Africa’s largest dam powers dreams of prosperity in Ethiopia — and fears of hunger in Egypt

As the reservoir fills on the Blue Nile, people in both countries are preparing for changes the dam may bring

MarchSeptember
Updated Oct. 15 at 1:29 p.m.

A colossal dam is near completion on Ethiopia’s stretch of the Nile, a project so large that it promises to set the country on a path to industrialization that could lift tens of millions out of poverty.

Downstream in Egypt, where the Nile meets the sea, a starkly different picture emerges: The dam is a giant, menacing barrier that could be used to hold back the source of nearly all the country’s water.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has stoked intense nationalistic fervor in both Ethiopia and Egypt. Ethiopians see building the dam as a fundamental right, one that could bring electricity to the more than half of Ethiopians who don’t have access at home. Egyptians see their fate potentially falling into foreign hands.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a 1.1-mile-long concrete colossus, is set to become the largest hydropower plant in Africa.

Across Ethiopia, poor farmers and rich business executives alike eagerly await the 5 gigawatts of electricity officials say the dam will ultimately provide. Yet as thousands of workers toil day and night to finish the project, Ethiopian negotiators remain locked in talks over how the dam will affect downstream neighbors, principally Egypt. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty Images)
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a 1.1-mile-long concrete colossus, is set to become the largest hydropower plant in Africa. Across Ethiopia, poor farmers and rich business executives alike eagerly await the 5 gigawatts of electricity officials say the dam will ultimately provide. Yet as thousands of workers toil day and night to finish the project, Ethiopian negotiators remain locked in talks over how the dam will affect downstream neighbors, principally Egypt. (Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty Images)

The two countries — as well as Sudan, also heavily dependent on Nile water from Ethiopia — have tried in vain for years to forge a deal on how quickly the dam’s reservoir should be filled. Egypt, anticipating droughts, has demanded that it be filled slowly, over more than a decade. Ethiopia, which built the dam largely with its own money, wants the reservoir full and generating the maximum electricity as soon as the dam is complete — scheduled now for 2023.

With or without an agreement, the dam is an imminent reality, and people in both countries are preparing for what it may bring.

“Having seen it all,” said Moges Alemu, 84, a factory owner who in a bygone era was Emperor Haile Selassie’s flight technician, “I can say there has never been anything as highly anticipated in this country as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.”

Moges invested $2 million in expanding his oxygen and nitrogen gas factory in anticipation of more- reliable electricity. In Egypt, where water scarcity already is a problem, farmers are moving away from water-intensive crops such as rice.

“Everyone is worried about the dam, not just me,” said Mohamed Abdelkhaleq, 69, a lifelong farmer in Egypt’s Nile Delta, where two-thirds of the country’s food is grown.

Even without the dam, many of the delta’s irrigation canals are running dry. A multitude of factors including climate change, poor maintenance, mismanagement and illegal water siphoning have dehydrated the already thirsty country. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization says temperatures in some parts of Egypt are expected to rise between 1.8 and 3.6 degrees Celsius over the next century, requiring more water to grow crops as evaporation in the Nile and its canals increases.

Further water shortages and their effect on agriculture could have dire consequences for Egypt’s 100 million people — a population that now grows by 2 million per year.

“If the water becomes even less, we would not be able to plant anything. We would not be able to feed our animals,” said Abdelkhaleq. “I pray to God that this never happens.”

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The dam spans the Nile’s mightiest tributary — the Blue Nile, or Abay, as it is known to Ethiopians. More than 90 percent of the water that flows into Egypt originates in Ethiopia’s highlands, where gushing waterfalls feed the swift, canyon-carving river.

When completed, the dam will be the 10th largest in the world and will have 13 turbines that could produce 5 gigawatts of electricity — 2½ times as much as Hoover Dam.

The river flows over the dam and into the plains of Sudan, where it provides nearly every drop of irrigation water and more than half of the country’s electricity.

In Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, the Blue Nile merges with the White Nile, a snaking river that has passed through the swamps of South Sudan, where much of it evaporates.

Blue and White together form the Upper Nile, the mighty, desert-cleaving waterway that gave birth to ancient kingdoms such as Kush and Pharaonic Egypt.

