The Nile River in northeastern Africa is heavily relied upon for survival and livelihood. It supplies drinking water, irrigation for crops, fish and hydroelectricity. But the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Upper Nile, which represents Africa's largest hydropower project, is at the center of a conflict involving Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. Northern Michigan University assistant professor Jongeun You examined the policy setting related to the GERD conflict, which could apply to comparable cases across different contexts. His research paper was published in World Water Policy.
Since Ethiopia announced its intent to build the GERD in 2010 and began construction the following year, the 5.15 gigawatt mega-dam has led to tense confrontations between the three nations in the Nile basin.
This past July, Egypt and Ethiopia agreed to end the stalemate in negotiations over the dam and reach an agreement within four months. The GERD started supplying power in February 2022, but has no legally binding agreement on the dam filling and operation.
You recently joined NMU's Political Science faculty. He reviewed policy documents on the GERD from relevant government agencies, intergovernmental organizations and think tanks. According to his research, policy conflict around the GERD over the past decade can be better understood through the Policy Conflict Framework, a theory that clarifies the characteristics of policy disputes.
“Complex Nile River basin management and the development of new conflict episodes, along with policy actors, events and policy issues, have all put additional strains on the region's security and prosperity,” he said.
You proposed three recommendations for mitigating policy conflict. The first is to address hydrologic information loopholes such as the detailed plan for filling the hydropower reservoir and the amount of water that would be released through the GERD's gates. The second would leverage a new impartial mediator to find a “face-saving compromise” and discover new ideas and solutions, such as establishing a strong regional power pool and a highly integrated electrical transmission network. The third, recognizing the multifaceted nature of policy conflict, would expand the three nations' negotiation team to ensure that all representatives have appropriate knowledge of hydrological, economic and political dimensions and have open minds to adaptive management.
“The GERD is a typical representation of the water-energy nexus,” said You. “Hydropower projects are essential for decarbonizing electrical grids, but have long been a source of policy conflict. The implications of the GERD extend far beyond power supply and water resources management. Thus, it is important to reflect on what has occurred around the GERD and its implications on regional hydropolitics and water resilience."
“I believe there is no one-size-fits-all approach to international disputes over resource management,” You added. "But one thing we can learn from the GERD conflict is the importance of bringing a political science perspective to better understand institutions and policy actors in the disputes.”