Changing Planet

Geography in the News: Ethiopia’s Dam Projects

By Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner, Geography in the NewsTM


In addition to Egypt’s latest political turmoil, its government is extremely worried about Ethiopia’s newest dam on the headwaters of the Blue Nile. The Blue Nile is the leading source of water for the north-flowing Nile. Fears in Egypt and the Sudan are that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will radically reduce the Nile’s flow. 

Ethiopia seeks to become a major exporter of electricity. Its leaders are hoping that exports of electricity to neighboring countries within a decade will surpass coffee as a source of revenue. Ethiopia’s latest hydroelectric project (GERD) will reduce the flows to the Nile Valley. Because the Nile is Egypt’s “lifeline” in its desert environment, the dependability of its flows are critical downstream.


When completed, the GERD will be the largest hydroelectric project in Africa, but it wasn’t the first controversial Ethiopian dam. In fact, there have been several such projects. One of the other most recent ones is a huge one called the Gibe III located on the Omo River. Slightly over half finished, the project will displace or impact 500,000 Ethiopians, but it alone will more than double Ethiopia’s power output.

The Gibe III, however, is being constructed on the Omo River of southern Ethiopia. The Omo is a perennial river, meaning it has continuous flow in parts of its bed all year round. With its course completely contained within the boundaries of Ethiopia, no other country depends directly on the Omo’s water (although Kenya shares Lake Turkana).

The Blue Nile, on the other hand, is the source of as much as 60 percent of the Nile’s water. Egypt and the Sudan, lying downstream, depend on the Blue Nile’s water to replenish the Nile’s flow and maintain the levels of Lake Nasser (contained by the Aswan High Dam) in southern Egypt and northern Sudan. Silt from the seasonal flooding of the Blue Nile historically replenished the floodplain soils downstream, helping Egypt become one of the world’s first civilizations. The dams on the Nile have largely stopped the movements of silt in modern times. The GERD will also halt the flooding and contain much of the silt, but it will also hold back considerable water until the lake is filled. Herein lies the problem for the Nile downstream.

The projected size of the GERD reservoir is immense and realistically may take up to 20 years to completely fill with water after it is completed. Ethiopia, however, intends to fill it in just five years, although the rainfall is very erratic in the Ethiopian Highlands. Attempting to fill it in five years, on average, would consume as much as 20 percent of the Blue Nile’s annual flow, which would be a disaster to downstream farmers.

Alternatively, trying to capture the waters only from the wet season (June-September) would require decades, according to estimates. Because the reservoir will be located at relatively high elevation compared with the lower desert location of Lake Nasser, its evaporation rate will be significantly lower. 

Currently, almost all of Ethiopia’s electricity generation is hydroelectric. Therefore, when severe drought occurs, as it did in 2003, power outages are frequent. Power outages often result in loss of economic productivity for the country. In 2003 alone, those losses added up to an estimated $200 million, representing 3.2 percent of the gross national product (GNP).

Currently, very few Ethiopians have access to electricity. Of Ethiopia’s rural population, which is approximately 85 percent of the country’s total, less than two percent have access to the electrical grid.

Through ambitious projects like the Gibe III and GERD, Ethiopia’s government, with support of China and others, is trying to expand electricity access to the country’s rural masses. Unfortunately, the incredible poverty in the rural areas may keep people from accessing electricity even if it is available.

The controversies surrounding the Gibe III and GERD dams in Ethiopia are familiar to many developing countries of the world. Governments hoping to increase their country’s revenue and benefit the masses often implement such large-scale projects. Sadly, displaced indigenous populations and impacts outside the region are often overlooked in the name of progress and a “new economy.”

 Egypt may object strongly to a 20 percent decline in water to the Nile.

 And that is Geography in the NewsTM.

Sources: GITN 1065 Ethiopia’s Newest Dam Controversy, Oct. 29, 2010;;; and The Christian Science Monitor, Sharing the coveted Nile, July 8 &15, 2013.

Co-authors are Neal Lineback, Appalachian State University Professor Emeritus of Geography, and Geographer Mandy Lineback Gritzner. University News Director Jane Nicholson serves as technical editor. Geography in the NewsTM  is solely owned and operated by Neal Lineback for the purpose of providing geographic education to readers worldwide.


