Following endless negotiations over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile River, tensions have risen once again between Egypt and Ethiopia after the latter announced in the month of July that it had completed the second stage of filling of the dam reservoir. This move of Ethiopia is being seen in Egypt as provocative. Egypt, the lower riparian country, considers the Nile River a lifeline for its population while for Ethiopia, the upper riparian country, the dam represents a hallmark of development. This paper explores the genesis of the current crisis and the political and economic claims made by both the stakeholders: Egypt and Ethiopia. It will also briefly examine Sudan’s position and also the recent discussion in the UN Security Council on the issue.
Not long after Ethiopia launched its Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)[i] project in April 2011, political differences started emerging between Egypt and Ethiopia over the sharing of the Nile River water: a lifeline for the former and a hallmark of development for the latter. Egypt never concealed its discontent over the dam as it was apprehensive of losing its annual share of 55.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water from the Nile River due to the filling of the dam reservoir. The yearly quota of 55.5 bcm for Egypt was fixed under the Anglo-Egypt Nile Treaty of 1959 and this treaty itself was preceded by similar treaties in 1902 and 1929. Ethiopia has always refused to abide by the treaties of 1902, 1929 and 1959 because it was not a party to these and has consistently claimed that the present cannot always remain hostage to the past and world must accept the changing realities in the continent of Africa. On the other hand, Egypt has always justified its share of water on the pretext that Ethiopia enjoys plentiful rainfall and owns several rivers, whereas Egypt exclusively depends on the Nile River. The more the construction work on the dam progressed since April 2011, the more the tension fuelled between the two upstream and downstream countries (Ethiopia and Egypt).
An initiative was taken in 1999 known as the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), which adopted a more inclusive approach and involved other upstream countries for a comprehensive solution, but the deadlock continued. Again in 2010, a fresh agreement, “Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement” was reached among riparian states (Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eretria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, South Sudan, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda) for the equitable utilisation of waters, but later Egypt objected to the Agreement because it held the view that it would affect Egypt’s share of water. Soon the tension exacerbated to the extent that Ethiopian Prime Minister (PM) Abiy Ahmed Ali in February, 2019 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]
The genealogy of the current impasse or discord between Egypt and Ethiopia can be traced back to the first stage of reservoir filling that Ethiopia began in June 2020. Egypt had then opposed Ethiopia’s unilateral move. Egypt’s then worry was that the speedy filling of the GERD could deprive Egypt not only of its conventional quota of water but also erode its historical claim over the Nile. Apart from various technical and environmental issues, the core issue between the two is the timeframe of filling the dam reservoir with Egypt claiming that the earlier the reservoir is filled, the more acute would be Egypt’s water crisis.
Second Filling of GERD Reservoir and Growing Discord between Egypt and Ethiopia
Though both Egypt and the Sudan have recognised the right of Ethiopia to erect the dam, the deadlock among three continues on the timeframe for filling the reservoir continues. Both Egypt and Sudan are troubled by the fact that if the filling of the reservoir continues without any evolution of mechanism such as determining the timeframe of filling the reservoir, fixing the share of water in case of drought and regular technical monitoring of the filling process, the agricultural tract in both countries may face major productive losses. Some studies suggest that even a reduction of 5 bcm of water from Egypt’s annual share has the potential of damaging one million acres of agricultural land out of a total of 8.5 million acres. Another study indicates that if Ethiopia continues the filling at the same pace, Egypt may lose 43 bcm of water annually.[iii]
