The Ethiopian dam crisis

Marc Hani Helmi
Thursday 10 Dec 2020

The history of the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam shows that Egypt should continue to pursue every avenue to secure its interests in the negotiations with Ethiopia

Water security is one of the cornerstones of a country’s national security. Water is a vital element for the lives of human beings and all other living things, and it is critical for economic development. As a result, developing and securing the country’s water resources is a top priority for Egypt in order to guarantee its stability and survival, as well as its aim of sustainable development and the protection of its food supplies and human and national security.

Egypt is one of the most arid countries on the African continent and in the world as a whole, and its water resources are very limited and mostly originate from outside the country. Egypt’s dependency ratio on these outside water resources is more than 97.7 per cent, and as a result the country has always aimed to optimise the use of all its water resources. Egypt’s renewable water resources are estimated at 56.8 billion cubic metres annually.

Concerns over access to the Nile’s water began to worsen in 2009 after a conference of ministers of water from the Nile Basin countries held in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Egypt urged “consultation and advanced notice” before any projects were constructed on the Nile, as per international law which stipulates that “upstream countries should not cause harm to downstream countries” in their use of international rivers and according to Egypt’s historic Nile water quota rights.

The main dispute at that time was over the demands made by some Nile Basin countries (Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Uganda) for a reconsideration of older agreements using the pretext that these had not been signed by national governments but had been signed by former colonial powers on their behalf. These countries also demanded the “equal utilisation of the Nile Basin” using the pretext that some countries, especially Kenya and Tanzania, needed more water resources. Three countries —Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia — threatened to build dams and barrages on the Nile that would reduce the volume of water reaching Egypt.

An analysis of older Nile water agreements, whether signed during or after the colonial era, shows that there was no legal framework governing the Nile Basin regional order. Although there are now more than 10 agreements regulating Nile water, these are either bilateral or trilateral agreements and do not have the approval of all the Nile Basin countries. The signatories to some of these treaties also now refuse to recognise them, claiming that they are illegitimate since they were signed during the period of colonial rule.

As a result, the Nile Basin regional order lacks any general or comprehensive legal or institutional framework that is accepted by all the Nile Basin countries.

In April 2011, Ethiopia unilaterally declared that it would build its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile without adhering to well-established principles of international law regarding shared rivers. After contacts with the Ethiopian side, an international committee of experts was formed that worked for a year to review plans for the dam and to understand its impacts on downstream countries. The report concluded that the studies that had been reviewed were only preliminary and that they were not sufficient for a project of this size and contained many unconfirmed assumptions. The studies had also not looked sufficiently at the effects the building of the dam would have, whether economic, social, or environmental, on the downstream countries, the report said.

A Declaration of Principles was then signed by Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia on 23 March 2015 in Khartoum by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, the then Ethiopian prime minister, and the then Sudanese president. This declaration stipulated a commitment to 10 principles that comply with those governing international treaties on trans-border rivers, such as the principles of cooperation, development, regional integration and sustainability, not causing serious harm, and of fair and appropriate use.


In 2013, the Ethiopian Ministry of Irrigation published a map showing Ethiopia’s insistence on building the GERD and three other dams to reduce the silting process around it. 

The map showed the GERD as being the largest hydroelectric energy project on the Blue Nile, adding that silting from the dam would be very high because it would hold back the silt that over the millennia has contributed to the formation of agricultural land in Egypt and Sudan. 

As a result, the new dam would be entirely backfilled within 50 years and its efficiency would be reduced as the years passed, meaning that Ethiopia would be forced to reduce the silting around the GERD by building three smaller dams behind it with a combined capacity of 200 billion cubic metres of water. Were Ethiopia to build all these dams and hold an enormous amount of Nile water in their reservoirs, this would make it the primary controller of the water of the Nile and allow it to sell excess water to Israel and the Gulf countries, and perhaps even to Egypt itself. No country in the world would wish to amass that volume of water without also intending to sell it. 

In the light of recent developments on this issue, we must come to understand that it is impossible to halt the construction of the GERD, which has become a fait accompli and even a national mission of the Ethiopian people. This means that we should deal with this fait accompli with all the tools available, including by continuing to emphasise the need to strike a balance between protecting Egypt’s water interests while recognising Ethiopia’s right to pursue development. There is also a need to adhere to the outcomes of the Washington negotiations on the GERD and to work towards a resumption of the talks.

The Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement signed in Entebbe in 2010 will soon enter into force, and Egypt must continue its efforts towards intensifying cooperation and communication with countries that have not yet signed it, or have signed it but have not yet ratified it. Egypt must also emphasise the environmental impacts of the GERD in all relevant international forums and must aim to secure international agreement that the dam does not comply with relevant environmental-impact assessments.

Egypt must emphasise that Ethiopia must adhere to the principles of international law, especially those pertaining to international rivers. Disagreements over the GERD are not only disagreements about one country building a dam, but are also about matters of principle that have other non-political consequences, including economic, environmental, security, and humanitarian impacts. 

If the international community accepts that one country can take the unilateral decision to build a dam that threatens the people of another country, this will set a dangerous precedent for projects elsewhere. Turkey recently decided to fill and operate the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River without consulting or negotiating with Iraq, for example, even though Iraq, as a downstream country, would be adversely affected by it. The international community must respect and implement international law in order to prevent such actions reoccurring in the future if this precedent is allowed to stand.

Egypt should also offer to buy electricity generated by the GERD in return for Ethiopia signing the Washington framework agreement or the current agreement on filling and operating the dam, on the condition that Ethiopia complies with Egypt’s reservations regarding this filling and operation especially in times of drought and prolonged drought.

Military action should be the last resort in the light of the current state of international affairs, and Egypt should work instead to pursue all possible diplomatic or other solutions, including keeping the issue on the global agenda and calling for a UN body to oversee the negotiations. 


*The writer is political researcher.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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