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Ethiopia’s Nile Dam Dispute Must Be Solved Soon – Analysis


After nine years of negotiations, time is running out to find a compromise on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

By Peter Fabricius*

The bitter dispute among Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over the giant Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile seems like the classic case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.

The three countries have been haggling for nine years since construction began and last week round 12 of the latest chapter of negotiations also deadlocked. Those talks began in November 2019 and were brokered by the United States (US) and the World Bank.

Ethiopia is now set to start filling the already 76%-complete dam unilaterally in a few weeks when the annual rains come, which could raise tensions to breaking point. Egypt, which has vowed to use ‘all means available’ to secure its water supply, has referred the dispute to the United Nations (UN) Security Council. It says, rather ominously, that the dispute is likely to endanger international peace and security.

It is undoubtedly a tough dispute. Egypt depends on the waters of the Blue Nile for about 82% of its water needs and fears that the big dam – which will eventually impound an immense 74 billion cubic metres of water – will choke off much of that supply.

Ethiopia, by contrast, insists it has natural rights over the use of the Nile to uplift its people from poverty and spur economic growth. It needs the dam’s 16 turbines to generate the hydroelectric power – about six gigawatts of it – to provide electricity to the over 65 million Ethiopians who now lack it, as Ethiopian Foreign Affairs Minister Gedu Andargachew told the UN Security Council last month.

Sudan is very much the third party to this dispute and has oscillated between the two chief protagonists. It can see the benefits of the dam, mainly to buy electricity, but has concerns about safety as the dam is very close to its border.

Location of GERD on the Nile River
Location of GERD on the Nile River

Despite the acrimony, a lot has in fact been achieved in the negotiations so far. The parties have agreed on how Ethiopia should fill the dam, and how much water it would release when there is sufficient rainfall. Ethiopia has also agreed to release predetermined amounts of water – depending on the dam level and Blue Nile inflow into the reservoir, even in drought years.

But Egypt – backed by the US – wants extra commitments of water from Addis Ababa in multi-year droughts of four or five years. And it wants Ethiopia to compensate Egypt and Sudan after long droughts have passed by releasing extra water to make up for the reduced flows during the droughts. That’s been a bridge too far.

Ethiopia says releasing so much water would lower the dam to levels where its turbines could not generate enough power. Egypt’s ambassador to South Africa, Sherif Issa, told ISS Today last week that the World Bank had calculated that even in the worst drought, Ethiopia could still generate at least 70% of electrical capacity.

‘We need to know how much water we will get in the future so we can plan our cultivation,’ he says, noting that Egypt uses some 86% of its Nile waters for agriculture. But Ethiopia resents the suggestion that by having to compensate for reduced water flow during drought it would find itself ‘owing’ water to the two downstream countries.

Due to time constraints, Ethiopia’s ambassador to South Africa, Dr Shiferaw Menbacho, was unable to respond to ISS Today’s requests for comment. In his letter to the UN Security Council, Andargachew wrote that Egypt’s insistence on its ‘current water uses’ as the baseline for calculating water impacts ‘is built on colonial-based treaties (1929 and 1959) to which Ethiopia is not a party.’

‘By seeking to protect the unjust “status-quo” on the Nile Basin, Egypt is essentially preventing any water use by other riparian countries,’ Andargachew argued. In any case, he says, Egypt’s own Aswan High Dam has proved capable of providing enough water for the country’s agricultural and industrial needs, even in drought years.

The other main outstanding issue from the negotiations is that Egypt wants dispute resolution mechanisms to be settled by binding international arbitration. Ethiopia insists on a looser arrangement where disputes would be settled as they arise through negotiations among the three countries only, as provided for in the 2015 Declaration of Principles on the dam signed by the heads of government of the three countries.

Issa says Ethiopia is basing its position on its absolute sovereign right to determine how the dam and its water should be managed. ‘But sovereignty is not absolute when you are talking about a cross-border water source.’

