3 Giant Dams Destabilizing the World Food Supply: Dam #3 Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD)

3 Dams on 3 continents in 3 minute reads

Grand Renaissance Dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa. Note the river isn’t blue. It’s full of silt.

Continent: Africa. Location: Due East of Djibouti, just inside Ethiopia’s border with Sudan. Impounds: The Blue Nile. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation identified the dam site in the 1950’s but it has just been built and is being filled in the 2020’s. It is 476 feet high, 1.1 miles across. The lake behind it will be 60,000,000 acre feet. When fully operational it will be the largest hydro electric power plant in Africa.
This dam is already directly affecting food prices, food supply, and international stability for over three hundred million people in one of the world’s most drought stressed and hungry regions.

Some recent History
From the late 1800’s to the 1950’s Egypt, first by itself, then with the British, occupied Sudan including what was to become South Sudan. In the 1950’s Sudan fought for, and by spilled blood gained, independence from Egypt and the British. In 1959 Egypt and Sudan set guidelines for allotments of Nile River water and Egypt gave itself veto power over water projects that could be built in countries up river. The thing is, they didn’t include Ethiopia, where 85 percent of the water comes from, in those 1959 talks, so Ethiopia doesn’t recognize them.

The Nile is the world’s longest river. It flows from south to north. Every country the river flows through is food insecure, some to the point of famine, and all depend on the Nile or its tributaries to survive, especially Egypt, Sudan, and South Sudan.
The two main branches of the Nile River are the Blue Nile and the White Nile. The Blue Nile rises from the Ethiopian highlands then flows into eastern Sudan; the White Nile, flows out of Uganda through South Sudan, then into Sudan, where it joins with the Blue Nile at Sudan’s capital of Khartoum.

For this series on dams, understand that the ‘Blue Nile’ isn’t blue. Ethiopians call the river Abay (Father). The Sudanese call dark things Azraq (blue). The Blue Nile is Azraq because its waters are so dark with silt–which has implications for how long the GERD reservoir  will remain viable. The White Nile is called that because it’s relatively clear compared to the turbid Blue Nile.

From Khartoum the two rivers become, ‘The Nile’ continuing north through northern Sudan into Egypt to deposit whatever the dams have left of its waters, into the Mediterranean Sea.
Until GERD, Egypt and Sudan enjoyed 90 percent of the Nile’s water. One reason it took so long to get Ethiopia’s dam built was Egypt’s objections to it in the international political arena. Egypt and Sudan (especially Egypt) tried to stop GERD through diplomatic channels. When that failed, they tried to dictate how fast the dam could be filled so they’d have adequate access in the years it takes to fill a reservoir that size. Failing that, Egyptians threatened to bomb the dam but to date have limited themselves to threats and reputed cyber attacks against Ethiopia.*

Questions of fairness and desperation: Egypt and Sudan, which are hyperventilating at Ethiopia for impounding portions of what they’ve considered ‘their’ water for decades, have built major dams of their own across the Nile. Egypt’s High Aswan Dam, built/filled between 1960-1970, is the world’s largest embankment dam—364 feet high, more than two miles across. It impounds Lake Nasser, one of the largest man-made lakes in the world. It’s so big 10 billion cubic meters of water per year evaporate from the surface into the hot desert sky. That evaporation alone is enough fresh water to provide for a small country. In addition, the Nile deposits about 6.6 billion cubic meters of silt per year into Lake Nasser, which means it doesn’t replenish soils below the dam or the delta where the river meets the sea. It also means Lake Nasser must eventually fill in with silt.

Like the rest of the region, Egypt and Sudan have struggled through increasingly severe droughts due to global warming. Both worry, with good reason, that a dam impounding water in Ethiopia will deplete water supplies downstream. In addition, Sudan worries that Ethiopia, if it gets a big rain year, will release so much water out of the Grand Renaissance Dam to relieve pressure there, in a scenario like the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River in 1983, that the rush of water will over-top Sudan’s smaller, weaker, earthen dams and collapse them.