Neal Lineback has written weekly Geography in the News (GITN) articles for more than 25 years (1,200 published articles) while he was Chair of Geography and Planning at Appalachian State University and since. In 2007, he brought his daughter Mandy Gritzner in as a co-author. She is also a geographer with a graduate degree from Montana State University. GITN has won national recognition and numerous awards from the Association of American Geographers, the National Council for Geographic Education and Travelocity, among others..
  • awoke

    (((GERD) is being called “a destructive dam” largely because it will reduce the flows to the Nile. Because the Nile is Egypt’s “lifeline” in its desert environment, the dependability of its flows are critical.))……..
    read more before u post an article…..and for your info. it is trush

  • sintayehu

    IT is a null and void idea .Ethiopia has natural right to use its own natural resources. Ethiopians foreign policy is based on win win approach.That is way Ethiopia is working to integrating the region through infrastructure.Ethiopia wants to use fairly based on international norm and law. to write one has to know about international law source of international law

  • Jospeh

    The article is biased in favour of Egypt. The fact that outdated colonial treaties between Britain (on behalf of lower riparian countries) and Egypt gives exclusive right over the Nile to Egypt and leaves nothing to Ethiopia and other lower riparian countries, from which more than 86 percent of the Nile originates, is not mentioned anywhere in the article.
    2nd. Although less than two percent of Ethiopians have access to the electrical grid, as you mentioned, you seem to favour the status-quo to be maintained and Ethiopians and rest of East africans remain in darkness and poverty to make their northerly neigbours happy forever. I don’t know what to say.
    3rd- You mentioned that 20 percent decline in water to the Nile (for a mere five years until the dam reservoir is filled) is more worrisome than more than 100 million people living in darkness and poverty for fear of upsetting their richer neigbour. You even seem to justify military action by Egypt to prevent other countris from using the Nile.

    A fair, equitable and just use of natural resources is best option by all parties concerned. War is not a solution. Egypt may be more powerful than the rest of its African neigbours for now. But that may not continue for eternity. The sooner we accomodate each other the better.

  • observer

    Fact Check:

    (1) Ethiopia/Uganda/South Sudan and other upstream riparian countries are also extremely worried that Egypt has been uncooperative in a reasonable sharing of the Nile waters. Mind you – Ethiopia and the countries of Equatorial Africa are the sources of the waters of the Nile.

    (2) Egypt’s way of collaboration for the last four or five decades has been destabilization of Ethiopia by arming rebels and creating instability so that Ethiopia may never be able to develop its water resources at all. This has created enormous misery with wars and famine when the rains fail.

    (3) the Sudan has fully supported the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and they said it will be beneficial to them. Let’s talk facts here! It is only Egypt who is saying they are concerned.

    (4) I do not know what you mean and who called the GERD a ‘destructive dam’ – may be it is only the writers of this article. I have read extensively about the GERD so far and this is the first time I read it being referred as ‘destructive’. There are many dams on the Nile River. There is Rosieres, the Sennai, the Merowe, the Aswan. The GERD is not the first one – unless your eyes get red when it is built in Ethiopia and unless you have some issues against Ethiopians. I am sorry but that is how we see it!

    (5) The current generation of Ethiopians will not let Ethiopia starve again. We will develop our resources in such a way that we will all benefit in a reasonable manner without significantly affecting our neighbors. While you mentioned so much about Egypt’s need, you failed to mention the deep rooted poverty and recurrent famine that is tormenting Ethiopian society for decades. It all boils down to the country’s inability to develop its resources.

    (6) The GERD symbolizes Ethiopia’s rise from years of misery. No one will stop that! No one! Deep rooted poverty and recurrent famine is also a national security and stability issue in Ethiopia also. The Nile Basin countries should collaborate on a WIN-WIN way of sharing – so far the Egypt and Sudan were beneficiaries while Ethiopia(while being the source of 86% of the waters) gets nothing. Now, what do you call that?

  • belaw

    God bless china !!

  • Julie Jones

    So, I read it twice and still missed the war mongering…can’t imagine you guys were prepared for such a strong reaction :/ Hang in there!!!
    I always enjoy reading GIN…

  • Kebede Kassa

    Readers are kindly requested to read “(1) the Dam will NOT have very significant impact on the flow of the Nile water” in the contribution under this name posted on July 24, 12:36 pm.

