Not long after Ethiopia’s launch of its Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)[i] project in April 2011, differences emerged between Egypt and Ethiopia over the sharing of the Nile waters: a lifeline for the former and a hallmark of development for the latter. This is a classic riparian issue. Egypt’s worry lies in the additional clout Ethiopia, the upper riparian , will have in controlling water flows to Egypt An additional worry is that the speedy filling of the GERD could deprive Egypt not only of its conventional quota of water but also erode its historic claims over the Nile. In general Egypt considers the dam to be the major potential cause of future water deficits and a challenge to its food and energy security. For Ethiopia, the dam represents a defining moment in its developmental agenda and also as a counter-hegemonic tool against the hitherto unabated strategic and diplomatic assertion of Egypt.
That the issue would consequently sour ties between the two is reflected in the statement of Noble Laureate Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali of Ethiopia in an interview in February, 2019 when he said, “No force can stop Ethiopia from building the dam on the River Nile and if there is a need to go to war, we could get millions readied.”[ii] On the other hand, Egypt has threatened Ethiopia with airstrikes in the past [iii]and its President, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in the 74th session of UNGA in 2019 said that ‘Nile water is a matter of life and issue of existence’.[iv] Sudan is the third major player in this with its own sets of fears.
Despite a decade of bilateral and multilateral negotiations, including the Declaration of Principles on the Renaissance Dam concluded in 2015 between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt and the recent US and the World Bank led mediations talks have failed to scale down tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia and the dispute has no easy solutions.
Genesis of the Current Dispute:
The Nile River is the longest international river system in the world[v] and it flows 67,00 kilometers (km) through Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea , South Sudan, Sudan and , Egypt draining catchment areas of 3.3 million square km.. The Nile River is constituted by two primary supply sources: The Blue Nile and the White Nile contributing 85% and 15% of the total water into the Nile, respectively.[vi] Ethiopia provides around 86% of annual flow of Nile river water to Egypt.[vii] 96% of Egypt’s freshwater is supplied by the Nile.[viii]
The current tension is not new and goes back to early 20th century when Ethiopia refused to abide by the 1902 Anglo-Ethiopian Nile Treaty signed by the UK on the behalf of Sudan and Egypt on the grounds that English and Amharic versions of the treaty were different.[ix] The treaty had envisaged that nothing would be constructed across the Blue Nile that would impede the flow of water to downstream states.[x] In 1929, a more comprehensive treaty was signed between Egypt and Britain (on behalf of Sudan and other riparian states Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania). This treaty was unique as for the first time it specified the fixed amount of water to be received by Egypt (48 billion cubic meters (bcm) and Sudan (4 bcm) annually.[xi] Ethiopia refused to accept the treaty because it was not party to its negotiation. The 1929 treaty had favoured Egypt because an abundance of water would help Egypt to grow cotton, which Britain required.
Thereafter a comprehensive treaty was signed between Egypt and independent Sudan under the supervision of the British government. This was the treaty of 1959 commonly known as Nile River Agreement,[xii]which Egypt even today insists is the basis and the principle parameter for all future negotiations. Under this treaty, Egypt became entitled for 55.5 bcm and Sudan for 18.5 bcm of water annually.[xiii]
The treaty laid down that upstream riparian states cannot launch any construction project without the consent of downstream states. This amounted to giving Egypt a veto. The treaty failed to receive any endorsement from the upstream states and Ethiopia rejected it citing the same reasons non-representation as in the past.[xiv] The 1959 treaty also created resentment and mistrust amongst the other riparian states (other than Egypt)under the leadership of Ethiopia. The second challenge to the 1959 treaty came from Sudan when it expressed its displeasure over the mechanism of distribution of water.[xv]
Due to this opposition to past treaties, a fresh initiative was taken in 1999 to resolve the distribution of water known as Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). It was an intergovernmental mechanism signed by nine riparian states in February 1999 for equitable utilisation of water resources. The main spirit behind the new initiative was that a basin wide approach would generate greater consensus than merely water sharing. This initiative was followed by the 2010 ‘Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement’ commonly known as CFA for the equitable utilisation of waters. This time however the opposition came from Egypt and Sudan. Egypt objected because the treaty did not recognise its historical rights over the Nile but rather emphasised the equitable use of waters by all. The 2010 agreement has not been fully adopted and Egypt resistence is linked to its fears of Ethiopian blackmail amongst other reasons.[xvi]On the other hand, Ethiopia saw the new treaty as a reflection of the changing realities of the new world order. Ethiopia not only repudiates the status quo established by colonial and post-colonial accords but adheres to the doctrine of ‘absolute sovereignty of the country’. This agreement of 2010 led to the solidification of the areas of differences and emergence of the upstream riparian states which include Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, as a major power block to reckon with.[xvii]The upstream riparian states have been supportive of Ethiopia and Ethiopia had successfully rallied upstream states to endorse the CFA in 2010 without waiting for the backing of downstream countries.[xviii] The upstream states share the concern of Ethiopia when it comes to inequitable share or utilization of Nile waters.
