Egypt-Ethiopia Nile water dispute: A timeline

Amira Howeidy , Wednesday 20 May 2020

The Nile has been synonymous with Egypt and its survival for millennia. Today, Ethiopia wants to rewrite this history

Egypt-Ethiopia Nile water dispute: A timeline
Egypt-Ethiopia Nile water dispute: A timeline


Having occupied Egypt in 1882, Britain puts Sudan – conquered by Mohamed Ali in 1820 – under its imperial rule. A governor-general, appointed by Egypt with British consent, administers it.

The British begin construction of the Aswan Low Dam. Designed to store annual floodwater and augment dry season flows, it will bolster irrigation and help support Egypt’s growing population.



The Aswan Low Dam is completed, and opens on 10 December.

The dam, though its scale is unprecedented at the time, operates as designed but later provesto have an inadequate reservoir capacity.Its height is raised twicebut it still fails to keep up with growing irrigation demands, eventually leading to the floating of the idea of an Aswan high dam in the 1950s.


15 May 1902: the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty   

Ethiopia’s Emperor Menelik and British envoy Lt. Col. John Lane Harrington sign an agreement to secure the flow of the Nile downstream in Addis Ababa.

Article three of the treaty stipulates: “His Majesty the Emperor Menelik II, King of Kings of Ethiopia, engages himself towards the Government of His Britannic Majesty not to construct, or allow to be constructed, any work across the Blue Nile, Lake Tsana, or the Sobat which would arrest the flow of their waters into the Nile except in agreement with His Britannic Majesty’s Government and the Government of the Soudan.”

At the time Ethiopia has no irrigation schemes to speak of.

Unlike future Nile water agreements signed by colonial powers which excluded Addis Ababa, this is the only agreement signed by Ethiopia guaranteeing the unhindered flow of the Nile. The treaty remains the most authoritative instrument defining the water rights of Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia until the second half of the 20th century.


1929: Nile Waters Agreement

Egypt and Great Britain, representing Uganda, Kenya, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and Sudan, sign an agreement giving Cairo the right to veto projects higher up the Nile that affect its water share.

The agreement allocates 55.5bcm of water to Egypt and 18.5bcm to Sudan.



Italy invades Ethiopia, and Britain recognizes the de jure status in1936.  



Soon after the 1952 July Revolution brings the Free Officers to power Egypt’s new leadership takes up the reins of the ambitious Aswan High Dam project, conceived in the last years of the monarchy. Cold War political maneuvering leads to the withdrawal of funding pledged by world powers and construction is delayed for years. Work on the project eventually resumes in 1958 with USSR support.



Ethiopia contests – to little effect – the validity of the Anglo-Ethiopian treaty, on the grounds that Britain recognized Italy’s de jure occupation of Ethiopia. 


8 November 1959: Egypt-Sudan Nile waters agreement

Egypt and Sudan sign the agreement, which supplements the 1929 treaty, in Cairo. It allows both countries full, rather than partial use, of Nile waters, and confirms Egypt’s right to 55.5 bcm annually, and Sudan’s to 18.5 bcm.

The agreement is designed to allow Egypt to build the Aswan High Dam that affects Sudan, which is why Khartoum is a party, but does not affect Ethiopia, which is therefore not included as a party to the treaty.


9 January 1960

Having secured Egypt’s share of Nile water, construction of the Aswan High Dam begins.  It is Egypt’s biggest national project since the Suez Canal and its grand modernization project. The dam is a symbol of nationalism and independence that will put the Nile River under the control of man for the first time in history.

Addis Ababa becomes a reliable partner of the West in its struggle against the communist East during the Cold War, and Haile Selassie wins American support for plans to develop his country through large-scale water infrastructures.

Between 1956 and 1964 the United States Bureau of Reclamation conducts a survey of the Blue Nile, which is eventually used to identify the site for the Ethiopian dam project. 



