Impacts of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on Downstream Countries

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Case Description
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Geolocation: 11° 12' 51.0001", 35° 5' 35.0002"
Total Population 137.7137,700,000 millionmillion
Total Area 26953002,695,300 km²
1,040,655.33 mi²
Climate Descriptors Arid/desert (Köppen B-type), Continental (Köppen D-type)
Predominent Land Use Descriptors agricultural- cropland and pasture
Important Uses of Water Hydropower Generation
Water Features: Blue Nile, Nile River
Riparians: Egypt, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan
Water Projects: Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam


The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is a 6000 MW hydropower project on the Blue Nile, which the Ethiopian government plans to build to fulfill the country’s energy needs. Downstream countries Egypt and Sudan have expressed concerns over the impacts of the dam on their water supply. There can be both negative and positive impacts of the dam; but, overall cooperation is key to outlining win-win solutions to ensure mutual benefit sharing for all parties across the basin.

Natural, Historic, Economic, Regional, and Political Framework

The Nile River is the longest transboundary river, but also one of the most water-scarce river basins in the world, and flows through 11 riparian countries, including six of the poorest and least developed nations in the world. While it is one of the richest river basins in terms of history and heritage, it is also one of the most conflicted in terms of transboundary water management. Hydro-diplomacy in the Nile River basin has evolved considerably over the last few decades, with particularly important changes over the last three years. There are several issues facing the Nile River Basin today, including the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile which worries downstream countries Egypt and Sudan; the Ethiopian Dam GIBE III on the Kenyan-Ethiopian border on Lake Turkana which Kenya sees as a threat to its water supply; the volatility of water rights in the Great Lakes region; Egypt and Sudan’s rejection of the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) to establish a regulatory system in the basin; the creation of a new political dynamic with the establishment of an independent state in South Sudan; the Arab Spring with the complexity of the Egyptian Revolution and the political state in Egypt and how it may or may not play a role in African geo-politics; and of course the onset of climate change causing increased stress on water resources, waterborne diseases from floods, and environmental degradation throughout the Nile River Basin.

A new approach is needed to deal with these issues through the innovative use of water diplomacy and transboundary water management tools. There needs to be a proper diagnosis and characterization of the crisis in water development and cooperation, as well as a need for a new approach based on strategic, humanistic and ethical considerations, and in view of the power shift in Egypt after the 25 January 2011 Revolution, to bring about democracy and peace to the region.[1] More importantly, there is room for mutual benefit sharing and finding win-win solutions for all countries both upstream and downstream and that a new paradigm is needed to shift these solutions comprehensively. In order to develop a new paradigm, it is important to first understand and assess all the various issues plaguing the Nile River objectively to determine how best to move forward. This case focuses on and assess specific issues facing the infrastructure project of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) from both the positive and negative aspects, and to understand how best to minimize the negative impacts in order to have maximum gain for all parties.


There are currently many misconceptions surrounding the GERD’s purpose, which is why it is important to establish a few basic facts and ensure the public has access to accurate information (see Box 1). The GERD is a 6,000 MW hydropower dam, which is intended for power generation and not for agricultural purposes. In this respect, it is not anticipated that the dam will reduce water flow downstream as it will only be used for the generation of hydropower based on a catch-and-release mechanism and hence necessitates that it discharge the water downstream. In order to produce energy – and to avoid local floods in Ethiopia – the water needs to be discharged. Rerouting the Blue Nile for the construction of the GERD began in May 2013. This caused much controversy in downstream countries and especially in Egypt, which contested Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to reroute the Nile without full consent of all downstream countries. The rerouting of the Blue Nile however is a process that takes years and during this period the water will be released downstream to avoid local floods. Hence the actual rerouting of the waters should not have any negative impacts on downstream flow as it is a purely technical intervention. However, the political implications and motivation of Ethiopia’s decision to unilaterally reroute the Nile waters remains open for discussion.

