December 09, 2020

Tensions among Cairo, Khartoum, and Addis Ababa have been heightened since the latter began constructing a multi-billion-dollar dam known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) across the Blue Nile River in April 2011. While the Egyptian government views the Nile River as central to its very survival, the Ethiopian government considers the dam an integral part of the country's economic transformation. Egyptian, Ethiopian, and Sudanese officials are currently engaged in negotiations to reach an agreement that is acceptable to all three parties.

The GERD will provide electricity to some 65 percent of Ethiopians who do not currently have access to a power grid and will transform Ethiopia into a major exporter of electricity. Ethiopia will likely use the dam, which will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, as a geopolitical instrument to propagate its influence throughout the continent. Egypt, however, is concerned that the dam could significantly impact the flow of water through its territory. Some 95 percent of Egypt's 100 million population lives along the Nile River's banks, and 90 percent of Egypt's freshwater supply stems from the river.

Given the importance of the Nile River to Egypt and the GERD to Ethiopia, both countries' leaders have engaged in belligerent rhetoric. They have not ruled out the possibility of a direct military confrontation. However, the likelihood of conflict is extremely remote between the two countries. This is mainly because the filling of the reservoir and the dam’s completion will take several more years. The two countries and Sudan will likely come to an agreement before then.

Farms overlooking the Nile river
The Nile river is critical to Egyptian agriculture. Officials fear the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will have a negative impact on downstream countries that rely on the Nile as a water source.

While Egypt and Sudan have regularly voiced their objection to the GERD’s construction, Addis Ababa's decision to unilaterally begin filling the reservoir behind the dam in late July has further escalated tensions among the three countries. The three countries had been working to reach a legally binding agreement on the timeline of the filling of the reservoir and the dam operation since Ethiopia began building the dam. Egypt and Sudan would also like for Ethiopia to provide them with assurances that it would release water from the reservoir in the event of a protracted drought period.

However, Ethiopia has refused to commit to such an agreement to date, despite the US, UN, and African Union's efforts to bring about a legally binding agreement among the three countries. What makes the construction of the dam by Ethiopia so contentious is that Egyptians have historically laid claims to the Nile River so much so that it has become interwoven with the country's history and national identity.

The Nile River, which is the longest river in the world, flows through 11 countries in Africa. While Egypt and Sudan claim exclusive rights to the water, the source of the Nile River is two tributaries: Lake Victoria (White Nile) and Lake Tana (Blue Nile) in the Ethiopian Highlands. Some 85 percent of the water reaching Egypt originates in Lake Tana, while the rest comes from Lake Victoria. Egyptians have been using the two treaties that the UK drafted in 1929 and 1959 to justify their claims. The 1959 treaty stipulated that no irrigation or power works or measures were to be constructed or taken on the Nile River without the Egyptian government's agreement. Under the 1959 accord, out of the total yearly flows of the Nile River, 66 percent of the water goes to Egypt, 22 percent to Sudan, and the rest goes to evaporation. Even though 85 percent of the water reaching Egypt comes from Ethiopia, Addis Ababa had not benefited from it until recently.

However, Ethiopia does not agree with the UK-drafted treaties and has rejected Egypt's historical claims to the Nile River. Ethiopia has further expressed that it will move forward with filling the reservoir and completing the dam simultaneously, much to the dismay of the Egyptian government. On July 21, the Ethiopian government announced that it had met its first year's filling target. The reservoir currently contains 4.9 billion cubic meters (bcm) and is projected to reach 74 bcm in the coming years. Egypt has demanded that Ethiopia cease filling the dam until a legally binding agreement is reached. Egypt has further asked that it has a say over the dam's operation and how the process is managed.

Additionally, Egypt has expressed that any future deal must approve of the country's claim to 55 bcm of water from the river. On average, Egypt receives 49 bcm of water from the Blue Nile tributary annually and has asked that Ethiopia agree that this amount does not change. However, Ethiopia has refused to offer any concessions on the exact amount of water that it will allow to flow through the GERD.

Egyptians have been persistent in articulating their concerns about the GERD and its impact on the flow of water into their country. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has said that the GERD is a massive undertaking that could endanger the security and very survival of an entire nation.  Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew's tweet following the filling of the reservoir saying, "the Nile is ours," has further escalated tensions.

Sudan, a downstream country like Egypt, has not been as vociferous as Egypt in condemning Ethiopia's actions in relation to the GERD. This is because Sudan hopes to purchase low-cost electricity from Ethiopia once the dam is fully operational. Sudan also hopes that the GERD may help mitigate the risk of seasonal flooding, regulate the river flows, and prevent damage to Sudan's dams by inhibiting silting. Several other White Nile riparian countries, such as Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda, have also recognized Ethiopia's right to build the dam because they simply do not want Egypt to be viewed as the sole owner of the Nile River and because they will likely construct their own dams in the future.

The GERD construction and the filling of the reservoir behind it have raised concerns about the possibility of an armed conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia. In 1979, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat said that the only matter that could take Egypt to war again was water. And recently, Foreign Minister Shoukry said that any significant threat to Egypt's water security by the GERD constituted a red line. Shoukry further stated that Egypt would react firmly if its economic and security interests are threatened. Ethiopian leaders have expressed similar confrontational statements.

However, it is highly unlikely that either country will engage in military action as it will be detrimental to both countries' national interests. Given the importance of GERD to Ethiopia and the vitality of water to Egypt and Sudan in terms of food and water security, negotiations among the parties are the only way forward. An agreement can only be reached when all three countries are eager to make serious compromises.