Since 2011, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia have been negotiating an agreement on the filling and operating of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), intended to be the largest source of hydroelectric power in Africa, with a capacity of 6,500 megawatts.

Ethiopia considers the dam necessary for its economic development, while Egypt deems it a serious threat to its water supply, as the Nile provides about 95 percent of the water it needs for domestic, agricultural, and industrial use. Although Egypt and Sudan depend on the Nile for their water supply, 85 percent of the river flows in Ethiopia.

According to reports by the Central Statistical Agency, the Blue Nile has a total length of 1,450 kilometres (900 mi), of which 800 kilometres (500 mi) are inside Ethiopia.

Water conflicts between these three countries date back to the year 1980, when the Transitional Military Council in Ethiopia filed a complaint with the African Union against Egypt, after former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat had announced the resumption of a project aimed at diverting Nile waters to the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula.

Egypt and Sudan have called on the international community to prevent Addis Ababa from a second filling of GERD.

Now 41 years later, Egypt and Sudan have called on the international community to intervene and prevent Addis Ababa from a second filling of GERD, a plan it announced in July 2021. In order to explore this issue, it’s important to look at the historical factors and the current stances of the parties directly and indirectly involved—which all suggest a long road towards any resolution.

Timeline of Events

In May 2010, the Cooperative Framework Agreement was signed between some Nile Basin countries (Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi) to achieve sustainable use of Nile resources, which was rejected by Egypt and Sudan. In April 2011, Ethiopia announced the project to build a hydropower dam. The same year, Egypt and Sudan agreed to form an international committee to study the effects of the new dam.

In 2015, a document titled “Declaration of Principles for the Renaissance Dam” was signed in Khartoum between the three countries. However, when a final report about the dam was published in 2017, a dispute erupted over its assessment, which was accepted by Egypt, but rejected by Ethiopia and Sudan.

In 2018 , Egypt proposed to involve the World Bank in the Tripartite Committee, but Ethiopia refused. This prompted Egypt in 2019 to inform Ethiopia of its rules for filling and operating the dam. In October of the same year, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared that “no force can stop” his country from building the Renaissance Dam.

Meanwhile, the US attempted to mediate by hosting the three parties, in the presence of American representatives and the World Bank. However, these meetings ended without any agreement. In June 2020, Egypt requested the intervention of the UN Security Council. That month, the African Union announced its sponsorship of the negotiations, supported by the UN Security Council.

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi meets Chairman of the Sovereignty Council of Sudan, Gen. Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhan,  in Khartoum, Sudan, March. 6, 2021. The leaders spoke on their ongoing dispute with Ethiopia over the Grand Renaissance Dam.

[Dam Wars: Are Conflicts over Water Looming in the Middle East?]

[Tensions with Egypt and Sudan Could Make Ethiopia’s Dam the ‘Curse of the Nile’]

[Egypt and Ethiopia Edge Toward Conflict Without a Deal on Nile Dam]

On July 5, 2021, Ethiopia announced the start of the second filling of the dam, despite the objections of Egypt and Sudan. This process was completed on July 19.

Ethiopia has always maintained that the sole aim of the dam is to generate electricity, meaning that sufficient water will continue streaming down to Egypt. The state declared that politicizing and internationalizing the Dam negotiations is not necessary and will hinder the cooperative process.

Both Egypt and Sudan reject any unilateral action taken by Ethiopia and view the dam as a grave threat to their Nile water supply. This is especially true for Egypt, which almost entirely depends on the river and is already plagued by chronic water scarcity.

Egypt continuously refers to its “historical rights,” based on a 1959 treaty in which Sudan and Egypt gave themselves exclusive rights to all of the Nile’s waters.

Egypt continuously refers to its “historical rights,” based on a 1959 treaty in which Sudan and Egypt gave themselves exclusive rights to all of the Nile’s waters. Neither Egypt nor Sudan signed the Cooperative Framework Agreement, a treaty signed by the upper riparian states in 2010.

Egypt and Sudan want joint management of the Renaissance Dam, without having played any role or participated in any way in its financing or construction. Ethiopia views this as an infringement of its sovereignty and believes that their rights are limited to the access and exchange of information and guidelines for the operation of the dam.

A Symbol of Cooperation or Dispute?

