GERD & Ethiopian Water Resources: Is it an 'Aspiration for Hydropower' or 'Hegemony for Water Power'?!

Khaled AbuZeid
Tuesday 16 Jun 2020

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile has been a controversial project that troubled waters between Egypt, Ethiopia ‎and Sudan. The project draws the attention of the world to potential unrest in the relations between Ethiopia, on one hand, a key player in the Horn of Africa, and Egypt, on the other hand, a strategic country in the central pivot of the three continents of Africa, Asia, and Europe and one that maintains balance, peace and security in the Arab Region and the Middle East.

Ethiopia’s Violation of International Law

The GERD project unilaterally launched in April of 2011 by Ethiopia on the Blue Nile, the largest tributary of the Nile (the world's longest river) was seen by Egyptians as a project that took advantage of Egypt's political vacuum immediately after the forced resignation of its president at that time. The launching of the Dam construction without consultation with Egypt was seen as a violation of the principles of international law, the 1993 agreement signed between Ethiopia and Egypt, and the 1902 agreement signed between Ethiopia and the United Kingdom, which necessitates consultation with downstream countries on Ethiopian structures that may affect the flows of Nile headwaters through the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, and the Sobat River flowing downstream to Sudan and Egypt. Ethiopia seems to see the Nile river headwaters originating within its territories as a matter of absolute sovereignty and that agreements signed between Ethiopia and Egypt or the United Kingdom (on behalf of Egypt and/or Sudan) as ‎non-binding to Ethiopia.

Unfortunately, there was no comprehensive Hydraulic Impact Assessment, Environmental Impact Assessment, or Socio-economic Impact Assessment Studies that were conducted on the GERD and publicly shared by Ethiopia, or consulted upon with the affected downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan. These measures that Ethiopia ignore dare actually required by international law. Even when an international consultant was agreed by the three countries to conduct the joint impact assessment studies, after the fact, the consultant’s joint studies were halted at their inception by Ethiopia,which pressured the consultant to redefine the “baseline conditions” to include Ethiopia’s future plans for additional dams as part of the existing baseline conditions; a tweak of globally agreed terminology that would defeat the whole purpose of the impact assessment studies. Ethiopia’s avoidance to attend the final meeting in a series of USA-World Bank facilitated negotiations in the end of January 2020, and Ethiopia’s announcement to start the filling of the GERD in July of 2020 before reaching a final agreement with Egypt and Sudan, may be seen as another breach to international law, since it would be breaching the GERD Declaration of Principles (DOP) signed by the three countries in 2015. The DOP stipulated that the three countries are toagree on guidelines and rules on the first filling and annual operation of GERD, which means that the first filling should not take place without an agreement between the three countries on those guidelines and rules.

What does the Nile & the Blue Nile mean to Egypt?

Unlike any other river in the world, the Nile, and more importantly the Blue Nile, for Egypt is a matter of life and death. The Greek Historian, Herodotus, once said that "Egypt is the Gift of the Nile". To put this statement in technical terms, let's examine the following factual information. 85% of the Nile waters flowing to Egypt originate in Ethiopia through the Blue Nile, Atbara, and Sobat tributaries. 67% of the Nile water allocated and/or actually being used by Egypt and Sudan comes through the Blue Nile. The Average annual flow of the Blue Nile is about 50 Billion Cubic Meters (BCM) per year, while Egypt's historical uses, acquired and documented water rights allocation is 55.5 BCM/year. Theoretically speaking, one may also consider that the Blue Nile flows out of Ethiopia represent in volume, 90% of Egypt's historical water uses of the Nile. The Nile River is the only source of renewable water for Egypt, which depends on the Nile in meeting about 97% of its water needs.GERD and the Ethiopian attitude in dealing with the issue are threatening the destiny of Egypt’s lifeline, livelihood and national security.

Infringement attempts on Egypt’s 55.5 BCM Water Rights

Although the announced objective of the GERD is for hydropower generation, yet the Ethiopian strategy in negotiating the agreement on filling and operating rules since the unilateral Ethiopian decision to build the dam,may suggest a far more different objective than hydropower generation. Almost 10 years of Ethiopian procrastination had passed without reaching an agreement with downstream Egypt and Sudan.Ethiopia’s future plans shows that Ethiopia may be planning to use water storage behind the GERD Dam for consumptive use purposes such as irrigated agriculture, industrial and others. Studies have shown that, due to the exaggerated 74 BCM capacity of the GERD reservoir design, and the anticipated operational rules to maximize hydropower generation,the accumulative impacts of the associated seepage and evaporation losses from the reservoir behind the GERD Dam, can have detrimental effects on the Blue Nile river flows and hence would likely infringe on Egypt’s ability to continue to use its water rights and annual historical uses of 55.5 BCM.

