The Nile defines Egypt, perhaps even more than the pyramids do. For thousands of years, the river has snaked through that otherwise barren land, feeding its farms and making it lush. But Egypt is not the Nile’s only home. And for decades, other countries in its basin have argued for a greater share of its bounty. Now one of them has a plan to tap the river’s power, and it has Egypt in a national fury.
The Ethiopian government is in the midst of what, if completed, would be the largest infrastructure program in that country’s history—a $4.5-billion plan to construct a hydroelectric dam on the Nile near the Sudanese border. The finished Grand Renaissance Dam would have a capacity of 6,000 megawatts—nearly three times that of the Hoover Dam and more than any other hydroelectric project in Africa. The dam could potentially provide enough power for Ethiopia’s growing population with enough left over for significant exports. Unfortunately, there’s also an outside chance it could spark a regional war.
In early June, Egypt’s now-deposed government publicly called on Ethiopia to stop work on the project. More alarmingly, it broadcast parts of a “secret” cabinet meeting where senior ministers mused about arming Ethiopian rebels or even destroying the dam outright. Egypt does have a legitimate beef, says Ashok Swain, an expert on global water issues at Uppsala University in Sweden. Once completed, it will take several years for the dam’s reservoir to fill. Until it does, the project will divert water away from the Nile—water that would otherwise have flowed to Egypt.
Still, Swain believes Egypt’s threats are largely empty. Wracked by a recent coup and without the backing of a great power, the country simply does not have the clout it once did. “Egypt has been a bully in the Nile basin for years,” Swain says. Today, it’s just one weakened player among many. And that means, on the dam issue and others to come, it may not always get its way.