Box 1: The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) - Basic Facts[2]

  • 6,000 MW hydropower dam (16 turbines with 375 MW each)
  • Dam site is 20 km from Ethiopian-Sudanese border
  • Energy export to neighboring countries Djibouti, Kenya, Sudan
  • Reservoir capacity: 14 BCM with plans to expand to 70 BCM
  • Cost: approximately $4.6 billion USD
  • To date, funding has been obtained from bond selling and the Ethiopian people
  • Construction began in autumn 2011, with approximately a quarter of the work completed said to be completed by early 2014
  • Relocation of 20,000 people from the dam site

The GERD cost is approximately 4.6 Billion USD. The GERD is currently financed internally by the Ethiopian government with numerous efforts to mobilize resources from the Ethiopian people. Many of these financing schemes designated for the GERD and also for the GIBE III dam on the Omo River by Lake Turkana, are targeting the Ethiopian people’s patriotism towards development.[2] The GERD has been fashioned by the Ethiopian Government and media as a national project to promote patriotism that will bring them out of poverty and allow them to develop further. The financing schemes are done through Bonds through the Ethiopian banks for locals and expats abroad to finance the dams, and are being imposed by the Government through a certain percentage of their incomes. The Ethiopian government has been criticized by the International community for this financing scheme, which in some cases, some lower income households cannot afford but are yet obliged to contribute towards.[2] Many of the problems related to financing of the GERD could be reduced with regional cooperation with downstream countries and potential co-financing from Egypt and Sudan that would help cooperation and bring about true collaboration.

Water Budget

In order to properly address the question of the water budget and allocations to respective Nile Basin countries, it is important to understand each Nile Basin state’s dependency on the river’s water, as well as its hydrological and geomorphological conditions in relation to its climate. Upstream states have long seen Egypt and Sudan as “Hegemons of the Nile”, taking the lion’s share of the total 84 BCM of water available in the Nile. According to the 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan, 55.5 BCM of this water goes to Egypt and the remainder to Sudan. Upstream states see this is an unfair distribution to all riparian states for water allocation. In order to better shed light on this issue, we first need to understand the total water budget of the basin as a whole and its distribution of water accordingly. By calculating the water volume available in the entire basin catchment and in each Nile Basin state and analyzing the water budget based on all sources of water: surface, rainfall and groundwater, we can have a better understanding of the situation in the Basin. Surface water is the water that flows in a river or water body such as a lake. Rainfall is the water that is received from precipitation. Groundwater is the water in aquifers. All three types of water are present in the Nile River basin, and in order to accurately calculate the water budget per country all three types need to be assessed.

Table 1: Average Annual Precipation, Evaporation and Temperature for Selected Nile Basin Countries[3][4]
Country Mean min. temperature (°C) Mean max. temperature (°C) Mean annual evaporation (mm) Mean annual precipitation (mm) Population living in the in Nile Basin (%) Renewable internal freshwater per capita (m3)
Egypt 10 40 2,400 150 95 24
Sudan 12 25 2,300 1,300 79 778
Ethiopia 15 30 1,450 2,200 39 1,543
Uganda 17 25 1,550 1,700 90 1,261
Tanzania 18 21 1,480 1,300 10 2,078

Table 1 shows that Egypt has the lowest mean annual precipitation with only 150 mm/year, whereas the average in upstream countries lies in the range of 1,700-2,200 mm/year. This means that these upstream countries, which lie in a tropical climatic zone, receive enormous amounts of rainfall. This water is mainly used in agriculture and to replenish aquifers, with the result that these countries rarely use the surface water from the Nile River. At the other end of the spectrum, Egypt receives very little rain and experiences high evaporation rates (2,400 mm/year compared to average rates of 1,400 mm/year in upstream countries) due to its arid climate. Thus, Egypt, but also the northern part of Sudan, have an annual water deficit, while parts of upstream countries such as Ethiopia and Uganda periodically struggle with a water surplus and flooding. In terms of total water budget, many upstream countries have a much larger share of rainfall and rechargeable groundwater than downstream states. In some cases this share is almost four times as large, as in the case of Ethiopia vs. Egypt. Water budgets and calculations need to be understood clearly to be able to determine how to ensure fair and equitable rights for all riparian countries along the Basin throughout the year.