Ethiopian positions during negotiations and press releases after meetings have been aiming at having a free hand on the Ethiopian headwaters of the Nile andattempting to strip Egypt off of its rights to its meager Nile share of 55.5 Billion Cubic Meters (BCM)/year. The Ethiopian official andmedia language has always been trying to discredit Egypt’s water rights, using phrases such as “contested Egypt shares”, and “Egypt’s claimed 55.5 BCM”. They repeatedly misinform the international community about the full water potential of the Nile Basin and attempt to mislead it by alluding to myths such as “Egypt is using all the waters of the Nile”.

An article published on April 2nd, 2020 by Ethiopia Insight, referred to Ethiopian negotiators indicating that “Egypt and the USA (during the 2019/2020 US-World Bank facilitated negotiations) had proposed an un-amendable plan, which amounted to a “water-allocation” arrangement that effectively protects Egypt’s claimed 55.5 BCM annual share of Nile waters.” Other than the fact that the draft February 21st, 2020 GERD agreement (rejected by Ethiopia) was a result of the facilitated 2019/2020 negotiations between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan, and is not an Egypt-USA proposed plan, the agreement is drafted to ensure that GERD filling and operation does not significantly harm on Egypt and Sudan.

It was not a “water allocation” arrangement, but it was an agreement that, while attempting to maximize hydropower generation for Ethiopia, also attempts to minimize significant harm impacts by the GERD on Egypt’s and Sudan’s ability to continue to use their water rights and historical water uses. Any attempts to ignore these impacts may be considered aninfringement on Egypt’s and Sudan’swater rights. On the other hand, if GERD’s objective is hydropower generation which is supposedly a non-consumptive use, why does Ethiopia bring into the discussions Egypt’s right to its share of 55.5 BCM/year and why does it try to disclaim Egypt of this right?!Speaking of equitable utilization, is it too much for Egypt that hosts 20% of the Nile Basin countries’ population to benefit from only 3% of the Nile Basin’s 1660 BCM/year of the Nile Basin’s rainfall, or from even 0.8% of the 7000 BCM/year of Nile countries’ rainfall?! Ethiopia actually benefits from 23% of the Nile basin’s rainfall or 12% from the Nile countries’ rainfall. It is definitely a far more different reason than lack of water resources in Ethiopia that drives its infringement on neighboring countries’ water rights. To confirm that and to shed some more light on this matter, let’s examine Ethiopia’s renewable water resources.



Ethiopia’s Rainfall is Green Water for Ethiopia & Blue Water for Egypt

Ethiopia is endowed with an abundance of rainfall averaging about 848 mm/year, while Egypt, according to the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO), is considered the country with the lowest rainfall rate in the world with about 18.1 mm/year. Ethiopia depends mainly on the direct rainfall (Green Water) in its consumptive uses, and on river flows (Blue Water) in hydropower generation, whereas Egypt is the most downstream country on the Nile River shared by 11 countries, and it depends,for its consumptive and non-consumptive uses,on the Nile River flows (Blue Water) originating outside its political boundaries and running through its desert lands. That’s why, for food production, Ethiopia mainly depends on rainfed agriculture, while Egypt mainly depends on irrigated agriculture. This is also reflected in Ethiopia’s largest livestock population in Africa with over 106 million heads, feeding on vast rainfed grazing lands, while Egypt, due to its water scarcity, is importing the majority of its livestock and meat products, and is the largest importer of wheat in the world. Livestock in Ethiopia is estimated to consume about 84 BCM/year of virtual water embedded in its natural rainfed (green water) feed and fodder. That’s equal to the whole natural Nile river flows at Aswan, and more than Egypt’s and Sudan’s Nile annual water shares combined (74 BCM). Egypt, on the other hand, with about 19 million heads of livestock, consumes one sixth of Ethiopia’s livestock water consumption, with only 14 BCM/year of virtual water embedded in irrigated feed (blue water) and mostly imported fodder. Comparing the impact of rainfall on land cover in Ethiopia and Egypt which are of similar surface area of around one million square kilometer, and according to the European Space Agency (ESA) satellite land cover imagery analysis, about 94% of Ethiopia’s surface area is green cover(rainfed agriculture, pasture, and forests) using “green water”,while about 94% of Egypt’s surface area is desert lands, with a thin valley running through, along the “blue water” of the Nile River.



