Water Conflict Between Egypt and Ethiopia: A Defining Moment for Both Countries

On June 9, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan resumed talks over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which have been stalled since February. The new round of talks, held virtually due to COVID-19, among the three countries’ ministers of water and irrigation saw agreement on guidelines for the first stage of filling and operating the GERD and on safety rules. However, the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the controversial dam is far from resolution. Had the recent round led to better outcomes, the impact of GERD on the bilateral relationship between Cairo and Addis Ababa would still be significant for the foreseeable future.

Genesis of the Dispute

Tensions and disputes over the Nile River’s water have been ongoing for decades. The relationships among the Nile Basin’s ten countries are governed by a set of treaties and agreements signed during the 20th century (in 1902, 1929, and 1959) and are commonly known as the Nile River Agreements. They stipulate that the upstream riparian states (mainly Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia) have to respect the rights of the downstream countries (mainly Egypt and Sudan) regarding the Nile’s water. In addition, they are prohibited from building dams or launching construction projects on the river without the approval of the downstream countries, particularly Egypt. Not only have these treaties guaranteed Egypt’s share of the Nile water over the past century and enabled it to achieve its developmental and agricultural plans––particularly after building the Aswan High Dam in the early 1960s––but they also gave Cairo and Khartoum veto power over any construction plans or projects that might affect their share of the water.

These agreements were always contested and challenged by the upstream riparian states. While Egypt and Sudan insist that their share of water should be respected and honored, the upstream riparian states believe that these agreements are unfair and impede their agriculture and development plans. They reason that they are not bound by these agreements as they were signed by colonial powers and their governments were not part of such accords. As the populations of the Nile River Basin countries have been growing rapidly during the past decades, their developmental needs have increased, adding tensions and disagreements among them. Attempts at negotiations for governing and sharing the Nile River water did not stop during the past three decades. In 1999, the Nile River Basin countries reached an agreement––Nile Basin Initiative (NBI)––that aimed to enhance their cooperation. It brought together all countries that have access to the Nile River to establish trust among them and make effective and beneficial use of the river for all parties.

As the populations of the Nile River Basin countries have been growing rapidly during the past decades, their developmental needs have increased, adding tensions and disagreements among them.

The NBI was a hallmark accord for the basin states as it aimed to create an inclusive framework for governing the river’s water. It also outlined the establishment of a “cooperative framework agreement” (CFA) to replace earlier bilateral treaties and to “formalize the transformation of the Nile Basin Initiative into a permanent Nile River Basin Commission.” Negotiations to reach such an inclusive framework took almost a decade. In 2010, the CFA was established and it introduced, for the first time, the principle of “equitable and reasonable utilization” of the Nile River water. But it was signed by only six countries (Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, and Burundi) and was vehemently rejected by Egypt and Sudan because, they maintained, it does not respect their historical and acquired rights to the Nile River water. For its part, Ethiopia interprets the CFA treaty as replacing the earlier Nile River Agreements and creating new realities that should be accepted by Egypt and Sudan. Since then, the relationship between these parties—particularly Cairo and Addis Ababa—has become strained and tense.

Ethiopia’s GERD Stakes

Ethiopia’s plans to build the GERD date back to the 1960s, but they were postponed for political and economic reasons. The country suffers from lack of electricity and underdevelopment despite its massive water resources. With its 112 million population, Ethiopia relies heavily on the GERD to enhance its economy and improve its people’s lives. Ethiopia has an acute shortage of electricity; in fact, 65 percent of its population is not connected to the grid. The controversial dam is a $4.8 billion project and is built on the Blue Nile, near the border between Ethiopia and Sudan. It should provide electricity to millions of homes in Ethiopia as well as offer the chance of selling electricity to neighboring African countries. GERD is the centerpiece of Ethiopia’s bid to become Africa’s largest power exporter, with a projected capacity to generate more than 6,000 megawatts.

According to The New York Times, the completion and filling of this dam will make Ethiopia “Africa’s biggest power exporter.” It will double Ethiopia’s electricity generation capacity, allowing it to earn as much as one billion dollars annually in energy exports to Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya and, potentially, Egypt. The dam would secure electricity for the power-starved nation and could both fuel economic development and bring in cash through international electricity sales. Furthermore, Addis Ababa considers GERD a national and sovereign project that should be respected by other countries. It is a national dream that came true. Believing that GERD will protect its natural rights of water and maximize its utilization, Ethiopia adopted a long-term strategy that could achieve a twofold objective: 1) to create a new legal framework that would supersede the Nile River Agreements and generate new favorable realities, and 2) to isolate Egypt and Sudan by neutralizing the rest of the Nile Basin countries through the CFA. To be sure, building and operating the GERD is the culmination of this strategy, and it seems that Ethiopia has achieved both goals. The GERD could be a watershed event in Ethiopia’s modern history, signaling its rebirth as a regional and important power.

The dam would secure electricity for the power-starved nation and could both fuel economic development and bring in cash through international electricity sales.

Egypt’s Water Security

According to the 1959 agreement over the Nile River water, Egypt’s share is 55.5 billion cubic meters (bcm). Around 85 percent of the water that flows into the Nile River comes from the Ethiopian highlands through the Blue Nile. Approximately 90 percent of Egypt’s fresh water comes from the Nile River, with about 57 percent of that water from the Blue Nile, on which Ethiopia is building its dam. Therefore, Egypt views the GERD as an existential threat. The reservoir behind the GERD, once filled, will hold about 74 bcm of water, almost equivalent to the entire annual volume of the Nile that flows into Egypt’s Aswan High Dam.

