Africa: Dams and the Technology-Development Nexus – the Case of the GERD

The business of national economic development is always multi-faceted with blurry lines, with politics, economics, technology and ecology interacting all the time. There is a peculiar additional complexity when we deal with strategic national resources such as water. This complexity is amplified when there are other stakeholders to the same resource but outside the national borders. Such, it seems, is the story of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Here, I revisit the issue of the GERD from the perspective of the nexus of technology and development. By technology I refer to the technicalities of design, machinery, function and operation, and by development I refer to the economic and governance aspects guided by social and political aspirations. In reality, the two realms are not clearly distinguished from each other, as they both form part of ‘techno social systems.’ [1] As I discuss, in my recent book, Liberation and Technology, since dams are giant technological feats, usually built in the name of development, they are an epitome of the technology-development nexus.

Developmentalism: a history of politics and policy
Historically, competition among states over water resources has been a persistent characteristic of regional politics. Competition over fresh water resources is even more significant as every country is trying to secure as much fresh water as possible, for present and future consumption, with primary focus on its own interests. The growing scarcity of fresh water resources is making the situation more critical.
With the advent of ‘modernization’, societies along the Nile became heavily dependent on large consumption of fresh water, for urban life-style consumption, agriculture, and hydro-power demand. Since the first decade of the 20th century conflicts of interest between Egypt and Sudan regarding securing enough water for agriculture and hydropower, besides other uses, for each country, was an issue that colonial Britain had to deal with. Britain, which was in control of most of the ‘countries’ it had created along the Nile, played a key role in establishing the first ‘international water treaty’. Because Britain had the most interest in Egypt, given its economic weight and role in shaping colonial politics in the region, the so-called treaty clearly favoured Egypt against the future development interests of Sudan and the other countries, making it a highly contested and tension-building treaty to date.[2]

‘In 1902, British authorities constructed the low Aswan Dam on the Nile River, subsequently raising it twice to over 100 feet in height by 1933.'[3; pg. 5] A general agreement between the British Empire and Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia, in 1902, stipulated that the Emperor could not build a body across the Blue Nile that would affect the flow of water to British territories (i.e. Sudan and Egypt) without the consent of the British.[4] According to General Gordon – Sudan’s British general governor slain in Khartoum by the rebelling armies of Mohamed Al-Mahdi – ‘the Sudan is a useless possession, ever was so, and ever will be so … I think Her Majesty’s Government is fully justified in recommending the evacuation.’ [5; p. 320] Other British men of authority were more ‘diplomatic’ in expressing their opinion about their ‘possession’ of Sudan, and regarding their clear favoritism of Egypt, saying that ‘It was not that Britain loved the Sudan less; it was that she loved Egypt more [5; p. 327]. The British, with their European colonial partners in East Africa, designed some treaties between the states that had shared the Nile and its sources to mainly secure Egypt’s unequal share of the river’s water.