Where does Ethiopia’s 936 BCM of Annual Rainfall go?!

According to FAO, Ethiopia receives an average of about 936 BCM/year of rainfall. Where does this water go!? Based on ESA land cover classification, 910 BCM of this rain falls on green cover including rainfed and irrigated agriculture lands, forests, and pasture lands, while 26 BCM of this rainfall drops onwater bodies, urban and barren lands.Out of the 910 BCM of rainfall on green cover, and as per the United States Geological Survey (USGS) satellite imagery for Evapotranspiration, about680 BCM is beneficially used and consumed as evapotranspiration from rainfed agriculture (107 BCM), irrigated agriculture (10 BCM), pasture (352 BCM), and forests (211 BCM). 29 BCM is evaporated from barren lands, urban areas and water bodies. 105 BCM contributes to aquifers as renewable groundwater. According to FAO, about 122 BCM of the 936 BCM of rainfall, contributes to surface water streams and rivers, where about 97 BCM exits the country through transboundary rivers and groundwater to neighboring countries; Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Kenya, Somalia, and Djibouti. The remaining 25 BCM of surface water contributes to internal lakes and streams within Ethiopia.



The above analysis indicates that out of the 936 BCM of annual rainfall on Ethiopia, the country benefits from 117 BCM in agriculture, 352 BCM in pasture lands (part of which contributes to livestock production), 211 BCM in forests for biodiversity, tourism and wood production, 105 BCM in renewable groundwater recharge, in addition to 25 BCM in surface water that stays inlakes and streams within the country. The remaining 126 BCM leaves the country through transboundary rivers (97 BCM) and upwards through evaporation losses (29 BCM). A small amount of this huge potential of renewable water resources is what sustains the Ethiopian population of more than 100 million people with domestic water, supplemental irrigation, and water for industrial uses and others. The rest of these renewable water resources are still there within the country on an annual basis to provide for future generations without compromising the 97 BCM of transboundary flows that is barely sustaining the existing populations of neighboring countries, especially Egypt.

According to watershed delineation analysis, the Nile River Basin, which is one of several river basins in Ethiopia, receives an average of 450 BCMof rainfall out of the 936 BCM of nationwide rainfall.

Comparing Ethiopia’s Per Capita Share of Renewable Water Resources to Egypt’s

Sustainable development is closely linked to availability of renewable freshwater resources. No matter how much a country invests in developing alternative and non-conventional resources, nothing can replace a natural sustainable renewable freshwater resource. Comparing renewable water resources available for Ethiopia versus Egypt, we see thatEthiopia receives an average of about 936 BCM/year of renewable rainfall. Subtracting evaporation losses and transboundary waters exiting the country, the remaining 810 BCM/year of renewable water resources, is available and contributes to rainfed agriculture, livestock production, surface water, and groundwater recharge (an important renewable source for domestic water and supplemental irrigation). This water is by far in excess of Ethiopia’s 100 million people water demand. On the other hand, Egypt is entitled to55.5 BCM/year from the Nile Basin waters for all its uses, including irrigated agriculture, domestic and industrial uses. If the small amount of sporadic rainfall of 1.5 BCM over Egypt is added to its Nile waters, Egypt’s renewable water resources sums up to 57 BCM/year. This water is reused and recycled several times to meet part of Egypt’s water demand for more than 100 million people. Egypt has to invest in agriculture drainage reuse, treated wastewater reuse, sea water desalination, and food imports in order to fill its water demand gap.


Egypt’s annual renewable water resources provides about 570 m3/person/year share of renewable water resources, which is below the water scarcity limit of 1000 cubic meter per person per year. On the other hand, Ethiopia’s renewable water resources provides about8100 m3/person/year share of renewable water resources.The vast difference in natural climatic conditions between upstream and downstream in the Nile Basin created thislarge difference between water abundance in Ethiopia and water scarcity in Egypt. Similar natural hydrological conditions created the transboundary Nile River originating in the Ethiopian Highlandsand the Equatorial Plateau upstream and running downstream through the deserts of Egypt. Egypt adapted to these harsh conditions and depended on the Nile River for years without problems. But what could create a problem,is when water abundant countries upstream attempt to infringe on downstream Egypt’s scarcewater resources.