Finally, the Nile reaches Egypt. After passing through Egypt’s own enormous dam at Aswan — only half as powerful as Ethiopia’s — the waters nourish 800 miles of densely populated farmland studded with large market towns. Ninety-five percent of Egyptians live along the Nile or in its delta.

At the megalopolis of Cairo, the river begins to fan out into a giant delta, a historically fertile region woven with canals, where the effects of mismanagement, sharply rising populations and climate change-induced water shortages are becoming frighteningly visible.

Talks to hash out a deal among the three countries have faltered.

President Trump, fashioning himself as a broker of an agreement, has taken the side of Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, whom he once called his “favorite dictator.” In a statement, a spokesman for the State Department said it had withheld $264 million in security and development assistance from Ethiopia — more than double what has been previously reported — “due to Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to fill the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) without an agreement with Egypt and Sudan.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity according to State Department protocols.

Analysts say Washington and Cairo have little leverage over Addis Ababa. Egypt probably would bear the brunt of consequences should an agreement on the dam’s management not be reached.

“Egypt and the United States seem to be saying: Comply, submit, or there will be trouble,” said Jason Mosley, a peace and security analyst focusing on the Horn of Africa at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. “There’s not much road left on that track. The dam is already built, the reservoir being filled.”

Meanwhile, Ethiopian politicians and business executives wax poetic at any mention of the dam — the prime minister’s spokeswoman even wrote a poem about it. It has been the subject of a song by Ethiopia’s most popular pop singer, viral hashtags, spontaneous flag-waiving marches in the streets and proclamations by the patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Support for it unites people between whom there are otherwise unbridgeable political and ethnic rivalries. To many, the dam isn’t just about electricity, but a portent of a glorious future.

“Mothers who’ve given birth in the dark, girls who fetch wood for fire instead of going to school — we’ve waited so many years for this — centuries,” said Filsan Abdi, the 28-year-old minister for women and children. “When we say that Ethiopia will be a beacon of prosperity, well, it starts here.”

Thousands of miles downriver in the Nile Delta, on a farm near the edge of the Sahara desert, Mohamed Abdelkhaleq looked over what was once a field green with rice.

Rice had given him prosperity: a three-story house that provides a home for his eight children and 20 grandchildren. Over two centuries in the rice-growing business, his family had acquired such wealth that they would hire helicopters to plant the seeds and spread pesticides.

“We planted as much rice as we wanted,” he recalled with a wistful smile. Now he and others in the village of Kafr Ziyada grow only enough to feed their families.

Water from the Nile that irrigates some of the farms at Kom Hamada, a village 62 miles north of Cairo in Egypt’s fertile Delta region. Kom Hamada is one of many villages in the region that have seen a decrease in water from the river. Farmers fear that if the Renaissance Dam is completed in Ethiopia, their livelihoods will be greatly affected.
Water from the Nile that irrigates some of the farms at Kom Hamada, a village 62 miles north of Cairo in Egypt’s fertile Delta region. Kom Hamada is one of many villages in the region that have seen a decrease in water from the river. Farmers fear that if the Renaissance Dam is completed in Ethiopia, their livelihoods will be greatly affected.
Farmers in Kom Hamada return home for a midday break after tending to their fields. They will return later in the day to continue working. (Sima Diab for The Washington Post)
Farmers in Kom Hamada return home for a midday break after tending to their fields. They will return later in the day to continue working. (Sima Diab for The Washington Post)

LEFT: Water from the Nile that irrigates some of the farms at Kom Hamada, a village 62 miles north of Cairo in Egypt’s fertile Delta region. Kom Hamada is one of many villages in the region that have seen a decrease in water from the river. Farmers fear that if the Renaissance Dam is completed in Ethiopia, their livelihoods will be greatly affected. RIGHT: Farmers in Kom Hamada return home for a midday break after tending to their fields. They will return later in the day to continue working. (Sima Diab for The Washington Post)

Growing water shortages triggered by climate change and population growth have altered their life of growing rice, a water-intensive crop. Two years ago, Egypt reduced the area used for rice production by more than a half, from 1.76 million acres to 750,000, in an effort to save 3 billion cubic meters of water. At the time, the country’s irrigation minister insisted to pro-government media that the measures were unrelated to concerns over the Ethiopia dam.