When Egypt was still in the middle of rallying support among its regional and global allies to stop Ethiopia from going ahead unilaterally on its GERD project, Ethiopia announced in July, 2021 that it had successfully completed its second phase of filling. This announcement created an outcry on the streets of Egypt and among the policy makers because Egyptians largely depend on the Blue Nile River for their day-to-day water supplies. Egypt described this move by Ethiopia a violation of “Declaration of Principles” agreement, signed by three countries (Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan) in 2015 which for the first time recognised the rights of all riparian states to equitable use of the Nile waters, and a blatant abuse of international law. [iv] Ethiopia, on the other hand, claimed that the second filling of the dam reservoir did not require any prior negotiation with Sudan or Egypt as it is in full compliance with 2015 ‘Declaration of Principles’.[v] In a major turn of events, Ethiopia for the first time talked of selling the Nile River water when Dina Mufti, its Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson said that ‘when they (Arab) can sell the oil to the world, why we can’t sell the water to them’. [vi]
Egypt’s basic grievance with the unilateral decision of Ethiopia on the second filling is Ethiopia’s disregard for the 2015 ‘Declaration of Principles’ as it did not inform Egypt in advance in accordance with its provisions. Ethiopia’s informal approach towards the environmental and social impact of the filling is also a source of conflict between the two. Ethiopia has so far built 17 dams which, it is alleged, has already drained 80% of the Nile water and the country has plans to build other hundred dams in near future. It is worth mentioning here that the second stage of filling has consumed 73 bcm of water[vii] and one can imagine the future scenarios if Ethiopia goes ahead with its ambitious plan of building “a hundred dams”. Egypt and Sudan are also fearful that construction of dams in such a large number by Ethiopia might inspire other White Nile[viii] countries to erect their own dam and may threaten 25 million people of Sudan and Egypt. Further the population in Egypt, according to a UN report, is estimated to increase by one million in every six months and industrialisation and urbanisation will boost the water demand. [ix]
Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukri has more than once said that Egypt is facing an existential threat.[x] Many in Egypt have supported a securitised response to the future threat from the GERD. A recent statement by President El-Sisi of Egypt calling the national air force to be ready to handle the situation inside and outside the country as a result of the GERD issue is being interpreted as a pointer to Ethiopia only.[xi] To enforce their aggressive stance towards the second filling, both Egypt and Sudan conducted a joint military exercise in April 2021 in the Merowe military base near the dam in southern Sudan. Another joint military exercise between the two was conducted and it was called “Nile Protector”.[xii] In March, 2021, Egypt also signed a military deal with Sudan.
Meanwhile there are other contrary reports as well. Many of the claims made by Ethiopia about filling of the dam are contested such as a report recently released by the International Inspection Committee for GERD, consisting of UK, France, Germany and South Africa, formed in 2012[xiii], which suggests that Ethiopia is not even prepared to begin the second stage of filling because the construction of the concrete structure above the middle corridor is not yet complete. The report further points out that Ethiopia has fallen far below the target in its claim over second filling. First, Ethiopia claimed to have stored 13.5 bcm of water, but that claim was later halved to 6.9 bcm and finally, it was reported that the dam was filled merely with 3 bcm of water.[xiv] A hydraulic expert of Ethiopian origin, based in the US, Asfwo Beneni has expressed his doubt regarding the capacity of the GERD to generate 6500 MW of electricity as claimed by Ethiopia. He was of the view that the electricity generating capacity of the dam cannot exceed 2000 MW. [xv]
Along with these growing technical and political complexities, over the last few months Egypt and Ethiopia have started imparting a religious orientation to this issue and an element of Islamisation has been added to the political and geostrategic gambit of the Nile. PM Abiy has urged the clergies in the country to educate people on the issue. The President of Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, an outlawed body until 2020, Hajjaj Omar Idris declared that ‘Nile belongs to people of Ethiopia and this nation has sole claim over it’.[xvi] He declared that Nile is a natural gift to the Ethiopians and Egypt has no right to use the river which sprang out in Ethiopia. On the eve of Eid in May this year, youngsters were seen carrying banners reading, “This is Allah’s given right to Ethiopia to block and sell the water to people of Nile”.[xvii] To counter Ethiopia’s “divine right” over the Nile water, Egypt’s House of Religious Decree came with its own pronouncement claiming that the Prophet had once advocated that, “Naturally flowing water cannot be owned by one people or one nation but should be shared by all humanity”. The Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, a Cairo-based historic religious seminary, Dr. Ahmed Al-Tayeb on the eve of UN Environment Day on June 5, 2021 seized the opportunity to hint at the Nile water crisis and said that monopolisation of natural sources is an act of aggression on Allah’s gift.[xviii]
Where is Sudan and other Upstream Countries on GERD?