Impacts of the GERD on Downstream Water Flow

The water that arrives at Khartoum (where the Blue Nile meets the White Nile) and that flows to Aswan in the Nile is composed of 68 percent Blue Nile (Abay), 14 percent Atbara (a tributary of the Blue Nile), and 18 percent White Nile. Both the Blue Nile (Abay) and the Atbara originate in the Ethiopian Highlands, which means that 82 percent of the Nile at Aswan originates in the Ethiopian Highlands.[5] The evaporation rate in Lake Nasser, the reservoir of the Aswan Dam, is 2,970 mm/year, which amounts to nearly 10 BCM or 12 percent of the total annual discharge of the Nile at Aswan. Conversely, evaporation rates in Ethiopia are much lower at 1,520 mm/year. The floods arrive in Aswan in late August/early September and the waters are then stored in Lake Nasser. The peak agriculture season in Egypt, when farmers irrigate the most, falls in July, which means that the water is stored – and left to evaporate – in Lake Nasser for ten months without being fully utilized, generating an enormous loss for Egypt.[5] In order to better capitalize upon this water, several studies, including a study by Professor Haytham Awad at the department of Hydrology in the University of Alexandria, have looked at the option of storing water in the GERD in Ethiopia, where the climate is more temperate and evaporation rates are lower for certain parts of the year and discharging downstream at intervals. From here, water could be released in phases to downstream countries just ahead of their peak agricultural season. By gradually discharging water to downstream countries instead of the sudden discharge of floodwaters, the volume of water stored in Lake Nasser could be reduced in turn reducing evaporation rates considerably. A reduction in evaporation losses at Lake Nasser would generate a 5 percent (0.5 BCM) increase in the total volume of water reaching Aswan annually.[5]. Another study shows that the implementation of the GERD would help increase water during the dry period, increasing the minimum flow of the Blue Nile at Khartoum fivefold on average. [6]

However, other studies produce different results, showing that the overall open water evaporation would remain the same, and that the loss at Lake Nasser would drop by 31 percent.[7] The study shows that the monthly flow regime of the Blue Nile in Sudan would be almost entirely flattened out, allowing for year-round irrigation from the Blue Nile and an intensification of agricultural cycles to two crops per year in Sudan.[7] Land leasing and agricultural irrigation projects both in Ethiopia and Sudan, may pave the way for larger water demands to be utilized from the Nile River. As of yet three to four million hectares of fertile agricultural land in Ethiopia has been given to foreign companies and sovereigns who lease agricultural land overseas for the purposes of supplying food supplies for their own populations.[8] The government has resettled hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians to accommodate many of these foreign parties. The intensification of agriculture in Ethiopia and Sudan and higher abstraction rates from the Blue Nile would affect water availability downstream in Egypt.

Location of the GERD

Scientists and hydrologists have debated Ethiopia’s choice of site for the GERD, about 40 km from the Sudanse border in Beneshangul Gumuz Regional State. Some (MFAE 2013) argue that it would make more sense from a hydrological perspective to build the dam in the Blue Nile Gorge in the Ethiopian Highlands as the topography here provides ideal storage sites and a natural drop in altitude for power generation. They say that late Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi chose this location out of fear that downstream countries might one day bomb the dam. If placed on the border with Sudan, the dam collapse would then flood Sudanese territory, including most of Khartoum, and possibly also inflict damage on Egyptian territory, while leaving Ethiopian land and civilians unharmed. Hence these arguments claim that Zenawi wanted to make it impossible for downstream countries to unequivocally reject the project and instead force them to the negotiating table (MFAE 2013). Other studies[9] [10] claim that the choice of a site on the border offers potential for irrigation because of the relatively easy access to flat land and lower slopes and less steep ridges than upstream. This suggests however that the GERD is more than just a hydroelectric dam and assumes that Ethiopia plans to exploit the water in the dam reservoir for irrigation purposes, which would reduce the flow to downstream countries. There is also much concern over the location of the GERD in a fault zone on mountainous terrain, which increases the risk of collapse and breaching. Many of these arguments concerning site selection may be valid, but in order for the GERD to not stand in the way of transboundary and regional cooperation with downstream states over the management of the Nile waters, there needs to be full disclosure and transparency with respect to its design, function and operation.