Construction of the Aswan High Dam (AHD) is completed. It is fully operational two years later.

The dam is 111 meters high, with a crest length of 3,830 metres, and a volume of 44.3 million cubic meters. The $1 billion project captures the Nile river in its reservoir, Lake Nasser, which is the third largest in the world with a capacity of 169 bcm. It is constructed to control two annual floods so that, in the event of drought, Egypt can still have sufficient water.

AHD releases approximately 55.5bcm annually and provides Egypt with half of its power.



Emperor Haile Selassie is overthrown by the Derg, a Marxist-Leninist military junta. Ethiopia descends into civil war – accompanied by economic decline and periodic famines – for the next three decades.



Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front  (EPRD) deposes autocrat President Mengistu Haile Mariam. He is succeeded by Meles Zenawi who rules for the next two decades.   


1993: the Cairo Cooperation Framework

Egypt and Ethiopia pledge not to implement water projects harmful to the interests of the other, and to consult over projects to reduce waste and increase the flow of Nile water.



A new constitution is promulgated, creating the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, with Meles Zenawi as prime minister.


February 1999: The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI)

The initiative, supported by the World Bank, brings together Nile Basin countries. They agree to develop the river in a cooperative manner and share the socioeconomic benefits.

It NBI is hailed as a milestone for regulating the way the Nile is used within an institutional framework for the first time in almost a century.


October 2009

The Ethiopian Government surveys the Benishangul-Gumuz region, 15 km east of the border with Sudan.


June 2010

Egypt and Sudan freeze their membership of the NBI after six member states sign the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), also known as the Entebbe Agreement, which seeks to redraw Egypt and Sudan’s Nile water share.

Egypt, a water impoverished nation with a population of 83 million, is completely dependent on the Nile (and the Aswan High Dam’s reservoir Lake Nasser) forfresh water, 85 per cent of which originates in Ethiopia.  


November 2010

A design for an Ethiopian dam to be built in the Benishangul-Gumuz region, dubbed Project X at the time, is accepted.


December 2010

Project X, now known as the Millennium Dam project, is launched.



February: Hosni Mubarak steps down in February in the face of a mass uprising.  The constitution is suspended, parliament is dissolved and a transitional period, which will continue until 2012, begins. Later Cairo will view this period, when Egypt is consumed by internal instability, as an opportunity which Addis Ababa grabbed to impose a new reality on the ground vis-à-vis the dam.


31 March: A day after the Millennium Dam project is made public a US$4.8 billion contract is awarded to the Italian company Salini Costruttori. The dam's foundation stone is laid on 2 Aprilby Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.

Thedesign phase of the project was kept secret by the Ethiopian government until a month ago.

The planned hydropower plant has a 6,500 MW generating capacity and a 74 bcm reservoir. It is projected to increase electricity access in Ethiopia to 50 per cent, a make Ethiopia Africa’s largest power exporter. The GERD is a source of national pride and a symbol of Ethiopia’s “renaissance” and, like the Aswan High Dam, its modernization.  

15 April: Ethiopia’s Council of Ministers renames the Millennium Dam (originally Project X) the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).



A trilateral technical joint committee is formed to discuss all issues pertaining to the dam. An international panel of experts (IPoE) from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, supplemented by four international experts, is established.

The IPoE produces a report, based on agreed Terms of Reference, covering, among other things, the safety and stability of the dam, hydrological studies, and its environmental and social impacts.

On 8 March, 2012 Sudan’s president Omar El-Bashir tells the newly appointed Ethiopian ambassador to Khartoum that his country supports GERD. 

Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood is elected president of

Egypt in May 2012.

Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s prime minister who ruled the country for two decades, dies in August 2012. He is succeeded by Foreign Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in September.



The Tripartite National Committee holds technical talks on how to move forward and address the IPoE’s 2011 recommendations, which include the conduct of additional studies to assess the dam’s impact.