‘The detailed 1929 arrangements ‘appeared to work solely for the benefit of Egypt whose established and historic rights were recognized’. Egypt was assured a minimum of 48 billion cubic meters of water per year, as against 4 billion for the Sudan, and this left approximately 32 billion unallocated. The agreement did not include Ethiopia, and stipulated that ‘no works were to be constructed on the Nile or its tributaries or the equatorial lakes, so far as they were under British jurisdiction, which would alter the flows entering Egypt without her prior approval.’ [6; p. 677]
Most of these treaties are still in play today as was seen in the postcolonial 1959 agreement between the Egyptian and Sudanese governments. This is mostly due to the regional pre-eminence of Egypt which although challenged more than once continues to prevail. In Egypt large state projects continued in the developmentalism era of the 1970s with the construction of the High Aswan Dam with the help of the Soviet Union. Its artificial lake, Lake Nasser, ‘extended 150 kilometers into Sudanese territory, and the Government [of Sudan] was compensated at the going rate of 15 million Egyptian pounds in sterling for having to resettle as many as 50,000 [Sudanese citizens] displaced.'[6; p. 679] A Sudanese military government – with clear favoritism for the Arab Nationalism led by the Egyptian government at the time – presided over the implementation of the agreement.
The political atmosphere today is significantly different from that of the 1950-60s. International law is more involved in regulating regional water treaties. Recently, other African countries that share access to the Nile’s water with Egypt and Sudan started to voice their concerns about the unfair allocations. A 2013 BBC report stated that, ‘Four East African states have signed an agreement to seek more water from the River Nile – a move strongly opposed by Egypt and Sudan … . Upstream countries including Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Ethiopia say [the colonial era agreement] is unfair and want a new deal but nothing has been agreed in 13 years of talks.’
Dams: a technology-development nexus
All large dams create problems downstream, as the High Aswan Dam did despite its many economic and developmental benefits for Egypt. However, in the long term, the repercussions of the environmental damage is discerned in ‘water logging, salinization, and river bed erosion.'[6; p. 680] The consequences of sediment flow blockage by the dam are deteriorated land fertility shoring the Nile in Egypt and decreased efficiency of the dam in generating hydropower and controlling the water reservoir in Lake Nasser. Additionally, the need for more water in Egypt is increasing, due to the increase of its population, while Lake Nasser is losing its capacity due to the accumulated sediment behind the dam and the evaporation of water from the lake (since the location of the lake is one of the hottest regions in Africa and the world).
This story is not unique to the High Aswan Dam. Large dam structures across the world have similar stories. But in terms of technology policy, Egypt has a chance to transfer this entire problem upstream, to Sudan, by having additional large dams built in Sudan:
While Egypt is seriously averse to the idea of any water being diverted upstream for agricultural purposes, it has actively encouraged the exploitation of the Nile’s hydropower potential. The dams which were built in the Sudan after the 1959 agreement have been advantageous for Egypt in so far as they have acted as ‘siltation basins’ that have stopped a considerable quantity of sediments from reaching Lake Nasser… . Egypt continues to show interest in the creation of more hydropower upstream, particularly in the Sudan.[6; p. 686]
So, we now have two conflicting interests of the big and strong Egypt downstream: (1) that it wants to keep its share of the Nile’s water unchanged, but (2) it would encourage dam projects upstream that help reduce the quantity of sediments reaching Lake Nasser. So, basically, as long as dam projects upstream do not affect Egypt’s share of the quantity of the Nile’s water, then Egypt is okay. However, the other countries who share the Nile basin are not okay with this, because they want both hydropower and more share of the water.
The GERD, although not an irrigation dam and mainly designed for power generation, worries Egypt because it gives Ethiopia clear control over the flow of the Blue Nile, thereby controlling Egypt’s share of the water. Some technical/scholarly studies seem to confirm Ethiopia’s claim that Egypt’s share of the water will not be affected outside the filling years.[7] While Ethiopia is trying to assuage Egypt’s worries, to Egypt there are no strong guarantees, and the Nile water is too important. For Sudan, on the other hand, there is a mix of anticipated benefits and repercussions from the GERD. As for the benefits, it will regulate the flow of the Blue Nile over the year (good news for flood prevention and for some agricultural aspects), and Ethiopia also promised Sudan a share of the energy produced (at reasonable pricing). As for repercussions, they vary from diminishing the capacities of dams in Sudan, to holding sediment which is important for agriculture and land re-fertilization in Sudan, to the perceived risk of the possibility of the dam collapsing and how it could cause a major disaster to Sudanese cities and towns located on the shores of the Blue Nile and the Nile (as well as inhabited islands).[8]
The right to choose, but wisely
The question of development policy here is about the compromises taken by governments for the sake of energy (hydropower), and whether energy supply is worth these compromises. Development cannot achieve its goals when one sector’s gain is another sector’s loss; here questions of sustainable development arise.
International standards, such as the guidelines of the World Commission on Dams (WCD) report, require that an environmental impact assessment report is prepared or contracted before conducting the project. The report is required to critically address certain issues regarding the impact of a large dam project; (1) social issues – i.e. consequences of people’s displacement and resettlement from future flooded area; (2) archaeological issues – resulting from destruction or submerging important archaeological sites or places of high cultural value; and (c) environmental issues – i.e. effects of large scale hydrological alteration of the natural river system with major impacts on the environment and water quality. According to the report of the International Panel of Experts (IPoE) that reviewed the equivalents of these reports, presented by the Ethiopian government, some issues were addressed sufficiently, but much was left to be demanded.[9] To be fair to the Ethiopian authorities, the GERD was not their first choice – a project of three dams, along their share of the Blue Nile, with shared costs and ownership between the three countries, was their first choice, but the other two countries – Sudan and Egypt – did not commit to the project, contributing to Ethiopia’s decision to go for one large dam with sole ownership.[8]
Large dams are known to cause long-term social and environmental unfavourable impacts – to say the least – and the environmental impacts usually catch up with the technical functionality of the dams themselves, i.e. productivities are eventually affected negatively because of the accumulating environmental ‘side-effects’. Furthermore, large dams are usual suspect for problems of costing more than budgeted for, taking longer than planned, corruption and mismanagement scandals, and producing less than forecast.[10]