Why Ethiopia and Egypt are at Loggerheads:
The current inequitable status quo can be traced back to decades of unbalanced power equation in the region where Egypt’s political and strategic hegemony was matched by the fragility of other riparian states. The GERD project was the first ever initiative to alter the status quo and challenge the century-old dominance of Egypt in the Nile River Basin. In GERD, Egyptians see a threat to the basic means of their existence. Egypt has always justified its share of 85% on the pretext that Ethiopia has plentiful rainfall and other rivers, whereas Egypt exclusively depends on the Nile. For Egypt, the GERD is nothing short of a violation of the spirit of the treaties of 1902, 1929 and 1959.[xix]
The Nile River is a lifeline for Egypt and due to the dam, Egypt fears that it will experience a substantial reduction in its water share impacting drinking water supplies, agriculture, industry etc. In its perspective the dam will cause water pollution degradation during low flow, affect navigation, hit tourism, damage fish farming, and have other numerous other consequences.[xx]
Egypt has always been dismissive of Ethiopia’s right to build its own reservoir of water. The time required for filling the GERD-created reservoir of 73 bcm and safety of the dam itself are major challenges for Egypt. There are opinions that the dam, which is likely to be completed by 2022, has been built without any adequate scientific or technical studies, though the construction of the reservoir has been completed and its filling process has begun as has been reported in the media. Others are of the view that downstream states will suffer less if the time period for filling the dam is enlarged and the construction phase is also increased.[xxi]Ethiopia wants the dam to be filled in six years, while Egypt wants a gradual process of 12-21 years as early filling of the dam might deprive Sudan and Egypt of the whole of Blue River flow or 54 bcm of water.[xxii]According to an estimate, released by Al Jazeera, if the reservoir of GERD is filled in ten years, Egypt is likely to lose 14% of its annual water flow and 18% of its agricultural areas,22% and 30 % of water and agricultural areas if filled in seven years and 36% and 50 % respectively if filled in five years.[xxiii] Another report suggests that Egypt will lose three times of the quantity of water it had lost after signing the 1959 agreement[xxiv] and evaporation loss will increase by 5.9% which would affect both the water quality and quantity of the Nile River because of the growing salinity. The dam will also deprive Egypt of 15-20 bcm of water yearly and it would be too much for a country, which is already suffering from a food crisis and uncontrolled population growth. [xxv]. One report estimates that the dam might cause the loss of one million jobs and a financial loss worth of US$ 1.8 billion annually.[xxvi]
The Aswan High Dam, a symbol of Egypt’s progress and a major provider of water, food and electricity, may be another victim. The GERD once operational will reduce the water supply to it and subsequently impact the water supply, industrial and irrigation pump stations efficiency, navigation, and hydropower stations and most notably the power generation capacity at Aswan dam will decline.[xxvii].