Ethiopia shares design and technical information but fails to produce documents on the socio-economic, hydrologic and environmental impacts of GERD during and after the filling period.

Ethiopia’s parliament ratifies a controversial treaty to replace the 1959 Nile water agreement.

May: Egypt’s state statistics agency (CAPMAS) releases a report documenting the decline in water resources per capita. In 2013 it stood at 663m3 per capita, having declined from 1,672 m3 in 1970, and 2,526 m3 in 1947. The agency predicts that by 2025 the annual figure will dwindle to 582 m3 per person.

IPoE issues a report that concludes the documents submitted by Ethiopia assessing GERD’s impact on downstream riparian states contain insufficient detail on the planned operation of the dam. The report also points to flaws in GERD’s design specifications, casting doubt over the dam’s structural safety and stability.
28 May2013: Ethiopia starts diverting the Blue Nile to make way for GERD.

3 July 2013: President Mohamed Morsi is deposed by the military following popular protests. GERD negotiations are put on hold.   



GERD talks resume after Egypt’s defence minister Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi is elected president in June 2014.

The tripartite committee selects a French and a Dutch consultancy firm to conduct the GERD impact studies recommended in 2013.
Legal and political negotiations lead to the trilateral agreement, the Declaration of Principles (DoP), signed by the three heads of state in March 2015 in Khartoum.

The three countries commit to take all necessary measures to avoid causing significant harm to one another. They agree to ask for mediation should they fail to solve outstanding disputes over the dam through negotiations.  

In fifth principle enshrined in the DoP states that the studies recommended by the IPoE will be used as the basis for the rules governing the filling and operation of GERD, and that the entire negotiating process should be completed within 15 months.
For the next five years Ethiopia fails to deliver on a single DoP commitment.



The French engineering consultancies Artelia and BRLi Group are hired early in 2016.  Regular meetings between technical and political parties are held to define the scope of the studies and put a team of consultants together. Disagreements over the baseline to be used to assess GERD impacts lead to delays in starting the studies.

May 2017: The French consultancy firms issue their preliminary reports. Egypt accepts them in October. Sudan and Ethiopia express reservations.

Egypt fears that, depending on the timetable for filling the reservoir, its supply of Nile water could be seriously compromised. A reduction of 1bcm availability at  at the Aswan Dam will result in 294,000 feddan of agricultural land being taken out of production, a 2,2 per cent increase in agricultural imports and the loss of 290,000 seasonal jobs.



Ethiopia rejects an Egyptian suggestion that the World Bank be invited to observe, and when necessary mediate, the work of the Tripartite National Committee. Tripartite meetings resume.  

February: Ethiopian Prime Minister Desalegn resigns amid anti-government protests. He is succeeded in April by Abiy Ahmed Ali, leading to a temporary reduction in tensions with Egypt. Tripartite meetings on technical studies of continue though there is little, if any, sign of progress. Cairo blames the lack of any advance on deliberate obfuscation and prevarication by Ethiopia to buy time.

May: Following a nine party ministerial meeting Ethiopia is delegated to communicate feedback from the three countries on technical issues to the French consultancy BRLi Group. The email is never sent.  

In the summer a National Independent Scientific Research Group (NISRG) is formed comprising 15 experts from the three countries. It is mandated to formulate technical modalities for the filling and operation of GERD.  

The research group establishes four principles as basic parameters for an agreement on the dam. They include: adopting an adaptive and cooperative approach to the filling and operation of GERD; close coordination between the operation of GERD and the Aswan High Dam; agreed mechanisms for both dams to adapt to changes in the hydrological conditions of the Blue Nile and to share the burden of future droughts, and an agreed minimum level of water to be released from GERD to ensure the Aswan High Dam remains at sustainable levels- - once the water level at the GERD reaches a level that enables it to generate hydropower.



Egypt makes a proposal on the operation of GERD, based on NISRG principles. It is rejected in August by Ethiopia. 