The Blue Nile has a high sediment load, which is caused by strong land erosion in the upstream areas of the river in the Ethiopian Highlands. This leads to severe sedimentation problems in dam reservoirs and irrigation canals in the downstream areas. The problems of erosion and sedimentation result in reduced agricultural productivity, nutrients and land loss upstream, and increased operation and maintenance costs of water infrastructure downstream, including silt clearance in the area of hydropower turbines and de-silting of irrigation canals. The high sediment load has reduced reservoir capacity in the Roseires and Sennar Dams on the Blue Nile in Sudan. It also clogs irrigation canals, and forms the most serious problem facing irrigation schemes along the whole course of the Blue Nile River. A study by Ali (2003) looking at whether the construction of the GERD would help reduce the river’s high sediment load showed that the heightening of the Roseires Dam by 10 m combined with the future construction of the GERD, annual sedimentation rates in Roseires Dam reservoir would be significantly reduced (Ali 2013). Another study by Deltares (2013) showed the same results. The Gezira irrigation scheme in Sudan would also benefit. Irrigators and operators here are confronted with increasing sediment loads in the Blue Nile. The GERD would absorb most of the sediment and only a fraction would be released downstream. This will have consequences, both positive and negative, for the life span of the reservoir, as well as on any infrastructure along the river downstream.[11] As there may potentially be some positive impacts with respect to sedimentation due to the GERD, there may also be some negative impacts. In addition to its benefit as a natural fertilizer, the annually deposited sediments brought by the flood form the backbone of the brick industry in Sudan which is expected to be severely affected by the disappearance of sediment deposits by the river banks. This will cause loss of livelihoods and income generation for many. The loss of the previously flooded naturally fertilized lands used in recession agriculture is likely to have a serious environmental and social impact. Reduced groundwater recharge, particularly on the river flood plains where Sudan’s most intensive horticulture is practiced, will negatively impact farmers who rely on shallow wells near the river, also along the Nile north of Khartoum. These interrelated social, environmental and economic impacts need to be further studied in order to assess their severity.[6]

Effect of GERD on Downstream Hydropower Projects

One of the major arguments against the GERD is its impact on downstream hydropower projects such as the High Aswan Dam (HAD) in Egypt, and the Merowe Dam in Sudan. Several studies conducted by the Eastern Nile Technical Regional Office (ENTRO) of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), were conducted to assess whether the water level in the downstream dam reservoirs would be affected during the filling of the GERD reservoir. Two scenarios for the GERD reservoir filling period were assessed, a three-year filling period and a five-year filling period. The former is considered the worst-case scenario for downstream countries, even if it provides the best and fastest return on investment to Ethiopia. Negotiations are currently in progress between Ethiopia and downstream states over the reservoir filling period.

In the studies, the scenarios considered two starting elevations of Lake Nasser at the High Aswan Dam (HAD), namely starting level of 178 and 165m which reflect both the optimistic and pessimistic assumptions of the lake level at the start of the GERD filling. The HAD has an official minimum operation level needed in Lake Nasser of 147 m and a maximum operation level of 182m. However some studies say that the minimum water level in the reservoir needed for power generation is 165 m.<ref=name="Salam 2007"Abdel-Salam, Nadia M., Mammdoh Abdel-Aziz, Ahmad Zoubaa and Medhat Aziz. (2007). “Effect of New Water Projects in Upper Egypt on Hydropower Generation”. Eleventh International Water Technology Conference, IWTC11 2007 Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt</ref> Water level in the reservoir ranges from 165 m to 175 m based on drought season or flood season (Ibrahim 2011). The assessments conducted determined that with a three-year filling period, the reservoir level would not drop below 168 m.[12] The lowest level with a five-year filling period would be 170 m with water levels recovering to 178 m after filling. This assessment also showed that power generation at the Merowe Dam in Sudan would not be affected if the GERD were to be filled over a five-year period[12]. Power generation at the Roseires and Sennar Dams in Sudan would even be positively impacted, with an increase of about 50 percent and 25 percent respectively. The Jebel Aulia hydropower dam is constrained by its installed maximum capacity[6] These studies indicate that even under the worst-case scenario, downstream hydropower projects would not be affected by the filling of the GERD.