Food Insecurity
Egypt: Not the most politically stable country since Al Sisi seized power in a 2013 coup d’état, Egypt is a place where more than 70 percent of the population is on government food assistance. One third of Egyptians live below the poverty line. When the government tries to cut food subsidies there are demonstrations, and sometimes huge riots big enough to destabilize the regime. Soaring food cost was a primary factor in the 2011 Arab Spring that allowed Al Sisi to seize power from Mubarak.
This being the case, Egypt’s government keeps providing food subsidies but as world food prices increase, food they provide will be less nutritious. This decade has seen stories of restaurant workers in Cairo scraping uneaten food from plates and selling it to hungry people on the streets.
Even before GERD was built, Lake Nasser was dropping while Egypt’s population was exploding. Egyptians have already turned from irrigating water intensive crops like rice to more heat and drought tolerant crops. It is also forced to import more food—which costs more than growing it at home.
Flat bread is the fundamental staple in Egypt’s diet, especially for the working poor. Egyptians eat more than twice the world average of bread. Given this and the fact that Egypt is able to produce less than half the wheat it needs to supply the population, they are the world’s largest wheat importers (about 13 million tons) and the 7th largest importers of sunflower oil (about 410, 000 tons) . Russia is the world’s largest wheat exporter Ukraine is 5th largest. Between them, they export 30 % of the world’s wheat and ¾ of the world’s sunflower oil. In addition to wheat dependency, Egypt imports 95% of it’s vegetable oil. Dr. Tanchum writes: “The Russia-Ukraine war catapulted prices to unsustainable levels for Egypt, increasing the price of wheat by an additional 44% and sunflower oil 32%.”

Sudan and South Sudan: After Sudan broke away from Egypt and Britain, people in the south of the country wanted to break away from Sudan. After more or less continuous, brutal, warfare for the next half-century, South Sudan gained independence in 2011, making it the most recent country to join the world stage. People living in South Sudan are related to people living in Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan. Factional fighting goes on to this day with 2.3 million people from South Sudan fleeing to those countries to get away from the bloodshed. The refugees thus add to poverty and food insecurity in surrounding countries. After decades of warfare, South Sudan is in shambles. In addition, while the White Nile runs through South Sudan, splitting from Sudan compromised South Sudan’s access to benefits from the Blue Nile.

Ethiopia: For the Ethiopian government, the Grand Renaissance Dam is a showpiece that it says provides jobs and will bring electricity to millions of people who currently have none, and also provide irrigation and flood control.
At the same time, the Tigray region in northern Ethiopia is in a famine. No one knows how many are starving because it’s a man-made famine caused by the Ethiopian government which has blockaded the Tigray and is not allowing food, medicine, fuel, relief workers, or other humanitarian aid workers into the region. Estimates are over 900,000 people facing, or in, famine and another 5.5 million are in acute food insecurity.

Americans tend to think of this as region as sparsely populated but when you add the populations up we’re talking about more people than live in Western Europe.
Egypt: 106 million.
Ethiopia: 120 million.
Sudan: 46 million people.
South Sudan: 11.4 million.
Eretria 3.6 million, Djibouti 1 million.
Uganda, to the South of South Sudan, 48 million. (Uganda’s population is predicted to double by 2060).

Not Donald Trump’s fault

There were a slew of articles in 2020 implying US President Donald Trump caused the crisis between Egypt and Ethiopia, and accusing President Trump of calling for Egypt to bomb Ethiopia’s dam. For one thing, Trump was 7,200 miles away. For another, the dam had been under construction for six years before he took office. And third, that’s not what he said. If you listen to the video he says, “It’s a very dangerous situation because Egypt is not going to be able to live that way and they’ll end up blowing up the dam.” He also stated, “I said, how do you let it get built and then say you can’t have the dam?”

In 2020, most observers didn’t expect Egypt to bomb GERD for several reasons. If the reservoir were full, uncontrolled discharge from the broken dam would flood part of Sudan. Also, Ethiopians (who are formidable foes when riled, as the Italian army found out at Adwa) could retaliate by striking the High Aswan Dam, and/or by sinking a couple ships in the Suez Canal. A major war in a region where most of the people are poor and food insecure would be a lose-lose. Plus everyone would blame Egypt for the inevitable disruptions in world markets. Expectations from the last decade may no longer be counted on, given events spiking world food prices. If the cost of wheat drive’s Egypt’s economy into the ground, and drought further reduces domestic wheat production causing civil unrest, Al Sisi might do whatever he thinks will keep him in power.

03.03.2022 The Russia-Ukraine War Has Turned Egypt’s Food Crisis into an Existential Threat to the Economy Middle East Institute by Michael Tanchum.
10.30.2020 Ethiopia: Trump calls for Egypt to bomb Ethiopia dam All Africa.
07.27.2020 Ethiopia dam filling impact ‘limited’- if no drought. Sci Dev, Net. by Rehab Abd Almohsen.

08.17.2018 The Blue Nile Is Not Blue! Water Journalists in Africa by Ishraqa Abbas https://waterjournalistsafrica.com/2018/08/the-blue-nile-is-not-blue/

2017, 6, 230-246 Mitigating the impacts of climate change by reducing evaporation losses: sediment removal from the Aswan High Dam Reservoir. American Journal of Climate Change Emad Elba et al.