On the other hand, if Egypt’s views about the GERD are determined by its economic and strategic interests, Ethiopia’s views of the dam are governed by its new economic ambitions and perceptions of new political realities. Ethiopia is the second most populous state in Africa after Nigeria and boasts of one of the most dynamic growth rates in the continent.[xxviii] Ethiopia, often referred to as ‘great unknown of the region’[xxix], had conceived the dam way back in 1960, but due to many adverse circumstances it was forced to postpone the project.[xxx]
Ethiopia has suffered from electricity deficits despite being a hub of water energy and till not long ago 65% of its population was without electricity. Through the GERD, Ethiopia hopes to enhance its economic performance and improve living standards of its people. It would enable Ethiopia to become the biggest exporter of electricity to the continent of Africa alone andearn US$ 1 billion annually from this..[xxxi]The centerpiece of the Ethiopian bid is to become the power hub of the continent.
The Ethiopian government does not hide its strategic ambitions in the African continent and claims that the GERD is also a national and sovereignty project. The dam enjoys popular support and reportedly government employees donated one month salary for the dam. Huge donations have come from the Ethiopian expatriate community.[xxxii] The dam also represents a push back to Egypt’s traditional image of itself as a regional water powerhouse and guardian of the Nile river.[xxxiii]
The dam construction has led to many verbal clashes between Egypt and Ethiopia. In February 2018, Ethiopia accused Egypt of sending rebel forces to Eritrea to sabotage the dam and instigating Sudan to send its forces to the Ethiopian border. The role of Egypt was also suspected in the murder of a GERD engineer in July 2018. In a cabinet meeting in 2013, President Morsi threatened that all options were open if not a war after Ethiopia ratified the CFA in 2013.[xxxiv]
The Third Player- Sudan:
Sudan has a somewhat ambiguous stance towards the dam and the stance itself is more often determined by its relationships with Ethiopia and Egypt which are not static. Sudan’s responses and positions on the matter have vacillated between those of Egypt and Ethiopia. In 2010, for instance, Sudan was opposed to the CFA and sided with Egypt.
Today Sudan seems to be of the view that it may be more of a beneficiary of the dam than a loser. Sudan unlike Egypt, being less dependent on the Nile, would suffer less and the dam will facilitate a regulated and steady flow of water that will improve its navigation, irrigation and hydropower generation. These factors may explain Sudan’s siding with Ethiopia for the first time in recent history.[xxxv] Sudan’s proximity to Ethiopia was recently witnessed in the Ethiopia-led mediation between Sudan and the newly independent state of South Sudan, when Ethiopia provided 5,000 peacekeepers in Darfur under the UN command, as well as 4,300 peace keeping forces on Sudan-South Sudan border.[xxxvi]
In recent months Sudan has played a pivotal role in the trilateral negotiations on GERD and provided oﬃcial support to the project, particularly after the ouster of Omar Al-Bashir. It has constantly highlighted the downstream beneﬁts of GERD and has emerged as a partner of Ethiopia in negotiations between Egypt and Ethiopia rather than a party to it.[xxxvii]Sudan’s primary concern is that release of water in a newly built dam must not adversely impact the water level of Sudan. In recent months, Sudan has given a picture of trying to make an effort to chart its own course on the matter rather than being dragged into situations where it is forced to choose sides between Egypt and Ethiopia. The ouster of Omar Al-Bashir who had been declared a war criminal by Egypt and who was a close ally of forces opposed to President El-Sisi in Egypt has also left an imprint on Sudan’s stance towards the dam.