Many commentators agree that Ethiopia has succeeded in bringing most of the Nile Basin countries to its side, tempting them with electricity exports. It even offered to sell some of the 6,000 megawatts to Egypt in 2013. On the other hand, Egypt and Sudan have failed to convince the international community – particularly the US, UN Security Council, UK, and EU – to intervene and put pressure on Ethiopia to stop the second filling of GERD.

Mada Masr, an independent Egyptian online newspaper, spoke to a number of former and current Egyptian officials who attributed Egypt’s mismanagement in handling this crisis to the “lack of a coherent strategy — with decision-making often oscillating between tactics of compromise and confrontation — combined with frequent internal disagreements and regional political miscalculations.”

Indeed, Cairo admits that a 1984 irrigation law has never been updated and recently announced a four-point plan to mitigate water shortages.

In a telephone interview, Ethiopian expert Moussa Shikho told Inside Arabia that Egypt does not want to address the real reasons for the dispute, which according to him are the following:

The historical share claimed by Egypt of the Nile waters, based on the 1959 treaty, is unacceptable to Ethiopia because it was not even a party to this treaty. Moreover, Egypt’s share of the Nile water is 55 billion cubic meters, and Sudan’s 18.5 billion cubic meters. These amounts would equal the water storage behind the Renaissance Dam, leaving Ethiopia with no share at all.

The historical share claimed by Egypt of the Nile waters is unacceptable to Ethiopia because it was not a party to the treaty.

Inside Arabia also spoke with Dr. Hani Raslan, head of the Sudan and Nile Basin Studies Program at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Egypt. Raslan does not believe that Egypt is on the losing end, although Ethiopia has achieved success at this stage of the crisis by maintaining negotiations within the framework of the African Union. However, Egypt submitted a 95-page file to guarantee its right to take the measures it deems appropriate in the event of any damage to Egypt, especially during periods of drought. He also emphasized that Egypt’s demands are based on its rights guaranteed by international law, with regard to arrangements for “cross-border” waters, which Ethiopia insists on ignoring.

The possible impact of the dam is a highly technical matter affecting not only the volumes of water involved, sedimentation, soil salinity, surface and groundwater levels, but also the effects on existing downstream dams, crop yields, and environmental repercussions including the presence and survival of crocodiles.

Nevertheless, scientific studies are far from unanimous and often lead to fierce debate. For example, a study titled “Water Deficit in Egypt and Suggested Mitigation Policies for the Scenarios of Filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam,” – conducted by the University of Southern California, in cooperation with Cornell University and NASA, under the supervision of the Egyptian space scientist at NASA, Dr. Essam Hajji – concluded that Egypt might lose 40 percent of its current water usage if no agreement is reached. This would result in a 72 percent decline in agricultural land and a 25 percent rise in unemployment.

However, in a scientific evaluation of this study, Abbas Sharaki, Professor of Geology at Cairo University, commented that Egypt would not be affected, and that the examination was based on “an inductive research in which data were collected from previous research and did not use American tools, laboratories and satellites.” In turn, Dr. Hajji refuted this assessment.

“If Egypt would not be harmed, why did we knock on the door of the European Union, America, the [UN] Security Council, and the African Union, asking for mediation with Ethiopia?” Dr. Hajji asked. Still, he advised that Egypt must get out of the state of tension and enter the stage of cooperation to save the Nile River.

In a latest development, the three countries have accepted mediation by Algeria.

In a latest development, the three countries have accepted mediation by Algeria. And in the short term, risks of an armed conflict seem to have subsided. Notwithstanding Egypt’s threats to deploy military muscle – possibly meant for local consumption only – a first water war did not materialize.

Whereas former US president Trump wholeheartedly supported “blowing up the dam,” the Biden administration apparently advocates restraint and recently praised Egypt for its “constructive role” in Middle East security, explicitly mentioning GERD amongst other issues. It is worth mentioning that the US supports Cairo with US$1.3 billion in military assistance annually.

In the long term, however, and despite all the calls for dialogue, a sustainable solution for this crisis seems out of reach for now, given the intransigence of the parties involved. Furthermore, considering population growth, increasing domestic, agricultural, and industrial usage, and global warming, one seasonal drought may be more than sufficient to light the fuse of the powder keg.