But now, as the dam fills, farmers fear that even the rice they subsist on is under threat. Rice farming remains heavily restricted, and Abdelkhaleq has already had to pay a $600 fine for over-planting. Irrigation Ministry officials enforce a rule that limits farmers to four days of water at a time from canals, followed by at least two weeks without, the strictest rationing in years, farmers say.

“They are rationing the water because the Nile’s waters are already down,” said Ali Mohamed, 42, Abdelkhaleq’s son. “It’s lower this year, and every year is less and less.”

He blamed the dam, but Mostafa al-Naggari, head of the rice committee of Egypt’s Agriculture Export Council, said the current rice production restrictions are primarily driven by the need to satisfy the growing population’s demand for water and meet national development goals.

Mohamed Abdelkhaleq, 69, a farmer from Kom Hamada, a village 62 miles north of Cairo in Egypt’s fertile Delta region, poses for a portrait on his farm. (Sima Diab for The Washington Post)
Mohamed Abdelkhaleq, 69, a farmer from Kom Hamada, a village 62 miles north of Cairo in Egypt’s fertile Delta region, poses for a portrait on his farm. (Sima Diab for The Washington Post)

Egypt’s politicians and pundits have jumped at the chance to portray Ethiopia as the cause of this crisis, accusing Addis Ababa of negotiating in bad faith on filling the reservoir and in turn threatening to plunge millions of Egyptians into darkness and poverty. That rhetoric is popularized on talk shows in hyper-nationalist terms.

“This is our right,” said Ahmed Mousa, one influential TV personality. “No one treats Egypt this way.”

Whether the dam will contribute to water shortages in Egypt is largely a function of the eventual water-sharing agreement that Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia sign.

“It all comes down to how much water Ethiopia will agree to release during and after a drought,” said Kevin Wheeler, a hydrologist at Oxford University who has co-written multiple papers on the dam. “During the onset of a drought, Ethiopia will decide whether to continue releasing water at the same rate, thus continuing to generate power and provide downstream countries with water, or else fill its reservoir to ensure longer-term energy production.”

Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, sought to assuage Egyptian concerns in his speech at this year’s U.N. General Assembly. “I want to make it abundantly clear that we have no intention to harm these countries,” he said. “What we are essentially doing is to meet our electricity demands from one of the cleanest sources of energy. We cannot afford to continue keeping more than 65 million of our people in the dark.”

In Egypt, even mild comments that might seem in favor of the dam require anonymity. One U.N. official in Cairo, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk freely about a politically sensitive issue, said that the dam had “not so far impacted the worsening water-scarcity conditions in Egypt” but that the situation could be “different in the following years.”

Other experts agreed that Egypt was unlikely to feel the effects in the near term, and that water reserves at the Aswan Dam could prevent catastrophes brought on by sudden droughts.

A farmer shows the piping of the drip irrigation at strawberry farms in Kom Hamada.
A farmer shows the piping of the drip irrigation at strawberry farms in Kom Hamada.
Drip irrigation has been implemented throughout Egyptian farming areas, including at strawberry farms in Kom Hamada, as a means to conserve water. (Sima Diab for The Washington Post)
Drip irrigation has been implemented throughout Egyptian farming areas, including at strawberry farms in Kom Hamada, as a means to conserve water. (Sima Diab for The Washington Post)

LEFT: A farmer shows the piping of the drip irrigation at strawberry farms in Kom Hamada. RIGHT: Drip irrigation has been implemented throughout Egyptian farming areas, including at strawberry farms in Kom Hamada, as a means to conserve water. (Sima Diab for The Washington Post)

But measures put in place to reduce water consumption aren’t likely to match demographic and climatic factors that show no signs of reversing. In the past 50 years, Egypt’s population rose from 35 million to 100 million. That pressure drives Egypt’s need for an agreement that gives it as much water as it can get.

“If you don’t have an agreement establishing the rules of how you do that, that becomes effectively a zero-sum game,” said Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa project director for the International Crisis Group. “From a psychological point of view, Egypt is for the first time dependent on a major country of a size that is comparable to Egypt, of an economic power that is quickly catching up with Egypt.”

Sissi, also speaking at the United Nations in September, put it in simpler terms: “The Nile River must not be monopolized by one state. For Egypt, the Nile water is an existential matter.”

