The region is considered tectonically stable,” he said. “But it’s not inactive.” Earthquakes of magnitude 5 or greater occur about every 23 years there, and “earthquake events of shallow origin and small magnitude” are frequent. The delta is also subsiding (and becoming less fertile) because it is no longer replenished each year by 100 million tons by flood sediments from the Nile. Instead, those sediments now drop out where the Nile enters the reservoir created by the Aswan High Dam. A new delta is now forming there, but underwater. Other studies have attributed increased seismic activity in the region to the weight of the dam and the water stored behind it.

In addition to the almost certain loss of land area in the delta, the combination of sea level rise and land subsidence will also increase saltwater intrusion. Egypt is already one of the poorest nations in the world in terms of water availability per capita; it has just 660 cubic meters of freshwater a year for each resident, compared, for instance, to 9,800 cubic meters in the United States. But according to the Sefelnasr study, saltwater intrusion from a one-meter rise in sea level could jeopardize more than a third of the freshwater volume in the delta. “If you talk to farmers in the northern delta,” said Stanley, “they will tell you they have lost production consistently, and that saline wedge is moving toward the middle of the delta. So it doesn’t look like a very happy thing,” especially with Egypt’s population set to double over the next 50 years.

An Egyptian farmer tends fields on the banks of a branch of the Nile in the river's delta.

So how should Egypt, with its struggling economy and recent history of political unrest, address what are plainly life-threatening challenges? Despite the loose talk about destroying the Ethiopian dam, war appears highly unlikely. In 2015, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan signed a mutual do-no-harm agreement, and just this past January, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi met in Addis Ababa, on apparently cordial terms, with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. But a formal agreement on exactly how to share Nile resources is still lacking.

Ethiopia could minimize the immediate downstream damage by lengthening the time it takes to fill the reservoir. But that means delaying the benefits of the dam, which Ethiopia may already have oversold. The river flow will produce the promised 6,000-megawatt output only during peak periods, according to Asfaw Beyene, a mechanical engineering professor at San Diego State University. He notes that the Italian company building the dam also performed the initial feasibility studies, an obvious conflict of interest because of the potential to inflate costs and profits by installing excess capacity. Beyene calculates that even a 2,000-megawatt rating might have been “a little excessive.”

Pressure to get a return on its investments could make Ethiopia less likely to delay. Egypt in any case has little ground for negotiating a favorable deal, said Harry Verhoeven, a professor of African politics at Georgetown University. It has always asserted its right to the lion’s share of Nile River water, formalizing that claim in the 1959 Nile Waters Agreements, with little regard to the needs of upstream countries. Hosni Mubarak compounded that slight during his long reign as Egypt’s president, taking other Nile Basin countries for granted and effectively withdrawing from the rest of Africa. “In that sense, it’s hard to feel sorry for Egypt,” said Verhoefen.

Ethiopia has rebuilt its economy and asserted control over Nile waters that are the region’s lifeblood.

Meanwhile, “as Egypt slept,” an “extremely competent” government in Ethiopia has rebuilt its economy, deftly worked with both U.S. and Chinese interests, and launched what Verhoeven characterized as “a hydropolitical offensive to re-order the region,” not just in political or theoretical terms, but on the ground, by asserting control over the Nile waters that are the region’s lifeblood. The United States could perhaps serve as an honest broker to negotiate a compromise between Egypt and Ethiopia. It has until recently played an important role working behind the scenes with both Cairo and Addis Ababa (a key ally on conflicts in Somalia and South Sudan). But under President Trump, said Verhoeven, both the National Security Council and the U.S. State Department have demonstrated little interest in Africa.

At this point, said the Smithsonian’s Stanley, Egypt needs to invest in desalinization for fresh water, like Saudi Arabia, and water-saving drip irrigation, like Israel. With Egypt now also facing a “contraceptive crisis,” better government investment in family planning would also help for the longer term. But with the Nile no longer their birthright, and the Nile delta gradually disappearing into the sea, millions of Egypt’s people will inevitably need to look elsewhere for a livable future.

Troubled Waters of the Nile

January 4, 2017 in Water Crisis

Stratfor for the Analysis:

             A River Runs Through an African Rivalry


  • The competition to secure water from the Nile River will create problems for Egypt and Ethiopia, much as it has for centuries.
  • The countries will, however, probably find some common ground despite the ongoing construction of the divisive Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
  • Distrust still defines relations between Cairo and Addis Ababa, and Egyptian-Ethiopian competition over water resources will not end.


Egypt and Ethiopia have been at odds for much of their modern history, perhaps nowhere more so than in their attempts to secure water of the Nile River basin. This particular struggle has been on full display in recent negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is situated on the Blue Nile. The history of competition over the critical waterway provides the context for regional dynamics that will endure long into the future.

Troubled Waters

Treaties lie at the center of controversy between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile River, primarily because most of these agreements never included Ethiopia as a signatory. The treaties were tools British colonial officials used in the 19th and 20th centuries to manage relations between their Egyptian and Sudanese holdings. Ethiopia, which was not a colony, at times negotiated with the British government but never had the same say in regulating the use of the Nile. Understandably, Addis Ababa has often rejected the legal framework established in this period for managing the river. One of Ethiopia’s main concerns is the fact that it, as an upstream country, is not protected in the same way as downstream countries such as Egypt.