Search for a Lasting Solution:
The quest for a lasting solution has involved many actors in the past but without any tangible outcome. Every stakeholder has its own view of the dispute and all sides are pursuing different objectives and diverse approaches. Ethiopia likes to see it as an African question and Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali has always exhorted for an African solution to an African crisis. In a recent tweet, he said that the Africa Union, “our continental organisation with a Pan-African spirit is the right space to dialogue on the issue (dam) that are of value to Africa”.[xxxviii] Sudan too, is for an Africa-led solution and its Prime Minister Hamddok has always sought African Union intervention.[xxxix] Egypt wants to highlight the crisis as an Arab issue and has been able to win the support of Arab countries. The Arab League in its last session asked Ethiopia to sign an agreement with Egypt that would respect the sentiments of Egypt. The Arab League resolution also linked the water security of Egypt to the larger security interests of the Arab world.[xl]
The former President of Sudan, Omar Al-Bashir, was not interested in antagonising either of the two: he sided with Egypt on CFA but on the other hand never expressed opposition to the GERD. The first breakthrough came in 2015 when all three parties signed a declaration, known as Declaration of Principles[xli]. It was conceived by many that for the first-time Egypt had accepted the rights of all riparian states to equitable use of the Nile waters for sustainable development. But the erstwhile foreign minister of Egypt had made it clear that, “it will not affect the historical agreement and water share allocated in these agreements”.[xlii] The declaration of 2015 primarily focused on cooperation, development, sustainability, multiple concerns of each party, technicalities and legalities of the project, dam security and exchange of information.[xliii]
But not long after the signing of the declaration, many differences emerged among the parties due to failure to reach any consensus on a technical committee report on GERD. What caused major problems also was the raising of the GERD issue at the UNGA in September 2019 by both Egypt and Ethiopia. Egypt asked the UNSC to help in resolving the tripartite dispute and complained of the non-cooperative behaviour of Ethiopia. But as of now the UNSC has not responded to the call of Egypt. Ethiopia has rejected these interventions several times and always prefers a regional body like AU to mediate.
For the first time in November 2019, Egypt sought the intervention of the US State Department on the issue and soon thereafter the water ministers of three countries met several times in Washington. This too has failed to make any headway. The World Bank and the US Treasury were also parts of the negotiation[xliv] because both were instrumental in Ethiopian economic reform and the World Bank has experience of water sharing agreements such as the Indus Waters Treaty. In February 2020 Ethiopia withdrew from the US-led talks accusing the US of siding with Egypt.[xlv] The accusation came after an agreement was signed in Washington without Ethiopia with the claim by the US Treasury Department that the agreement had addressed all issues in an equitable and balanced manner.
Ethiopia and Sudan have made an effort in recent months to make the dispute internal to the African continent. This became obvious in the first ever meeting on the subject by the African Union in July 2020. The president of South Africa Cyrill Ramaphosa acknowledged Egypt’s concern for water and food security, but was also sympathetic to the dam and called for a more equitable distribution of water among the upstream riparian states. The participants seemingly agreed that it was a regional issue and needs a regional solution. Through this AU-led negotiation, Ethiopia made an effort to bring the matter out of the UN, US or the Arab shadow as it does not want internationalisation of the issue given its weak status in comparison to Egypt.[xlvi] Ethiopia intends to adopt dual approaches of nullifying the past agreements by creating a new framework and creating an alliance with upstream states to neutralise the traditional hegemony of Egypt.[xlvii] Further, Ethiopia has always evaded any commitment to fixing a water quota for Egypt that extends beyond the filling period of the dam. Egypt’s sole objective in all past and present negotiations lies in seeking a binding commitment from Ethiopia of its share of water. Egypt wants permanency in the agreement but Ethiopia prefers a periodical review. Amid these impasses, there are reports that Ethiopia has started filling the reservoir with the claim that this is part of the natural construction process.[xlviii] The filling process started on July 14 2020, a day after the trilateral negotiation between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan ended without any progress . It is worth recalling here that Ethiopian Foreign Minister had announced in last May itself that it would launch initial filling of the reservoir in upcoming wet season.[xlix]
The current row between Egypt and Ethiopia over the waters of the Nile is in part a colonial legacy. All previous agreements have failed because Egypt views any the solution through a historical perspective, while Ethiopia seeks a solution based on new realities. One cannot deny the validity of Egypt’s fears vis-à-vis the dam, but also Ethiopia’s claim that the ‘dam is key to their development’ cannot also be overlooked.
Given the complexities of the issue and dependence of both Ethiopia and Egypt on the Nile ,it is crucial that all parties should endeavor to adopt a collective and inclusive approach to the crisis. The warring parties should avoid deepening the divide further and work towards an amicable settlement. The final objective should be to achieve a solution acceptable to all the states sharing the Nile River Basin. Moreover, the spirit of the negotiation should be larger political and economic cooperation and interdependence of all those having a stake in the Nile River Basin.