Amid the changing political landscape of Sudan following the departure of Omar al-Bashir, a significant transformation has been observed in the stance of Sudan via-a-vis the dam crisis. Egypt has found a new ally in the Transitional Government of Sudan in its conflict with Ethiopia. Sudan is scared that any cracks or collapse of dam might wreak havoc in the country and drown many of its dams, villages, cities and around 50,000 acres of Sudan’s agricultural land because the dam is not far away from its border with Ethiopia. The completion of the dam may impinge on productive potential of the agricultural land as any drop in the water level in the Blue Nile River will entail Sudan to make its own arrangements for irrigation and that would incur high cost due to shortage of petroleum and electricity in the country. Further the mound of the silt in front of the dam will deprive Sudan of the natural nourishment needed for the better productivity of the lands.[xix] During the first filling itself, in June-July 2020, a number of Sudanese pumping stations had stopped working that led to severe drinking water crisis in the country.[xx]
Sudan’s Water Minister even threatened of filing a lawsuit against the Ethiopian Government and the Italian company involved in the construction of the dam if Ethiopia does not stop the second stage of filling.[xxi] Like Egypt, Sudan is also seeking a binding commitment regarding the time frame of filling of the reservoir from Ethiopia. Ethiopia however is evading any such lasting commitment on its part and prefers a periodical review of all future agreement and in no way is keen to be bound by permanent law as far as the modalities of dam’s operation, timeframe and annual replenishment in case of drought are concerned. Presently, Sudan’s own growing conflict with Ethiopia is also due to the forceful cultivation of Sudanese farming tract by Ethiopia, which has been termed by Sudan as an act of transgression[xxii]. Sudan has also accused Ethiopia of aggravating the crisis just to divert attention from its own domestic crisis, where it is involved in a fierce battle with the rebel forces in Tigray region.
As far as other upstream countries are concerned, Egypt has brought many of them in its own diplomatic orbit and recently signed a series of economic agreements with Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, and Djibouti apart from making significant investments in Tanzania’s hydroelectric dam on its Rufiji River.[xxiii] Egypt also signed military intelligence-sharing agreement in April 2021 with Uganda and later with Burundi. [xxiv] These changing strategic maps in recent months in the Nile Basin would indeed disappoint Ethiopia, which had hitherto no doubt of the support of upstream countries.
GERD Issue Reaches UNSC
Various efforts have been made in the recent past to resolve the dispute involving Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. For Ethiopia, it is an African issue and hence it requires an African solution. In a recent tweet, PM Abiy Ahmed Ali 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”[xxv]. While Egypt sees the crisis through its own prism of Pan-Arabism and the Arab League in many of the past resolutions has linked the water security of Egypt to the larger security interests of the Arab world.[xxvi] It was the Declaration of Principles[xxvii] in 2015 which for the first time recognised the rights of all riparian states to equitable use of the Nile waters. But Egypt was always keen to internationalise the issue and it took the matter to the UNGA in September 2019 against the wishes of Ethiopia. Egypt wanted the UN Security Council (UNSC) to intervene, but UNSC showed no such interest. The US-led talks also broke down after Ethiopia withdrew accusing the US of being partisan and first ever intervention by the African Union in July 2020 also failed to make any visible progress. Later, a meeting of the Arab League was convened on June 15 2021 in Doha and its resolution urged the UNSC to intervene, which was dismissed by Ethiopia.[xxviii]