And he says Ethiopia’s insistence on the right to begin filling the dam probably within weeks or days – with or without an overall agreement with the downstream countries on how the water will be released – would violate the Declaration of Principles. Andargachew has rejected that interpretation of the declaration, which he says states that the first filling of the dam will be carried out in parallel with construction. ‘Hence, the filling of the dam is part of the construction.’

Is a compromise possible between such apparently intractable positions? Will Davison, Senior Analyst on Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group, has a proposal. Egypt could ease its demand for how much water Ethiopia would discharge in the case of a multi-year dry period.

And Ethiopia could be maximally generous in its offer to release predictable volumes of water from the dam’s storage during drought. It could also propose how Sudan and Egypt’s reservoirs can share the burden of mitigating any sustained period of below average flows. Meanwhile, Egypt should accept that Ethiopia has the right to develop Blue Nile projects upstream of the GERD that would reduce inflows into the dam.

As the Institute for Security Studies proposed earlier this year, this seems like a dispute the African Union (AU) should become more involved in. The discord is aggravating relations among three key AU members to dangerous levels, even threatening conflict. The continental body, through its political leadership and organs such as the Peace and Security Council and African Imminent Panel of the Wise, should proactively engage the parties to de-escalate tensions and build confidence between the Egypt and Ethiopia.

So far the AU seems only engaged to the extent that South Africa has been observing the negotiations, in its capacity as 2020 AU chair. But a substantial role for the continental body – preferably one which eventually puts the dam in the context of a wider regional development plan for the Nile – could help defuse the conflict in the longer term.

Meanwhile though, the rains are coming and the dam water levels – and tensions – will soon begin to rise. Solutions that work for all parties must be found, and quickly.

*About the author: Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

Source: This article was published by ISS Today

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The Institute for Security Studies (ISS) partners to build knowledge and skills that secure Africa’s future. Our goal is to enhance human security as a means to achieve sustainable peace and prosperity. The ISS is an African non-profit organisation with offices in South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia and Senegal.

9 thoughts on “Ethiopia’s Nile Dam Dispute Must Be Solved Soon – Analysis

  • June 29, 2020 at 2:14 pm

    Drought is a natural calamity. Ethiopia already pledged it would not fill the dam during the drought years. Egypt is insisting Ethiopia should shout the dam, go dark, suffer alone, and empty its reservoir on those drought years. Keep in mind the Egyptian dam reservoir is three times bigger than Ethiopia’s dam reservoir and has no such restrictions. Why all countries are not sharing the good years and the bad years equally? Why should we accept Egypt’s insistence of the Nile river is an Arab river and Arab water? The African countries contribute 100% but have 0% use of the water. Why the two Arab countries that provide 0% use 100% of the water? Why Egyptian’s need is depriving Africans of their resources? Its unacceptable conditions and must be changed immediately.

  • June 29, 2020 at 2:21 pm

    I found the article unbiased and balanced.
    However the facts and concerns are highlighted, I think the shortcomings could be how it remain to be reluctant to underline the attempt of influential powers to manoeuvre the dispute to achieve their interests directly or indirectly,even to complicate it further.

  • June 29, 2020 at 3:31 pm

    Without considering any ideas of any sources, Ethiopia is going to be starting GERD filling in next couple of weeks.

  • June 29, 2020 at 3:34 pm

    thre GERD built on the blue Nile should not be a source of Despute rather should be a source of cooperation and prospetity for all the three countries Egypt should consider that inorder to mitigate the noon predictable drought which is not in the hands of Ethiopia. Egypt should be a part of a solution by participating in protecting the bank of the river and its suroundings in afforstation plan that ethiopia carried out. Enough that Egypt use the Nile water with out contributing peny for the water and our fertile soil while we are starving and fond of electricity for our development.

  • June 29, 2020 at 5:31 pm

    Win-Win negotiation based on the already in place agreement – DoP is a way out. But the attitude of Egypt of “Crying for a Moon” is unacceptable.

  • June 29, 2020 at 9:29 pm

    Who will be the looser if Egypt declared war on Ethiopia?