Negotiations are still underway with the auspices of the African Union and with the EU and the UN as observers. Ethiopia’s insistence on filling the dam without the consent of other stakeholders seems to be a major impediment. However, things do seem to have moved from a complete rejection of each other’s’ claims to sharing each others’ concerns, which is a cause for hope. Needless to add, if an agreement is indeed reached, it would set a good precedent for future trans-border water disputes.
Dr. Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui is a Research Fellow at Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are personal
[i] It is the largest hydropower plant in the African continent, costing around US $ 4.7 billion, and being built by Italian company , Salini Imperglio, covers an area of 1700 KM2 which is bigger than Greater London
[v] Ashok Swain, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt: The Nile River Dispute, The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 35, no.4 (Dec 1997) pp. 675-694
[vi]GhadaSuliman, HodaSausa and Sherif El Sayed, Assessment of Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Impact Using Decision Support System, Research Gate, August, 2019 Accessed https://bit.ly/30OmDNq July 9 2020
[ix]Hala Nasr and Andres Neef, Ethiopian challenge to Egyptian hegemony in the Nile River Basin: The case of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Geopolitics, Vol. 21, 2016, No. 4
[x]Ashok Swain, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt: The Nile River Dispute, The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 35, no.4 (Dec 1997) pp. 675-694
[xi] Ashok Swain, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt: The Nile River Dispute, The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 35, no.4 (Dec 1997) pp. 675-694
[xiv]BisretWoldemihael, The Challenge and Opportunity of Grand Reissuance Dam for sustainable Energy-water-food-ecosystem service nexus in Ethiopia, Master Thesis in Sustainable Development, 2018, Uppsala university, Accessed https://bit.ly/3f1zWPJ July 22, 2020
[xvii] Salman A. Salman, TheNile River Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement, The Water International Journal, Vol. 38, 2013, Issue 1.
[xix] Ashok Swain, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt: The Nile River Dispute, The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 35, no.4 (Dec 1997) pp. 675-694
[xx]GhadaSuliman, HodaSausa and Sherif El Sayed, Assessment of Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Impact Using Decision Support System, Research Gate, August, 2019 Accessed https://bit.ly/30OmDNq July 9 2020
[xxi] Mohammed El Bastawasey, SafwatGabr and Ilhab Mohamed, Assessment of hydrological changes in Nile River due to the construction of Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia. The Egyptian Journal of Remote Sensing and Space Science (2015) 18, P.n. 65-75 Accessed
[xxiii] Saving the Nile, Aljazeera English, Accessed https://interactive.aljazeera.com/aje/2020/saving-the-nile/index.html July 22, 2020
[xxiv]ElyaanyWalaay Y. El-Nashar and Ahed H. Managing risk of GERD on Egypt, Ain Shams Engineering Journal 9(2018)2383-88
[xxv]Fahmy S. Abdelhaleem and Esam Y. Helal, Impact of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on Different Water Usage in Upper Egypt
[xxviii] SONIA LA OURIELLEC, Regional Power and contested hierarchy: Ethiopia, an imperfect hegemon’ in the Horn of Africa, International Affairs, Vol. 94, Issue 05 September 2018, P.n. 1059-75
[xxix] Ashok Swain, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt: The Nile River Dispute, The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 35, no.4 ( Dec 1997 ) pp. 675-694
[xxxiv] Ashok Swain, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt: The Nile River Dispute, The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 35, no.4 (Dec 1997) pp. 675-694
[xxxvi]Hala Nasr and Andres Neef, Ethiopian challenge to Egyptian hegemony in the Nile River Basin: The case of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Geopolitics, Vol. 21, 2016 , No. 4
[xxxvii]ZereYehdigo How has the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Changed the legal, political, Economic and scientific dynamic in the Nile Basin, Water International, Vol. 41, 2016, Issue, 4
[xxxviii] June 6, 2020 tweet of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmad, Accessed https://twitter.com/abiyahmedali/status/1276578412841308160?lang=en July 15, 2020
[xliii] Full Text of Declaration of Principles signed by Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, Ahram online English, March 23, 2015 Accessed http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/125941.aspx, July 26, 2020
[xlviii]Ethiopia says GERD Rising Water ‘ natural’ part of construction, Al Jazeera July 15, 20202 Accessed ’https://rb.gy/xgcdq7 August 10 2020