Mar 5 2019

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Nile Basin

Reviewed by Yasmin Zaerpoor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

An impressively cohesive multidisciplinary overview of the opportunities and challenges associated with Africa’s largest dam.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Nile Basin

edited by Zeray Yihdego, Alistair Rieu-Clarke and Ana Elise Cascão, The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Nile Basin, Earthscan, 2018, 224 pp.

In 2011, Ethiopia announced plans to construct the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile, one of the two main tributaries of the Nile River. Once complete, this hydroelectric dam will be the largest in Africa. The news was met with alarm from Sudan and Egypt, the two countries immediately downstream, which rely heavily on the Nile. Over the past seven years, the three countries (Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan) have been engaged in negotiations in an effort to meet their individual and collective interests while mitigating potential risks. As is the case with most transboundary problems, the issues are complex and without simple solutions. Rarely do you see this type of complexity adequately described.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Nile Basin, however, is unique in successfully presenting this kind of complexity from multidisciplinary lenses in a cohesive way. Each chapter is (co-)authored by scholars who are actively engaged in the Nile River Basin or in transboundary water management and are experts in their respective fields. Presumably by design, the arc of the book flows seamlessly from describing the historical legal context (Chapters 2, 3 and 4) into the current sociopolitical context (Chapters 5 and 6), before switching to a future-oriented view of the potential economic impacts of the dam (Chapters 7 and 8) and options for the filling and operation of the dam (Chapters 9 and 10).

Remarkably, despite switching from one disciplinary lens to another, the authors manage to maintain a fairly consistent set of messages. The introductory chapter outlines eight major themes of the book, but three are particularly important. First, the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the resulting engagement of the three Eastern Nile countries represents a significant shift in the hydro-politics of the Basin. One shortcoming of the book in this regard is that it nearly unequivocally supports the dam and the upstream countries in challenging the “status quo” of water use in the Nile Basin. This is problematic because the advocacy varies in strength from chapter to chapter, without ever being explicitly addressed or explained. The analysis may seem one-sided to anyone unfamiliar with Nile Basin dynamics, especially as described in the first half of the book.

Second, the book emphasizes the potential benefits that each country stands to gain from the operation of the GERD. These benefits are described from multidisciplinary lenses: e.g., more equitable water use throughout the basin (law); enhanced regional cooperation (politics); catalyst for regional economic growth (economics); and improved water management functions along the Blue Nile (hydrology). Relatedly, the third message of the book is the urgent need for continued cooperation. The GERD has been politicized, arguably by all three countries of the Eastern Nile (and by many others), and is often characterized as a source of conflict. This book challenges that framing by emphasizing the potential gains that can be realized through cooperation.

With a little more work, perhaps in the introduction, the editors could have contextualized the story a bit more. Also, in ending with a chapter on managing risks (rather than a proper conclusion), they missed a valuable opportunity to clearly enumerate the “implications for transboundary water cooperation” (as suggested in the book’s subtitle). Finally, they could have explained more explicitly why an interdisciplinary approach to analyzing such complex problems is so challenging, rare, invaluable and increasingly necessary.

This is an excellent book for anyone interested in Nile Basin developments because it presents the current challenges, potential opportunities and issues that need to be resolved before the GERD becomes operational.