  • Kebede Kassa

    You guys must have written the above article when you were in hysteric mood, when you were unable to sleep, and when you wanted to cast off the ghosts your shadowy ‘scholarship’. I would not sit at my table to write if I have nothing contribute or what I contribute is silly, erroneous and laughable. We Ethiopians do not express our angers so quickly and freely unless the reasons for doing so reach beyond our capacity to suppress. We particularly revere age and would not rush to criticize them unless they completely go off the limit. I think this is the case with you two, Neal Lineback and Mandy Lineback Gritzner. Though time will unfold the real motives of your disgraceful writing, I wish to point out the factual errors contained in article.
    You said: “Fears in Egypt and the Sudan are that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will radically reduce the Nile’s flow”:
    You are absolutely wrong because Sudan and South Sudan have no fear at all; Egypt has had doubts and this is natural but this doubts have been dispelled by scientific studies of a respectable international panel of researchers drawn from Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt and other countries. These scholars have not found any reason for the three countries to fear. They, instead, found that the dam will have broader social, economic and political benefits to all the riparian countries, Egypt and Sudan included. Your statement that the “Dam will radically reduces Nile’s flow”, therefore, totally is unsubstantiated.
    You also said: “The Blue Nile, on the other hand, is the source of as much as 60 percent of the Nile’s water”.
    This is the singular most spectacular evidence of your factual inaccuracy. It also supports my assertion that your writing is based on the figment of your declining imagination. The Blue Nile (or Abbay) contributes 85 percent of the water. As someone writing on the reputable “National Geographic” you should have been more enlightened about this fact than any other person or the media itself could have alerted you to this grave mistake as it defiles the image of the National Geographic.
    Through ambitious projects like … GERD, Ethiopia’s government, with support of China and others, is trying to expand electricity access to the country’s rural masses.
    Here again, you expose your lack of information and your complacency with inaccurate information sources. So far, the Ethiopia has never asked for any outside help for the construction of GERD. Nor has there been any country, leave alone China, that has committed a penny in the Project. In future, when they see that the Dam is a reality and that it will have economic benefits, both countries and companies may be interested in investing either in the power sector, including on GERD, or in other sectors in the country. But your statement on China’s support is your own invention.
    “Egypt may object strongly to a 20 percent decline in water to the Nile”. “And that is Geography in the NewsTM”.
    As I said earlier, Egypt does not object as yet. It had concerns which have been addressed through joint studies, frank and open discussions. This will continue in future as dialogue and mutual understanding is the only way out of the problem, if any problem at all. Moreover, the Dam will not reduce “20 percent” of the water. This has not been confirmed by any scientific study. It is only people like you two who make wild speculation not that trigger fears.
    Before attempting at guessing, you should know that there are hundreds of people out there with concrete factual information. It is shameful to misinform in an effort to inform.

  • zerihun

    I think Ethiopia should not be rigid w.r.t. the GERD and the win-win solution I would say is to reduce the head of the dam so that it will give our Egyptian brothers and sisters the confidence that we don’t intend to block the Nile totally rather we have to use it in a fair and equitable way. The problem is the hardliners on both Ethiopia’s (who say because Egypt has been harming Ethiopia previously we have to take a revenge now and not ready to accept nothing less than a dam of 6000MW capacity) and Egypt’s (who say Ethiopia is going to control the flow of the Nile which means controlling Egypt indirectly) sides and this thinking should be compromised by putting themselves in one another’s shoes.

  • admassu beyene

    this is our right time, to developing our country , we not beginning other, but we foster other, changing is coming not far but soon

  • Gimbo Bereketi

    The authors have tried hard to make a bad story out of the Nile region. Let us make an intelligent analysis of the situation.

    1. Twenty first century and beyond: Regional co-operation and globalisation are the order of the day. Egypt has isolated itself from the rest of African countries working together to benefit the entire region.

    The Egyptians wanted to live the old ways by bullying other African countries. The recent talk of war by Egyptian parliamentarians against Ethiopia clearly shows that Egypt is living in its past ancient times.

    Egypt must co-operate with other Nile region countries to facilitate development and create employment opportunities within the region. New vision and implementation is the most important element today. Regional cooperation is beneficial to millions of Egyptians and Ethiopians and other Africans.

    Egypt must stop undermining Africans and learn how to promote its interest through peaceful means and civilized manners.
    2. Ethiopia and its resources: Ethiopia has the right to plan and develop its resources. But in the case of our rivers, Ethiopia can develop its resources in such a way that there would be no major impacts to our neighbours including Egypt.

    Talking about the impact of the dam, we can clearly see any impact through the engineering work (technical drawings, etc) and other parameters. Some people like to pull a figure out of blues and make the problem appear worse than it is.

    I feel that Egyptians must start thinking outside their usual boxes and feel part of the region and work for the benefit of all the people. Racist attitude and behaviour has no place in the 21st century. Negotiations, based on respect and mutual benefits, can produce better results for all of us.

    3. Egypt must learn how to control water wastage rather than trying to stop development work in Ethiopia or elsewhere in the region:

    We all know that too much water is wasted in Egypt in many ways. For example, the Nile river flows into the sea past Egypt. So much water is exposed to evaporation. Egypt can use its resources to build evaporation-safe water storage with the resources they are planning to wage war against Ethiopia. They can improve their dam.

    Some people write articles as if Egypt is helpless or left with very little drop of water if Ethiopia went ahead with its development plans. Wrong. Egypt has a plenty of water, more than she needs if she wishes to manage it more effectively.

    The bottom line is we do not want Egyptian and Ethiopian people to be affected. But Egyptians do not care about Ethiopian people or the rest of Africans.