Al-Sisi calls for international intervention in the negotiations during the UN General Assembly’s 74th session. In the same session Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde reiterates her country’s commitment to reaching a deal.

Following meetings of the irrigation and water resources ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, the spokesperson of the Egyptian Ministry of Water Recourses and Irrigation states that negotiations have reached a dead-end due to Ethiopia’s  “intransigency”.
Ethiopia presents a proposal that Egypt rejects because its does not include operational rules for the GERD, and offers to negotiation them annually.

In response to Egypt’s request for a mediator the United States becomes involved in the dispute in November. The US calls on the three sides to “put forth good faith efforts to reach an agreement that preserves those rights, while simultaneously respecting each other’s Nile water equities”.



January: delegations from Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan meet three times in Washington. Ethiopia pulls out of the final meeting ,where a deal was to be signed, in late February, calling for more time for internal consultations. After holding bilateral talks with Egypt and Sudan, the US releases a statement saying it believed an agreement had been reached. Sudan declines to formally consent to the text, leaving Egypt as the only country to initial the deal.

March: Sudan registers an official objection to a resolution proposed by Egypt to the Arab League supporting both Egypt and Sudan in the dispute on the grounds it was issued without consultation with Khartoum. The resolution passes without Sudan’s signature.

1 April: Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announces that his country will start filling the GERD reservoir during the coming rainy season. He puts huge emphasis on the dam as a “symbol of our sovereignty and unity". Ethiopian officials say construction of the dam is 72.4 per cent complete.

3 April: The electricity grids of Egypt and Sudan are officially connected, with an initial capacity of 60 megawatts. The extension of the grid to Sudan’s northern regions is completed as part of efforts to expand the power supply to Khartoum.

10 April: Ethiopia offers a partial agreement to both Egypt and Sudan that would only cover the first stage of the GERD filling which both countries reject.

12 April: Ethiopia announces it will start filling the reservoir in the wet season at end of June-July or September, in the absence of any agreement.

President Al-Sisi and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok send letters to Ethiopia’s premier Abiy Ahmed rejecting his proposal for a transitional agreement on the initial filling of GERD in mid-July.

11 May:  Egypt submits a 17-page letter to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) protesting Ethiopia’s actions and demanding that it halt construction until an agreement is reached.

18 May: Addis Ababa sends a letter to the UNSC saying Ethiopia has no legal obligation to seek Egypt’s approval to fill GERD and blames Cairo for the deadlock in talks.

19 June: Abiy Ahmed announces the dam will commence filling unilaterally in July with or without an agreement. Hours later, Egypt seeks UN Security Council intervention, describing the situation as “an imminent threat to international peace and security.” 

The move comes under Article 35 of the UN Charter which entitles member states to alert the Security Council of any situation that might lead to international friction, or that is likely to endanger international peace and security.
22 June: Ethiopia responds in a letter to the UNSC, which avoids mentioning the earlier announcement of filling the dam without an agreement, and criticises Egypt for building the Aswan High Dam 50 years ago.
27 June: After mediation from South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, chair of the African Union (AU), the leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan speak by phone and agree to resume talks. Sudan and Egypt say Ethiopia agreed to holding off on filling the reservoir as negotiations continued, while Ethiopia makes no mention of a delay.
“Ethiopia is scheduled to begin filling the GERD within the next two weeks, during which the remaining construction work will continue,” Addis Ababa says in a statement.
3 July: Trilateral talks resume via videoconference under the AU’s auspices. Egypt’s Minister of Irrigation Mohamed Abdel-Atti says talks will continue in the attendance of 11 observers from the EU, the US, the AU Commission, and legal and technical experts.
No consensus has been reached "at the technical and legal levels,” he says. The main point of contention is filling the reservoir during drought and prolonged drought.
In a statement, Sudan’s irrigation ministry says any agreement should have a binding nature and should include a comprehensive mechanism for resolving future disputes.
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