Virtual Water tells more about the story of Ethiopia’s Water & Water Uses

On the demand side, the agriculture and livestock sector is the largest water consumptive sector. If we run a quick comparison on the “Virtual Water” (embedded water in products) in Ethiopia’s and Egypt’s imports, exports, and local production in that sector, a lot could be concluded on water resources availability and the state of the water in the two countries. The following analysis is based on data and FAO data on agriculture and livestock production, exports, and imports.


Egypt has to import a large amount of itsfood because of its water scarcity conditions. In 2012, right around when GERD construction seriously started, Egypt imported agriculture and meat products equivalent to about 48 BCM of "Virtual Water" at a cost of over$ 12 Billion. Ethiopia,with a similar population of about 100 million people like Egypt,imported in 2012 about5.7 BCM of Virtual Water in agriculture and meat products at a cost of $ 1.2 Billion, which is one tenth (1/10) of the cost of Egypt’s food imports. Onthe other hand, Ethiopia exported more than 6.4 BCM of virtual water in agriculture products and livestock, which was more than Egypt’s 5.2 BCMof agriculture & livestock virtual water exports for that same year. The value of these Ethiopian exports was around $ 2 billion which was double Egypt’s agriculture exports value of about $ 1 billion of that year.


The virtual water embedded in Ethiopia’s annual local agriculture and livestock production in 2012 was estimated to be about 124 BCM, mainly from direct rainfall contribution (green water). On the other hand, in Egypt, virtual water embedded in its local agriculture and livestock production in 2012 was estimated to be about 78 BCM mainly from irrigation water (blue water), reused water, and imported fodder.



You can’t have the cake and eat it too!!

Comparing virtual water in imports and local production between Egypt and Ethiopia, which is a reflection of each country’s water demand in that sector, we see that Egypt’s annual virtual water in agriculture and livestock amounts to 126 BCM, while Ethiopia’s annual virtual water in that sector amounts to about 129 BCM. Although the two countries seam to use almost the same amount of water to satisfy the needs of their similar size populations in that sector, however the difference is that Ethiopia provides 95% of this water from its available water resources (124 BCM), while Egypt could only provide37% of this water from itsavailable water resources (47 BCM) which is mainly originating in Ethiopia. Moreover, Egypt had to spend over $ 12 Billion to make available 38% of these water needsthrough imports and had to invest even more to make available the remaining 25% of these water needs through reuse of drainage and treated wastewater, groundwater development and imported fodder. And now, the 37% and most of the 25% of Egypt’s available water needs for agriculture and livestock are at risk by GERD, Ethiopia’s unilateral activities upstream the Nile, and continued Ethiopian messages on freedom to use the waters of the Nile River.


The above analysis reflects how Ethiopia’s water abundance allows it to grow its own food as opposed to Egypt, and even to export more virtual water than what Egypt could export to make available some of the necessary funds for importing lower value food products. Both countries have been surviving on varied dependencies on different types of waters; upstream Ethiopia depends more on Green Waterfrom direct rainfall, some of which is within the Nile basin, while downstream Egypt depends only on Blue Water from the Nile River itself. Moreover, a water scarce country like Egypt has to spend more money than an abundant water country like Ethiopia to provide for its food needs.

It's the power of nature that resulted invaried dependencies on green water in the basin for upstream versus blue water in the river itself for downstream. It would be unfair to have an abundant amount of green water, and still have an eye on the neighbors’ little amounts of blue water! “You can’t have the cake and eat it too!” Riparian countries within a shared River Basin should not ignore their own renewable "Green Water" and rainfed potential within the Basin, to fight over other countries’ "Blue Water" river’s existing uses, especially if it's their neighbor’s only piece of cake!

When Upstream Water Abundance switches to Water Hegemony

Given Ethiopia’s water abundance, its geographic location upstream of 85% of Egypt’s only renewable water resources, its unilateral decision to construct GERD on the main and largest tributary of the Nile, its continued attempts to deviate from concluding the GERD impact assessment studies, its procrastinating strategy in reaching an agreement on GERD filling and operating rules;all this suggests a different objective to the construction of GERD; a Water Hegemony Power rather than just Hydropower!


**The author is CEDARE Regional Director of Water Resources, Arab Water Council Regional Director of Technical Programs, Professor of Water Resources, and a Registered Professional Engineer

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