    4. International community:

    Please stop your biased propaganda against our people, Ethiopians concerning the use of our legitimate resources.

    Egyptians and Ethiopians do understand each other very well.

    Advice to Egyptians: do negotiate, be part of Africa, do not isolate yourself from the rest of us. There is prosperity through regional co-operation for development. Selfish plans do not pay off.

  • Tessema Lemma

    It is funny to see the author concerned about indigenous people . If so I want to see on the next issue how Millions of indigenous Red Indians was killed during the Establishment of USA or more than century old systematic racism in developed world. I am sure Ethiopia will find a common ground with Egyptian will use Abay(Nile) for our common interest and we do need your arbitration.

    God bless Ethiopia and Egypt

  • Muluneh

    The most important lesson the authors must know is that though they write what ever they want thanks to the comment section that there are are many many commentators who are much better to explain the situation to the readers. As a matter of fact I am the one who like reading the comments than most of the the original Articles about Nile.
    Long Live to Ethiopia and African brothers !
    Let us say to them we don’t want AK 47, Tanks or fighter jets!
    We want Bulldozers and Excavators!

  • Thought

    Let us write something rational reasonable and positive to the peoples of Ethiopia and Egypt. We should not drive ourselves into emotion just for the sake of expressing ideas. We better do research on what will be the best solution for the two countries to use their natural right on Nile Rover or how the two countries could benefit out of the natural resource they have in the future. Both sides should not be selfish!

  • Maru

    Hey Yankee authors of this inane article,

    Indigenous Indians are still marginalized in your country, USA. First address your own shortcomings. Charity starts at home.

  • Lara Sorokanich

    We apologize for the delay! As you can imagine, we get a lot of comments on our articles, and it takes time to go through them all. Appropriate comments will be visible shortly. Thank you for your patience!

  • Ziway

    God bless Egypt and bless the Nile river for them.

  • Bob

    This is classic trolling. There is something vaguely familiar as you browse these comments – you see remarkably similar use of language given the commentators are all from “Sweden” “Boston” “Newyork” “Portugal” etc etc. I guess you’re not allowed to write about Ethiopia on the internet these days.

  • amos33

    “And the waters shall fail from the sea, and the river shall be wasted and dried up. And they shall turn the rivers far away; and the brooks of defence shall be emptied and dried up: the reeds and flags shall wither.” Isaiah 19:5-6

  • Crocus

    The last time we checked, no nation has given up building dams. So, what are the authors peddling here? Thankfully, they are crying in the wilderness. Some 20 dams are proposed on the Indus river alone currently. A lot more will come on line in years to come everywhere on the planet. Talking about “destructive” and all that is just disingenuous.

    Egyptophiles, trolls, Trojan Horses effuse a whiff of irony. It is a familiar pattern. Africans see it clearly. First came the missionaries: they separated people from their mind in the name of Jesus. In there wake followed colonists, which stole the land and plundered resources. (The treaty that gave the waters of the Nile to Egypt was in reality to assure Egyptian cotton for English textile mills.) Plunder still continues. Then shills like the World Bank played their part playing god and deciding who thrives and who should not thrive. It may surprise you that the geological survey for the GERD was performed by the U.S. Corps of Engineers in the 1960s. But institutions like the World Bank would see to it that the project never saw the light of day. (And you think the arrival of China on the world’s stage has not been salutary!) The scions of the colonists and plunderers now masquerade as concerned environmentalists and defenders of indigenous peoples.

    Perhaps National Geographic can make itself more useful than just selling pictures of naked tribes. The real destruction of indigenous cultures and people is being carried out by zealot missionaries, do-gooders who continue to do immense damage to human cultures. This destructive army of Jesus not only radicalized the Muslims of the world, groups like Mormon missionaries are to indigenous cultures what lumberjacks have been to old growth forests. You get the analogy, i hope. What you advocate here is pallid by comparison.

  • Coolboii_Rameez123

    I don’t agree.

  • Elahmady Ibrahim

    I couldn’t catch any hint about the geological effects of the dam and whether will it really activate earthquakes an similar acts especially it will be constructed on a place having symptoms of these acts.Who can speak this more accurately other than Natgeo??Thanks a lot.

  • solomon

    The water is enough for the countries the reality is Ethiopia never do the way Egypt to starve with water, never ever. The problem is when individual knowingly or ignorantly trying to push this two countries to go to war. War can push these countries 20 or 30 back from the economy they have now. Who is going to be happy looking that, For Egypt fighting for few gallons of water for few years, the war will heart the Egypt more than 10 times than the water. Look work with love Ethiopia and work with mathematic of water not war. The dam is very good for economic, social growth of Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt and other nation of African people. Egypt and Ethiopia Sudan and all the nation living by the Nile Work bout water conservation, and try to be reasonable.

  • bob

    No one cares

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