There are legitimate alternatives to large dams for hydropower production and water harvesting. These are usually more sustainable and often more effective in addressing the direct needs of communities rather than the state’s central agenda. These alternatives include a range of decentralized models for solar power, wind power, micro-hydro and water harvesting schemes. The 2000 WCD report stipulates that, ‘large dam projects should only be approved where they demonstrably meet the goal of human development … alternatives including decentralized energy schemes should be considered from the start’.[11]
All things considered, are the recent large dam projects along the Nile, such as the GERD, and Merowe Dam in Sudan, promoting a people-centred development agenda, with optimum utilization of state-of-the-art technology, or are they examples of not learning enough from past, similar experiences?

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On the political and economic fronts, and as one of the main riparian countries of the Nile basin, Ethiopia’s right to optimal utilization of its natural resources should be duly respected, and no colonial ‘agreements’ should have more weight than that right. On the technological and sustainable development fronts, however, general opposition to large dams and loyalty to alternative approaches of hydropower and water harvesting should be supported – unless overwhelming evidence in support of special cases exists.
The GERD is a major event in the story arc of the Nile basin. Will we witness how things unfold?
*This article is adapted from an original version published in the Citizen Newspaper (Sudan).
[1] Gussai H. Sheikheldin. 2018. Liberation and Technology: Development possibilities in pursuing technological autonomy. Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota Publishers.
[2] DW News. ‘Talks collapse on Ethiopia’s Nile dam’ 6 April 2021:
[3] Sanjeev Khagram. 2004. Dams and Development: Transnational Struggles for Water and Power. Ithaga: Cornell University Press.
[4] Faisal Abdulrahman Taha. 2013 (in Arabic), mentioned in M. Jalal Hashim. 2016. Message from Kajbar: Issues of Dams in Northern Sudan (Arabic). London: Shafaq Publishers.
[5] Pierre Crabitès. 1912. “Egypt, the Sudan and the Nile.” Foreign Affairs 6(2): 320-328.
[6] Ashok Swain. 1997. “Ethiopia, the Sudan and Egypt: The Nile River Dispute.” Journal of Modern African Studies 35(4): 675-694.
[7] Wheeler, K.G., Jeuland, M., Hall, J.W. et al. 2020. ‘Understanding and managing new risks on the Nile with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.’ Nature Communications 11, 5222.
[8] M. Jalal Hashim. 2013. ‘The Political Impact of damming the Nile: the Case of Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt.’ The 12th Annual Horn of Africa Conference. (Conference Theme: Resource wealth causes conflict (greed-based analysis) in the Horn of Africa), Lund, Sweden, 23-25 August.
[9] International Panel of Experts (IPoE) on Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project (GERDP). Final Report. May 31st 2013. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia:
[10] Arif Ansar, Bent Flyvbjerg, Alexander Budzier and Daniel Lunn. 2014. ‘Should we build more large dams? The actual costs of hydropower megaproject development.’ Energy Policy, 69: 43-56.
[11] World Commission on Dams. 2000. Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-making. (official report).

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