From Ethiopia’s perspective, all countries in the basin depend on the water resource. Addis Ababa argues that it should have been invited to take part in initial agreements that set water use terms. Because it was sidelined from the process that laid down the management of the river, Ethiopia has instead pursued self-development projects such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. These kinds of projects are a problem for Egypt: the Nile is the desert country’s primary source of fresh water and of irrigation for agriculture. For that reason alone, Egypt has and will continue to dominate in use of Nile River water. Without it, Egypt could not survive.

Subtle Means

The most recent major agreement on managing the Nile was reached in 1959, marking the start of the modern history of Nile River relations. It was signed soon after the independence of Sudan in 1956 and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1956 rise to power in Egypt. It dictated the amount of water that could be used by each country and established a number of joint projects to limit loss of water from evaporation in certain sections of the Nile. But once again, the agreement did not include Ethiopia.Of course, Nasser was not oblivious to Ethiopia’s concerns — or to its importance to Egyptian water security. Even before Nasser, Egypt had attempted to gain more control over the Blue Nile, one of the Nile’s major tributaries. During the 19th century, Egypt tried to invade Ethiopia to gain control over this portion of the basin. But Ethiopian armies deflected the invasion in the coastal areas of modern day northern Eritrea. Even after the failed invasions, Egypt maintained forces in the port city of Massawa (now part of Eritrea) to maintain military options against Ethiopia. By the time Nasser came to power as Egypt’s president in 1956, Egypt’s military no longer held these areas because the United Kingdom had given up control of the territory. And, in 1952, Eritrea had entered into a federacy with Ethiopia.

Rather than try to force Ethiopia’s hand militarily, Nasser attempted to work with Addis Ababa diplomatically. Moreover, Nasser had a direct connection with Ethiopia’s rulers. During his career as a military officer, he had been stationed in Sudan and had interacted closely with Ethiopian officials. Nasser failed, however, to convince the Ethiopian emperor to visit Egypt. Despite the interest Ethiopia may have had in collaborating with Egypt on Nile River issues, the style of Arab nationalism Nasser propagated in his country and the region drove a deep wedge between the two countries. Ethiopia considered the ideology a threat to monarchies such as its own. Furthermore, Ethiopians were Africans, not Arabs, so Addis Ababa was suspicious of any potential ulterior motives that may have been guiding Nasser’s attempts to initiate dialogue.

The Ebb of Conflict

In addition, both countries were implicated in Cold War politics. While Nasser’s Egypt was supported by the Soviet Union, Ethiopia was supported by the United States. For Ethiopia, this allegiance presented an existential threat. Communism, of course, staunchly opposes the concept of a monarchy, and Ethiopian rulers rejected communism and all of its agents. Eventually, communism did indeed bring down Ethiopia’s monarchy when the Coordinating Committee of the Armed Forces, Police, and Territorial Army (a Marxist-Leninist military council often referred to simply as the Derg), took control of the country in 1974. Before then, the monarchy held off interacting with Nasser, forcing Egypt to explore other means of establishing influence over the Blue Nile.Consequently, Nasser’s government began to undermine the Ethiopian government. By supporting Eritrea and Somalia, Egypt attempted to distract and weaken Addis Ababa by inspiring the Muslim population of Ethiopia to resist the Christian emperor, in part through propaganda operations out of Radio Cairo. They also provided facilities to Eritrean revolutionaries to broadcast their own propaganda, and even provided military training to Eritreans, many of which went on to become part of the current ruling class following Eritrea’s independence in 1991. Nasser also exploited the ethnic Somali struggle to unify greater Somalia, which spans across southeastern Ethiopia. Egypt provided military support here as well.

However, this interference eventually led to war between Ethiopia and Somalia over the disputed Ogaden region. By this time, communists had come to power in Ethiopia, and Nasser no longer ruled Egypt. Ethiopia’s military eventually defeated Somalia after the Soviet Union sided with Addis Ababa, beginning an era of communism in Ethiopia. During this period, Anwar Sadat became president of Egypt, and the country’s priorities changed. Ethiopia was in no position to continue its competition with Egypt regardless: It was distracted by internal conflict, not to mention Eritrea’s war of independence. And so, for a time, the two countries’ attempts to undermine one another declined markedly.

Precious Water

But tensions rekindled in 2011, when Ethiopia started the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam near the Sudanese-Ethiopian border. Seeking reassurances that the dam will not endanger the crucial flow of the Nile River, Egypt has taken part in round after round of negotiations. The construction of the dam — and the diplomatic process surrounding it — has since progressed at a slow but steady pace.Despite collaboration, partially explained by the fact that Egypt simply has few alternatives to halt the dam’s construction, historical concerns between Cairo and Addis Ababa endure. Even now, Ethiopia faces internal unrest driven by ethnic discontent, and accusations of Egyptian support to opposition fighters have again emerged. Countries such as Saudi Arabia have also reached out, hoping to use the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam as a lever to influence Egypt, which has recently sought greater independence in its Middle East foreign policy, resisting any attempts to bring it further under outside influence. Geography dictates that Egypt and Ethiopia will continue compete.