Climate Change

The impact of climate change on the Nile River basin is uncertain, and it is not clear whether the Blue Nile countries will experience a wetter or drier climate. Climate change will have unpredictable effects and both higher and lower levels of precipitation – and hence runoff – must be expected in the future.[13] For instance the dry scenario claims that with increased temperatures from global warming comes increased evaporation rates and hence less water flow in the Nile River, whilst the wet scenario claims that the increased condensation from evaporation rates will create increased precipitation upstream in the Ethiopian highlands causing increased runoff in the Nile River downstream. Furthermore, depending on the climate models used and the variability of data and model, opposing trends may appear as a result[14]. However, in the instance of a wet scenario in the Ethiopian Highlands, which would cause flooding and excessive water flow downstream, the GERD may act as a flood protection barrier and reduce flood damage downstream. Flash-floods are quite common along the Blue Nile in Sudan, but the severity and intensity of these floods is likely to increase with climate change. In August 2013, severe floods caused serious damage along the Blue Nile up to Khartoum (See Box 2). Studies have shown that the implementation of the GERD could reduce the flood prone lands by more than two thirds (Hamid 2013). As there may be positive and negative impacts from the reduction of these floods, the construction of the GERD will also influence flood plains on the main Nile in Khartoum, with undoubted effects on the groundwater recharge, hence more difficulties to those whose livelihoods depend on shallow wells to irrigate their crops. Furthermore, there is an indication that the flood period might be delayed by three weeks or more, depending on how the GERD is operated. The situation might be even worse in the years of drought[6]. However in most years, the current high floods of the Blue Nile at Khartoum would be reduced and riverbank floods could be completely eliminated. The risk of dam breaching, and uncoordinated operation of such big dams particularly under climate conditions and increased rainfall remains an area of great concern to downstream countries, especially Sudan.

Box 2: Sudanese Flood Disaster in August 2013[15] In August 2013, Sudan faced some of the worst floods in the last 25 years. The death toll was estimated at nearly 50. Over 300,000 people were affected, and 25,000 homes reported destroyed. Heavy rains and flash floods combined with poor drainage and urban planning caused widespread damage in Khartoum. While flash floods are common in Sudan, they had never been of this severity. With the onset of climate change and more extreme storms and weather conditions, more of these floods are to be expected.

Issues and Stakeholders

Downstream Impacts of hydropower dam and storage reservoir: assumptions, questions, and unknowns

NSPD: Water Quantity, Water Quality, Ecosystems, Governance
Stakeholder Types: Sovereign state/national/federal government

Questions about impacts on downstream flow volume, sedimentation, and water quality exist due to conflicting study results, insufficient measurement/monitoring to date and limited information sharing, among other reasons.

Analysis, Synthesis, and Insight

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Key Questions

Hydropower Dams and Large Storage Infrastructure: Where does the benefit “flow” from a hydropower project and how does that affect implementation and sustainability of the project?

