Construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, called the GERD, is already underway. It will affect power and irrigation throughout the region, especially during construction. While the potential positive impact of the dam for Ethiopia and its neighbors is significant, more planning and infrastructure will be necessary for the dam to live up to its full potential and to avoid certain pitfalls. Under construction on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, the dam will directly affect all 3 countries on the Nile, including Sudan and Egypt, bringing new challenges which these nations will have to face together.

The dam will be the second large dam in Nile region, in addition to the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, built at the turn of the 20th century. Having two dams on the Nile with such a large capacity creates some logistical issues. Both dams can store a larger amount of water than flows annually through the river at those points, and both are located in river basins prone to severe droughts. Agreements are still needed between the 3 countries on the filling policy for the new reservoir, and for coordination between the GERD and other damns such as Aswan, in both Egypt and Sudan. Though Sudan stands to benefit from more consistent flow in drier months, both Sudan and Egypt need to be assured that their water needs will be met during extended droughts, and during the projected 5 to 15 year filling process.

While the overall outcome should be acceptable and even positive for all 3 countries, a number of technicalities make coming to specific agreements both necessary and challenging. The filling process will likely affect levels of Egypt’s Aswan dam. To an extent, negotiations will involve a tug of war between the Ethiopian need to maximize power supply of the expensive new dam, and Egypt’s own various water needs. Financial success for Ethiopia depends also on installation of higher capacity infrastructure enabling the sale of power to Sudan, since the dam will provide far more power than Ethiopia itself demands.

Until recently, Ethiopia lacked the financial and political power to put such a plan into effect, but in 2011 Prime Minster Meles Zenawi announced plans for the damn near the border with Sudan. The GERD will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, reaching a height of 145 meters. Ethiopia’s ability to undertake such a project is a testament to the success of the country in the past few years, after a number of difficult decades.

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