In June 2021, the declaration of the second filling of the dam by Ethiopia stirred a diplomatic clamor and on June 9, 2021 both Egypt and Sudan in a joint statement warned of great danger and grave consequences for unilaterally filling of the dam by Ethiopia. Egypt wrote a letter to the UNSC on 11 June, 2021[xxix] complaining against Ethiopia’s decision to go ahead with the second filling without entering into binding agreement, which Egypt and Sudan have been seeking for long. Egypt called it a brazen effort by Ethiopia to impose a fait accompli on Egypt and Sudan and to impound the Nile water for its exclusive benefit. Opposing Egypt’s move to take the issue to the UNSC, Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister urged the UN not to come in between, while Sudanese Foreign Minister Mariam al-Mahdi remarked that any sort of silence on the part of the UN would send the wrong message and would denote a tacit approval of the fact that the unilateral filling was acceptable.[xxx]
At the behest of Sudan and Egypt, a meeting of the UNSC was convened on July 8 to discuss the crisis termed, “Peace and Security in Africa”[xxxi]. Tunisia, currently a non-permanent member of the UNSC, on the behalf of Egypt and Sudan distributed the draft resolution among the 15-members of the UNSC, urging Ethiopia to refrain from continuing the second filling and called on the three countries to draw up the text of a binding agreement on the dam within six months. Egypt and Sudan were represented by their Foreign Ministers, while Ethiopia was represented by its Irrigation Minister. The Egyptian Foreign Minister said that Egypt will protect its share of Nile with whatever means necessary. Sudan accused Ethiopia of weaponising the Nile water and exercising hegemony over the source of Blue Nile.[xxxii] Egypt failed to muster enough support among the UNSC members because all countries avoided directly asking Ethiopia to cease its unilateral activities on the dam.[xxxiii]
After a brief deliberation, the UNSC called all three parties for a constructive dialogue and refereed the matter to the African Union, which came as a diplomatic victory for Ethiopia which always opposed the internationalisation of the issue[xxxiv] and sought the solution within the framework of the African Union. The UNSC resolution also urged all three counties to refrain from making any statement or taking any action that may jeopardise the negotiation and asked Ethiopia to stop the second filling of GERD reservoir. The resolution also invited the Secretary General to submit a report in six months over the implementation of the resolution.[xxxv] The US’ stance was a complete departure from the past when President Biden’s predecessor Trump had extended full support for Egypt and suspended aid worth US $260 million for Ethiopia but this time, the US representative called for an African Union-led solution.
The genesis of the GERD crisis can be traced to the colonial era. All previous agreements have failed because Egypt wants the crisis to be resolved on the basis of a historical perspective while Ethiopia seeks a solution based on new realities. Egypt’s fear of losing a lion’s share of Nile water in case of speedy filling of the dam reservoir seems real, but Ethiopia too cannot be forced to stop the filling of the dam because it is key to its development and the relevance of the dam for its economic prosperity cannot be overlooked. As of now, both the regionalisation (African Union) and the internationalisation (UN) drive by Ethiopia and Egypt respectively, have yielded nothing and one needs to see if Islamisation drive recently pursued by both could pave the way for any solution or would further complicate the matter. Egypt was expecting to receive some support in the UNSC but felt disappointed when UNSC itself asked the warring sides to approach the African Union, which was not merely an endorsement of Ethiopia’s enduring view on the matter but was also a diplomatic victory for Ethiopia. The most important element of any future negotiation should be adoption of a collective and inclusive approach given the dependence of many on the Nile River water.
*Dr. Fazzur Rahman Siddiqui, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
[i] It is the largest hydropower plant in the African continent, costing around US $ 4.7 billion, and being built by Italian company , SaliniImperglio, covers an area of 1700 km2 which is bigger than Greater London.
[viii] Blue Nile and White Nile are two tributaries of the Nile River. White Nile is the longest tributary but the Blue Nile is the major source of water and fertile soil.
[ix] Jarno Van Der Wal, Water Politics in Nile Basin: Potential Water Scarcity in Fuelling the Conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia, Frank water, October 5, 2020 Accessed https://bit.ly/3xvlGrC, August 15, 2021
[xxv] June 6, 2020 tweet of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmad, Accessed https://twitter.com/abiyahmedali/status/1276578412841308160?lang=en July 15, 2020.