On August 12, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that his country has now completed the third filling of the reservoir behind its controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). And the country also recently announced that the second of the GERD’s 13 hydropower turbines is now operational. Ethiopia’s recent moves in filling the dam have been seen as a provocation by the downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan, which have rejected Ethiopia’s unilateral policies in this regard and have urged it to negotiate a binding agreement that would regulate both the filling and operation of the GERD, and that would enhance cooperation among the three countries over the use of the Nile’s water. However, absent such an agreement, tensions among the three countries are likely to grow, with limited options for a resolution.
Ethiopia’s GERD Policy
In 2011, Ethiopia began construction on the GERD without consulting or negotiating with Egypt and Sudan, both of which lie downstream from the dam and depend on the Nile waters that flow through it. International law and relevant treaties underscore the importance of coordinating the use of watercourses between upstream and downstream countries. For example, the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses urges countries that share watercourses to consult and negotiate “in good faith” over their use of water, and to do so without causing significant harm to each other. However, it is worth noting that neither Egypt nor Ethiopia is among the signatories of this convention.
Ethiopia began construction on the GERD without consulting or negotiating with Egypt and Sudan, both of which lie downstream from the dam and depend on the Nile waters that flow through it
In March 2015, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia signed a declaration of principles that would serve as the basis for negotiations among the three countries over the filling and operation of the GERD. The agreement asserted that cooperation between the three countries should be based on “mutual understanding, common interest, good intentions, benefits for all, and the principles of international law.” It also stated that guidelines on the first filling of the GERD reservoir should be developed as the dam was being constructed. However, since signing the declaration of principles, Ethiopia has essentially acted unilaterally regarding the filling and operation of the dam. For example, the country began the first filling of the GERD’s reservoir on the Blue Nile in the summer of 2020, and completed the third and final filling in August without resolving outstanding objections that Egypt and Sudan have raised. Ethiopia ignored both countries’ multiple calls to reach a binding agreement on the dam, one that would secure Sudan and Egypt’s water rights and interests.
Since signing the declaration of principles between the three countries in 2015, Ethiopia has essentially acted unilaterally regarding the filling and operation of the dam
In addition, Ethiopia began generating electric power from the dam by switching on two turbines on the GERD, despite claims from Egypt and Sudan that doing so may affect their own hydroelectric power initiatives. When Ethiopia established its first hydropower turbine in February 2022, both countries criticized the move, with a spokesperson for Sudan’s negotiating team calling it a “breach of Ethiopia’s international legal commitments.” Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, meanwhile, slammed Ethiopia for its announcement of the third GERD filling, describing the country’s unilateral actions as “a clear violation of the 2015 Declaration of Principles Agreement and a grave violation of the applicable rules of international law.”
From Ethiopia’s perspective, the GERD is an essential tool for it to meet its economic and development needs especially through generating hydroelectric power, as more than half of its population lacks access to electric power
From Ethiopia’s perspective, the GERD is an essential tool for it to meet its economic and development needs. This is a fact that is recognized by all parties in Article 2 of the declaration of principles, which states that, “The purpose of the Renaissance Dam is to generate power, contribute to economic development, promote cooperation beyond borders, and regional integration through generating clean sustainable energy that can be relied on.” Ethiopia is one of the least economically developed countries in Africa, with more than half of its roughly 117 million people lacking access to electric power. But the country plans to reach 100 percent electrification by 2025, in large part due to hydroelectric power produced by the GERD. The dam is also expected to help expand agriculture in Ethiopia (a major sector of the Ethiopian economy), helping irrigate hundreds of thousands of acres of land and creating numerous jobs for Ethiopian farmers.
The great benefits that the GERD promises to bring to Ethiopia help explain the country’s position regarding Egypt and Sudan’s demands and unwillingness to reach an agreement
In addition, the GERD has a storage capacity of about 74 billion cubic meters of water and is expected to generate more than 6,000 megawatts of electricity, an amount that far outstrips Ethiopia’s domestic needs, and that will allow it to become an electricity exporter. Furthermore, according to one study, “The Nile River in Ethiopia has over 15,000 MW of undeveloped hydropower potential. Exploitation of this potential could improve access to electricity in Ethiopia and other East African countries that are connected to the Ethiopian power grid [such as] Sudan, Kenya, and Djibouti.” Therefore, not only will the GERD help Ethiopia overcome its economic and development challenges, but by turning the country into a major regional exporter of electricity, it will significantly increase Ethiopia’s national income, while also benefitting neighboring countries. The great benefits that the GERD promises to bring to Ethiopia help explain the country’s position regarding Egypt and Sudan’s demands, and shed light on why it appears unwilling to negotiate to reach an agreement over the dam’s filling and operation.
One key reason behind the tensions between Ethiopia on one side of the negotiating table and Egypt and Sudan on the other is profound mistrust between the two sides. The three parties have held several rounds of negotiations over the past seven years in order to resolve their disputes and disagreements over the dam. However, negotiations have repeatedly led nowhere. Ethiopia believes that Egypt and Sudan have been utilizing the Nile River unfairly for decades, at the expense of both it and other upstream countries. In 1959, Egypt and Sudan signed a treaty that allocated 55.5 billion cubic meters of Nile water to Egypt and 18.5 billion cubic meters to Sudan. Ethiopia, however, was not a party to the treaty, and has attempted to challenge the agreement over the past several decades. In fact, Ethiopia views both the 1959 treaty and a 1929 treaty between Egypt and Great Britain that recognized Egypt’s rights to the Nile’s waters and gave it the ability to veto construction projects on the river and its tributaries as remnants from the country’s colonial era that are, in Ethiopia’s view, no longer binding. In fact, the building of the GERD can be seen as an Ethiopian response to what it views as unjust treaties that prevented it from using the Nile waters fairly.