That’s how the villagers of Kafr Ziyada feel. Most farmers have already added crops such as strawberries and lemons that require much less water. Even so, some like Belal Mohamed, 36, remain on edge.

On his land, the canal that once brought Nile water has dried up, he said. So he relies completely on groundwater, which also originates in the river. Any future water shortages could destroy him. “We are next to the desert,” Mohamed said, pointing at the sand dunes visible from his farm. “It will be harder to find groundwater.”

The Blue Nile, or Abay, as it is known to Ethiopians, cuts a deep canyon through the center of the country. (Yonas Tadesse for The Washington Post)
The Blue Nile, or Abay, as it is known to Ethiopians, cuts a deep canyon through the center of the country. (Yonas Tadesse for The Washington Post)

The dam’s promise of regular electricity is as potent a symbol of change in Ethiopia as it is of dread in Egypt.

Economic growth in Ethiopia has been stifled by a lack of electricity. Industry margins are hollowed out by the nightmare of daily, unpredictable power cuts.

It takes a huge amount of electricity to run Moges Alemu’s business — making oxygen into liquid. The element’s gas form needs to be cooled to minus-159 degrees Celsius in sophisticated, heavy-duty machines.

On a recent day, there was no electricity. Not a day in three weeks had passed without a power cut. With each blackout, hours of costly electricity-intensive cooling would, quite literally, evaporate into thin air.

Power cuts weren’t even the worst of Moges’s woes. Fluctuations in the energy supply caused by surges in daytime demand for power had blown out numerous costly pieces of equipment, repeatedly rendering the factory useless for weeks at a time. Other factory owners said they had lost millions of dollars this way.

Workers at Moges Alemu's Universal Gas Factory prepare canisters for delivery.
Workers at Moges Alemu's Universal Gas Factory prepare canisters for delivery.
Moges Alemu, 84, owner of Universal Gas Factory, which makes oxygen into liquid, poses for a portrait in Adama, Ethiopia, on Sept. 17. (Yonas Tadesse for The Washington Post)
Moges Alemu, 84, owner of Universal Gas Factory, which makes oxygen into liquid, poses for a portrait in Adama, Ethiopia, on Sept. 17. (Yonas Tadesse for The Washington Post)

LEFT: Workers at Moges Alemu's Universal Gas Factory prepare canisters for delivery. RIGHT: Moges Alemu, 84, owner of Universal Gas Factory, which makes oxygen into liquid, poses for a portrait in Adama, Ethiopia, on Sept. 17. (Yonas Tadesse for The Washington Post)

The stakes are high: All of eastern Ethiopia relies on Moges’s factory for oxygen applications that include hospital emergency rooms, artificial insemination of livestock, welding and increasing the shelf life of potato chips.

“It’s disastrous. Our growth is crippled. Without the dam, honestly, the future looks hopeless,” Moges said. “But we can’t afford to be left behind.”

Once the equipment is repaired, his 60 workers will toil mostly at night, when surges are less likely.

Ethiopia’s lack of electricity contributes to an economic lag that in turn has left the country in an immensely precarious situation. Without industry, hundreds of thousands have fled endemic poverty on perilous, often deadly quests to find work abroad. Unemployed youth who stay behind are blamed for repeated bouts of political violence. Girls in rural areas — where more than 80 percent of the country lives — are expected to fetch firewood for cooking, precluding millions from going to school.

To hear it from the Ethiopian government, the dam is close to a cure-all. In an August statement, the state-run Ethiopian Investment Commission said the dam had “a vast ability to solve the country’s power problem.”

Workers at the Etur textile factory in Adama, Ethiopia, which has suffered millions of dollars in losses due to electricity fluctuations. (Yonas Tadesse for The Washington Post)
Workers at the Etur textile factory in Adama, Ethiopia, which has suffered millions of dollars in losses due to electricity fluctuations. (Yonas Tadesse for The Washington Post)

The commission says 5,700 foreign companies would draw on power created by the Renaissance Dam, many of them in a burgeoning industrial corridor that stretches from Addis Ababa to the boomtown of Adama, the site of Moges’s factory. A $5 billion new airport is in the works between the two cities, already connected by a new six-lane expressway and electric rail line.