Currently, water insecurity is perhaps the most serious threat to Egypt. It is noteworthy that Egypt suffers from a shortage of water even without taking the GERD into account: its water resources are around 60 bcm and its consumption is 80 bcm. Egypt imports about half its food products and recycles about 25 bcm of water annually. Should the GERD be filled without an agreement, Egypt would face a risk of drought conditions and of losing more than one million jobs and about $1.8 billion in economic production each year. Filling the GERD would thus significantly affect Egypt’s share of water—it would decrease it by about 10 to 15 billion cubic meters.

Ethiopia plans on filling the dam in six years, starting in July. The longer it takes to fill the dam, the less this will impact the already struggling supply of the Nile’s water in Egypt. However, Egypt would like Ethiopia to extend this time to 12-21 years so that, especially in the beginning, the level of the river does not drop rapidly. In essence, a decision by Ethiopia to unilaterally fill the reservoir as quickly as possible would be disastrous for Sudan and Egypt, as this would consume the entire flow of the Blue Nile, or around 54 bcm, for more than a year. To fill the dam over a six-year period would mean 14 to 18 percent less Nile water flowing to Egypt during each of those years, if rainfall is average and the dam is filled evenly. Moreover, whereas Addis Ababa wants to flood GERD at the onset of July’s rainy season to boost accumulation, Cairo demands to be involved in such a decision because the pace of the water flow into the dam will affect the downstream movement of the river in Egypt.

The crisis over GERD is a defining moment not only for Egypt’s current regime but also for the Egyptian state and society.

In fact, the crisis over GERD is a defining moment not only for Egypt’s current regime but also for the Egyptian state and society. It is the first time in history that Egyptians feel threatened regarding their very source of life, the Nile River. Therefore, it is imperative to find a solution that can secure the future of millions of Egyptians and soothe their fears.

Deep Misgivings

In early 2011, Ethiopia unilaterally began the construction of GERD without notifying Egypt or Sudan. It took advantage of Egypt’s distraction with the political upheaval that toppled the former president, Hosni Mubarak, in 2011 and launched its long-planned project. In June 2013, Ethiopia’s parliament ratified the CFA; this dismayed Egypt to the extent that former President Mohamed Morsi warned Addis Ababa that “all options are open” if it continued building the dam without reaching a deal with Egypt.

In March 2015, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia signed a new agreement called the “Declaration of Principles,” which gave priority to downstream countries for electricity generated by the dam, created a mechanism for resolving conflicts, and provided compensation for damages. However, the agreement—for the first time—did not mention Egypt’s acquired rights to Nile water and is interpreted by Ethiopia as an approval of its controversial dam. The agreement aimed to resolve the dispute among the three countries, though the opposite has occurred: the gulf of mistrust has deepened and negotiations stalled several times. Whereas Ethiopia accuses Egypt of trying to hold the GERD hostage by imposing rules over the filling and operation of the dam, Cairo accuses Ethiopia of not considering the massive impact of filling the GERD on Egypt’s water interests and economy.

According to experts, Egypt worries that an upstream dam on the Blue Nile will reduce water supply and power generation at the Aswan High Dam. Additionally, once the reservoir is filled, the GERD will not directly consume water but may result in a significant increase of irrigation in Sudan which will diminish the amount of water Egypt receives—adding to the latter’s worries.

The mistrust [between Egypt and Ethiopia] runs deep and creates many obstacles in reaching an accord.

While Egypt seeks a binding agreement that would require Ethiopia to release a fixed amount of the Nile River’s flow as well as mechanisms to monitor Ethiopia’s compliance, for its part, Ethiopia attempts to avoid any permanent commitment for a water quota that might extend beyond the GERD’s filling period. It seeks a flexible agreement with a provision for periodic reviews. Therefore, the mistrust runs deep and creates many obstacles in reaching an accord. Before the recent round of talks, Egypt and Ethiopia were engaged in heated rhetoric and both countries threatened each other politically and militarily. Sudan attempted to mediate and bring them back to the negotiating table.

The US Role

The United States, alongside the World Bank, has made efforts to mediate between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia in order to resolve the dispute over the GERD. High-ranking officials from the three countries held several meetings in Washington between November 2019 and February 2020. They also met with President Donald Trump in the White house last November. US involvement in the GERD talks came after a long deadlock. Washington attempted to use its economic and financial pressure to push them to resolve their dispute—the hope was to reach an agreement by the end of February; but hope dissipated after Ethiopia’s sudden withdrawal from the talks.

Ethiopian analysts believe that Washington always sides with Egypt and any agreement on the GERD would tie Ethiopia’s hands. 

The US Department of the Treasury, which coordinated the negotiations between the three parties, issued a statement on February 28, 2020, noting that “The United States believes that the work completed over the last four months has resulted in an agreement that addresses all issues in a balanced and equitable manner, taking into account the interests of the three countries.” However, that statement was criticized by Ethiopia’s foreign minister, Gedu Andargachew, who described it as “highly partisan.” Ethiopian analysts believe that Washington always sides with Egypt and any agreement on the GERD would tie Ethiopia’s hands. Clearly, then, Washington is seen at least by one party as the least suitable and effective mediator to resolve the GERD dispute.

The Need for Compromise

Egypt and Ethiopia are arguably East Africa’s most consequential countries and their amity and cooperation are essential for the region’s peace and stability. Their need for the Nile water is both mutual and urgent. But satisfying each party’s maximalist position is practically impossible considering the circumstances of the region and their inability to sustain a prolonged and unneeded conflict. It is in their mutual interest, and that of their friends and allies, especially the United States, that they find a compromise that avoids the dreaded maximalism that doubtlessly will lead to unwarranted outcomes.