    For many Years, Ethiopia had been marginalized from utilizing its water resources basically due to Egyptians greedy thinking on river Nile. In the 21 Century, above 65% of ethiopian population donot have access to electricity which is the basic necessity while egypt reached above 90%. In the past , Ethiopia, the mother source of Nile, was watching her blessed water resource flowing through her doorsteps flooding fertile land and were harmed instead of benefited. now the time has come that Ethiopia have to use all its available resources in order to leave its innocent people out of poverty and hunger. GERD, designed and financed by Ethiopia has become reality to make electrifying East Africa and be a sense of cooperation in the region. Egypt now is in a dream of deniying the realization of GERD and be awarmonger.

    Ethiopia, an example of brotherhood and peace keeper is also a full history of victory is ready to protect its sovergnity with in and out side the country by all available means. there is almost no possibility that Egypt practically make military attack on GERD due to a person who live inside a glass cannot throw stone to attack another guy outside the glass. if happened for the time being Ethiopia Will destroy Aswan high dam and turn Egypt in to flooded state and then Make 100% utilization of Nile Tributaries in order not to spare a single drop of water that will reach to flooded state of Egypt. Consquently, once for all We Will find Flooded state of Egypt in the continet of Asia.


  • June 30, 2020 at 12:17 am

    It is true that the dispute has to be resolved soon. The issue is how to be resolved without good justure, especially from Egypt side. Ethiopia has deprived to use its natural resource for hundreds of years while its people suffering deep rooted poverty & drought. It was with to bring some sort of changes in the livelihood of its people. Thus GERD is nothing but aimed to the stated purposes at least will avail electric power to 65 million of Ethiopian who didn’t have access and lives in darkness. It is technically proved that dam will not have siginificant impact on down stream countries. Understanding these, in the past 9 years negotation processes, they reached to remarkable consenus in most issues. But, in the recent negotion processes Egypt rather insists to maintain the colonial agreement, in which Ethiopia has not been involved and discriminted. These dovid the of its own water resources, which originates from the entire highland of its territories. These is totally un acceptable and never happend any where in the world. The funny thing is the proposed compensation the amount of for the prolonged drought to be released, that means by vertue of building the Dam Ethiopa would be responsible to cover their water scarcity by simply realse of waters from the reserviours. Who else compenste for Egypt for drought related problems before the construction of GERD. Does it mean we have built to serve as a back reservoir for Egypt. How a such claims comes in the other country resources & sovernity. It is in direct control of the dam its entire resource and colony of an independent nation. In general Egypt seems is not in the win win and mutual benefit agreement table. Or else Ethiopians, as a regious people, doesn’t want to affect any other people and its aim only for commonly shared visions and developments through mutual benefits among the three Nile reparian countries.

  • June 30, 2020 at 2:12 am

    The main sticking points in these discussions of the dam namely the GERD( Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam) which Ethiopia is constructing on he Blue Nile (known as River Abay in Ethiopia) are not very significant in these last stages of the construction of the dam.
    Foremost is Ethiopia’s decision to start filling the dam this July 2020 due to abundant rain expected during this rainy season and start operating two turbines and generate electricity. The amount of water retained will have little or no significant reduction of the water supply to both Sudan and Egypt.
    Another contested point is Ethiopia’s proposal to fill the dam in 4-7 years with due consideration to droughts which is quite feasible.
    Further point is that Sudan and Egypt insist on keeping the supply of water constant to themselves during drought by using the
    GERD which Ethiopia thinks unfair since the drought will affect all of them and is not obliged to compensate for their loss.
    Sudan and Egypt also insist that filling the dam should only start after all agreements on the dam are finalized and Ethiopia believes agreements can be finalized with the work on in progress which is a quite feasible.
    Finally Ethiopia opposes the inclusion of other countries in the operation and management of the dam. This problem can be solved by forming a technical committee which will supervise all the dams built on the Nile and make recommendations whenever necessary.
    I hope these problems will be ironed out
    in light of common goodwill and cooperation between the concerned countries in the context of Africa Union and regional peace and development.


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