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Tagged with: Transboundary

  1. ^ Hefny, Magdy (2013). “Shaping Egypt's Future for Water Development and Cooperation in the Nile Basin. “Conference Proceedings of New Nile Perspectives Conference, Khartoum, Sudan. 6-7 May 2013.
  2. ^ 2.0 2.1 2.2 Veilleux, Jennifer C. (2013). “The Human Security Dimensions of Dam Development: The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam”. Global Dialogue. Water: Cooperation or Conflict? Volume 15, Number 2, Summer/Autumn 2013.
  3. ^ NBI (2006), Baseline and Needs Assessment of National Water Policies of the Nile Basin Countries: A Regional Synthesis, Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), Shared Vision Program, Water Policy Component, December 2006
  4. ^ World Development Indicators (WDI) 2009. (2009). World Bank Report. Washington D.C. USA, World Bank.
  5. ^ 5.0 5.1 5.2 Awad, Haytham (2010) “Integrated Water Resources Management of Aswan High Dam Reservoir in Egypt”. The First JE-HydroNet Symposium on the Nile River System and the Delta of Egypt. Kyoto University, 26 October 2010.
  6. ^ 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Hamid, Salih Hamad. (2013) “The impacts of planned Ethiopian dams on the Blue Nile System in Sudan using the NB DSS”. Conference Proceedings of New Nile Perspectives Conference, Khartoum, Sudan. 6-7 May 2013.
  7. ^ 7.0 7.1 Deltares (2013). W.N.M van der Krogt and H.J.M. Ogink. “Development and application of the Eastern Nile Water Simulation Model and opportunities for further research”. Deltares, the Netherlands. Conference Proceedings of New Nile Perspectives Conference, Khartoum, Sudan. 6-7 May 2013.
  8. ^ GRAIN (2012). “Squeezing Africa dry: behind every land grab is a water grab” GRAIN website. 11 June 2012.
  9. ^ Beyene, Asfaw. (2013). “Reflections on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam”. OPride. 14 June 2013.
  10. ^ Beyene, Asfaw. (2013). “Why is Ethiopia’s hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile sized for 6000 MW?” OPride. 19 June 2013.
  11. ^ Van der Zaag, Pieter, et al (2013). “Why the Blue Nile waters are brown - in search of an interdisciplinary approach to understand a persisting problem”. Conference Proceedings of New Nile Perspectives Conference, Khartoum, Sudan. 6-7 May 2013.
  12. ^ 12.0 12.1 Mersha, Azeb, Kevin Wheeler, Zelalem Tesfaye2, Yosif Ibrahim (2013). “Reservoir Filling Option using RiverWare Model”. Conference Proceedings of New Nile Perspectives Conference, Khartoum, Sudan. 6-7 May 2013.
  13. ^ Conway D and Hulme M. 1993. Recent fluctuations in precipitation and runoff over the Nile sub-basins and their impact on main Nile discharge. Climate Change 25: 127-151.
  14. ^ Di Baldassarre G, Elshamy M, van Griensven A, Soliman E, Kigobe M, Ndomba P, Mutemi J, Mutua F, Moges S, Xuan Y, Solomatine D, Uhlenbrook S. 2011. Future hydrology and climate in the River Nile basin: a review. Hydrological Sciences Journal 56(2):199-211.
  15. ^ Tran, Mark (2013). “Sudan’s worst floods for over 25 years leave 500,000 facing destruction and disease”. The Guardian. 23 August 2013.

Facts about "Impacts of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on Downstream Countries"RDF feed
Area2,695,300 km² (1,040,655.33 mi²) +
ClimateArid/desert (Köppen B-type) + and Continental (Köppen D-type) +
Geolocation11° 12' 51.0001", 35° 5' 35.0002"Latitude: 11.2141667
Longitude: 35.0930556
IssueDownstream Impacts of hydropower dam and storage reservoir: assumptions, questions, and unknowns +
Key QuestionWhere does the benefit “flow” from a hydropower project and how does that affect implementation and sustainability of the project? +
Land Useagricultural- cropland and pasture +
NSPDWater Quantity +, Water Quality +, Ecosystems + and Governance +
Population137,700,000 million +
RiparianEgypt +, Ethiopia +, South Sudan + and Sudan +
Stakeholder TypeSovereign state/national/federal government +
Topic TagTransboundary +
Water FeatureBlue Nile + and Nile River +
Water ProjectGrand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam +
Water UseHydropower Generation +
Has subobjectThis property is a special property in this wiki.Impacts of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on Downstream Countries +