To the electrician fixing the oxygen factory, however, the dam’s promise is less clear-cut. Mesfin Telahun likened Ethiopia’s power infrastructure to a battered Lada, the Soviet-era taxicab that is still ubiquitous on Ethiopian streets.

“Every transformer in this country has broken and been repaired 100 times, 1,000 times,” he said. “Just because we have more power doesn’t mean everything else suddenly works.”

Wheeler, the Oxford hydrologist, said a large dam would almost certainly iron out power fluctuation problems. The dam’s power will also help with similar problems in Sudan, Kenya and Djibouti, all of which are connected to Ethiopia’s grid and will begin importing power from it in the coming years.

Further away still is the promise of rural electrification. More than 840 million people worldwide lack electricity access, including most Ethiopians and nearly half of all Africans. But building new distribution lines will be at least as costly as the dam itself, Wheeler said, and their construction has barely started.

Perched high above the river whose harnessing promises such a clear break from the past is a cluster of villages that have never had an electric connection.

Adanach Abebew, a 28-year-old woman who lives in a cluster of villages, or kebele, called Miniji Yibiza in Ethiopia's Amhara region, carries wood used for cooking.
Adanach Abebew, a 28-year-old woman who lives in a cluster of villages, or kebele, called Miniji Yibiza in Ethiopia's Amhara region, carries wood used for cooking.
Tirunesh Shegaw, 20, studied to become an electrician despite her home's never having had electricity. (Yonas Tadesse for The Washington Post)
Tirunesh Shegaw, 20, studied to become an electrician despite her home's never having had electricity. (Yonas Tadesse for The Washington Post)

LEFT: Adanach Abebew, a 28-year-old woman who lives in a cluster of villages, or kebele, called Miniji Yibiza in Ethiopia's Amhara region, carries wood used for cooking. RIGHT: Tirunesh Shegaw, 20, studied to become an electrician despite her home's never having had electricity. (Yonas Tadesse for The Washington Post)

Starting by age 8 or so, almost every girl in Miniji Yibiza spends most of the day walking between a nearby forest and her home, carrying firewood on her back.

It isn’t uncommon to see four generations of women from the same family, the youngest and oldest both stooped under the weight of the wood.

When asked whether she had ever gone to school, Adanach Abebew, 28, laughed.

“How could I?” she asked. “If I didn’t have to do this, I would at least have more time with my smallest child. I get worried when I am away all day collecting wood.”

Her neighbor, Tirunesh Shegaw, 20, made it to school by persuading her mother to take on extra carrying duties. At a vocational school in the nearby town of Dejen, she chose to study to be an electrician.

“Electricity is the future,” she said. “When it comes to this village, I will be the one who can fix it when it breaks.”

Asaye Gashew, a village elder, scoffed. Why prepare for electricity, even if it was what they desired most? Wouldn’t industry get priority over poor people? What if Egypt sabotaged the dam?

Visible from the village’s edge, the river glistened in the canyon far below, its power evident even from miles away.

“How can we have so much water,” he asked, “and still be thirsty?”

A view of the Blue Nile River canyon, the natural boundary between Ethiopia's Oromia and Amhara regions. (Yonas Tadesse for The Washington Post)
A view of the Blue Nile River canyon, the natural boundary between Ethiopia's Oromia and Amhara regions. (Yonas Tadesse for The Washington Post)

About this story

Map sources: Composite satellite image comparing March and September water levels derived from ESA Sentinel 2 imagery. Nilebasin.org, Worldpop.org, and Hydrosheds.org. Maps by Laris Karklis. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Design and development by Jake Crump. Copy editing by Lisa Lednicer.

Bearak reported from Adama, Ethiopia, and Raghavan reported from Kafr Ziyada, Egypt. Heba Farouk Mahfouz in Cairo contributed reporting.

Max Bearak is The Washington Post's Nairobi bureau chief. Previously, he reported from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Somalia and Washington, D.C., for The Post, following stints in Delhi and Mumbai reporting for the New York Times and others.
Sudarsan Raghavan is The Washington Post’s Cairo bureau chief. has reported from more than 65 nations and territories. He has been posted in Baghdad, Kabul, Johannesburg, Madrid and Nairobi. He has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the 2011 Arab revolutions, as well as reported from 17 African wars.