One key reason behind the tensions is profound mistrust between the two sides; Ethiopia believes that Egypt and Sudan have been utilizing the Nile River unfairly for decades, at the expense of both it and other upstream countries
In addition, Ethiopia believes that the construction, filling, and operation of the GERD is a sovereign right that cannot be disputed or compromised under any circumstances. As Spokesperson of Ethiopia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Dina Mufti stated, “Ethiopia has legal and sovereign right to use the Nile water for development fairly and equitably and…Ethiopia has no interest in harming the lower Nile Basin countries in doing so.” However, Egypt and Sudan believe that the GERD will have a significant impact on their economic and development needs, as both countries rely heavily on the Nile River to fulfill them. Egypt and Sudan both obtain the vast majority of their fresh water from the Nile River, which reaches them via Ethiopia. Another key concern for Egypt and Sudan relates to the operation of the GERD during times of drought. Both countries are concerned that without a clear and binding agreement with Ethiopia, the latter will have full control of the passage of water from the GERD during droughts, which would be devastating to the lives of millions in Egypt and Sudan. As Egypt’s Sameh Shoukry said in an address to the UN Security Council, “It is not an overstatement to affirm that, for Egypt, the GERD is an existential threat.”
Egypt and Sudan believe that the GERD will have a significant impact on their economic and development needs, as both countries obtain the vast majority of their fresh water from the Nile River which reaches them via Ethiopia
Disagreements and disputes over the use of the Nile’s water, and particularly between Egypt and Ethiopia, are nothing new. Starting in the early 1990s, the two countries held several talks on how to resolve their disputes, but ultimately failed to reach an agreement. Further complicating the matter, Egypt has said on more than one occasion that it would resort to force if needed in order to protect what it perceives as its historical rights to the Nile waters, a stance that heightened tensions and expanded the gulf of mistrust between the two countries. And recently, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi warned Ethiopia of the “grave threat” that the GERD represents, and cautioned that if the dam affects Egypt’s water supply, the region will experience “unimaginable instability.” The Ethiopian prime minister, meanwhile, stated in 2019 that his country is ready to go to war in order to protect the dam, saying, “If there is a need to go to war, we could get millions readied.” These mutual threats only increased tensions among the three parties involved in the GERD dispute, and reduced the possibility of reaching an agreement.
Limited Options for a Resolution
Over the past decade, Egypt and Sudan have tried in earnest to reach an agreement with Ethiopia over the dam. But the two countries signed the declaration of principles in 2015 after Ethiopia had already begun building the dam, which weakened their position in subsequent negotiations. Whereas Egypt and Sudan seek a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD, Ethiopia prefers a set of non-binding guidelines that can be modified at any time. After failing to resolve the dispute on their own, Egypt and Sudan petitioned the UN Security Council to intervene and resolve the issue. While the two countries had hoped that the Security Council would mediate negotiations with Ethiopia, in September 2021 it simply called upon the African Union to take the lead and resolve the issue. The council also highlighted the importance of reaching an “acceptable and binding agreement on the filling and operation of the [dam] within a reasonable time frame.” While Egypt and Sudan welcomed the council’s statement and saw it as supporting their position, Ethiopia rejected the involvement of the Security Council in the dispute. Egypt and Sudan also attempted to lobby the international community—particularly the US, China, and Russia—to support their position in the negotiations. However, their efforts to break the stalemate have been hampered by quarrels between these global powers, especially due to Russia’s ongoing war on Ukraine.
Whereas Egypt and Sudan seek a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD, Ethiopia prefers a set of non-binding guidelines that can be modified at any time
Egypt also attempted to rally the Arab world behind its position, approaching both the Arab League and individual countries that maintain good relations with Ethiopia, such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In June 2021, the Arab League urged Ethiopia to engage in “good faith” negotiations with Egypt and Sudan and to avoid making any unilateral decisions in the matter. The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry, however, rejected the statement, and called upon the Arab League to “desist from making such unhelpful statements, which will only serve to antagonize the relations between the three countries and undermine the tripartite negotiation.”
The UN Security Council called upon the African Union to take the lead and resolve the issue and highlighted the importance of reaching an acceptable and binding agreement, which Egypt and Sudan welcomed and Ethiopia rejected
In July 2021, Saudi Arabia threw its support behind Egypt and Sudan, issuing a statement calling for the preservation of their “legitimate water rights” and stating that the international community should “intensify efforts to find a clear mechanism to start negotiations between the three countries to get out of this crisis.” The UAE has also attempted to play the role of mediator. In August, the Permanent Mission of the UAE to the United Nations urged all three countries to continue negotiations under the auspices of the African Union. The UAE believes that it can play an effective role in mitigating the dispute by relying on its massive financial resources and its strong diplomatic ties with all three countries. And over the past year, Abu Dhabi has hosted technical talks between the three nations, but without making meaningful progress or being able to break the current stalemate.
With the construction and filling of the GERD now nearly complete, Egypt and Sudan are running out of options. But without an agreement, existing tensions and disputes threaten to potentially break out into a larger conflict.
With the construction and filling of the GERD now nearly complete, Egypt and Sudan are quite simply running out of options in their efforts to push Ethiopia to sign a binding agreement that would preserve their rights and interests in the Nile waters. But without an agreement, existing tensions and disputes threaten to sit and fester, and to potentially break out into a larger conflict. As the GERD’s hydropower operations ramp up, it remains to be seen what moves Egypt and Sudan will try next.