The recent conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region risks heightening tensions surrounding the country’s hydroelectric power project, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Negotiations over the dam with neighbouring countries Sudan and Egypt have reached a crucial stage, but talks could be delayed while the Ethiopian Government responds to the ongoing crisis. Worryingly, the conflict has the potential to spread across the whole region, with Eritrea and Sudan already drawn into the mix. If the UN decides to sanction Ethiopia for possible human rights abuses in Tigray, this could further inflame the situation regarding GERD.
Talks between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt acquired a sense of urgency after the dam’s first filling in July 2020. The hydroelectric dam will produce enough electricity to meet domestic demand with a surplus left over to export to other countries. Costing approximately $5bn to build and approaching completion, the dam is a source of considerable national pride as it has been financed solely by Ethiopia.
The point of contention between the three countries is the dam’s location on the Blue Nile. The Blue Nile supplies approximately 80% of the water to the main river Nile, along which both Egypt and Sudan lie. With its desert climate, Egypt relies on the Nile to meet 90% of its water needs. Negotiations between the three countries have been ongoing for the best part of a decade. Tempers flared when the US stepped in to mediate the dispute in 2019 due to comments by President Trump that Egypt would not be able to live with the dam and might ‘blow up’ the construction.
However, the outbreak of fighting in Tigray in November 2020 threatens to distract governments from the continuing negotiations. The conflict is between the Ethiopian government and the region’s ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Both sides have accused each other of committing atrocities during the fighting. As of December 2020, it is estimated that several thousand people have been killed and up to one million people have been displaced.
The conflict has attracted international attention due to its potential to spread beyond Tigray’s borders with fears of a regional crisis in North-East Africa. Eritrea, which borders Tigray, has become heavily involved, reportedly sending troops to support the Ethiopian Government. In response, the TPLF bombed the outskirts of the Eritrean capital, Asmara. Many refugees from Tigray have fled to Sudan, increasing pressure on the country’s scarce resources. As ethnic tensions intensify across Ethiopia, there are concerns that Egypt could seek to take advantage of the Ethiopian Government’s weakened position. Dr Yohannes Woldemariam, an expert on Ethiopia, has speculated that Egypt might look to fund dissident groups in Ethiopia, igniting a proxy war over GERD.
The Ethiopian army’s actions in Tigray have been negatively received by the UN. At first, the government refused to allow international press and aid workers access to the region, and it continues to resist an independent investigation into the conflict. Also, the Ethiopian army fired at UN workers when they failed to stop at a checkpoint. UN sanctions or aid suspensions would be a severe blow to Ethiopia, which is also facing challenges from both the Covid-19 pandemic and a locust plague. Such a move could make Ethiopia more militant and less willing to negotiate with its neighbours as it will have little to lose.
In summary, stakeholders in the GERD project should closely monitor the situation in North-East Africa. Although the outlook is currently bleak, international pressure on the three countries to reach a resolution may reinvigorate negotiations.