In the fifth century BC, Greek historian Herodotus visited Egypt and traveled along the Nile river from Egypt to Ethiopia. He famously called Egypt the “gift of the Nile” because he realized that the Egyptian Kingdom owed its survival to the annual flooding of the river, which brought fertility to the soil and nourished the people living around it.

The Nile has remained the lifeline of Egypt’s civilizations since ancient times. The country’s 102 million citizens still rely on the river for 97 percent of their irrigation and drinking water. The river is also a critical resource for Sudan, where the Roseires Dam and Sennar Dams produce 80 percent of the country’s power.

Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia share the water of the Blue Nile, one of the two tributaries of the River Nile. Therefore, Egypt and Sudan have serious concerns about Ethiopia unilaterally controlling the flow of the Blue Nile through the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which it began constructing in 2011.

Almost ten years of negotiations between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt over Ethiopia’s construction of GERD – have failed to resolve the discord.

Both countries insist that a binding legal agreement on how Ethiopia will operate the new dam should be reached before the reservoir is filled. Yet, almost ten years of negotiations between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt over Ethiopia’s construction of GERD – have failed to resolve the discord, causing worries of a potential conflict.

Mohamed Nasr Allam, former Egyptian Minister of Water Resources, explained to Inside Arabia that the Ethiopian side has taken a slippery approach in negotiations. “We spent about nine years negotiating without reaching an agreement on rules of operating and filling the Ethiopian dam,” he said.

“Then the United States intervened and facilitated a meeting in Washington that resulted in almost common conclusions about different rules under different hydraulic regimes: high, average floods, and drought conditions,” Allam added. “But on the scheduled day for signing an agreement, Ethiopia did not attend.”

Existential Threat

Allam reiterated that the Blue Nile is shared by the three countries and is subjected to a 1997 UN agreement. The accord – detailing equitable and reasonable utilization of the water source – stipulates taking all appropriate measures to prevent causing significant harm to other watercourse states. He said Egypt and Sudan have deep concerns over projected impairment to both countries if Ethiopia’s dam results in decreasing their respective water quotas.

Egypt Sudan Ethiopia

In this Thursday, May 14, 2015 file photo, a young boy irrigates rice seedlings before they are transferred to a bigger farm, in the Nile Delta town of Behira, 186 miles north of Cairo. Egypt relies on the river for 97 percent of its irrigation and drinking water. (AP Photo/Mosa’ab Elshamy, File)

“Ethiopia receives 1,000 billion cubic meters of rainfall per year, Egypt gets 55.5 billion, and Sudan gets 18 billion cubic meters. The per capita share of water in Egypt is 500 cubic meters per person, which is about 50 percent of the water poverty index determined by the World Bank, so it’s an existential threat to reduce Egypt’s share by [completing] the Ethiopian dam,” Allam added.

The Ethiopian Ambassador to Egypt, Markos Tekle, disagrees with this assessment. “Our focus now is on filling and operating the dam and making sure that it will not cause significant harm to the downstream countries. Therefore, I don’t know why it [is considered] an existential threat either to Sudan or Egypt right now,” he told Inside Arabia.

Addressing the United Nations Security Council, earlier this year, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry described the Ethiopian dam as “a threat of potentially existential proportions,” in an address to the United Nations Security Council earlier this year. He asserted that Egypt would “uphold and protect the vital interests of its people,” stating that “survival is not a question of choice, but an imperative of nature.”

[Could Ethiopia and Sudan Engage in Conflict over a Border Dispute?]

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

Potential Water War 

The three countries have been at odds since 2011, when Ethiopia started building the dam across the Blue Nile, at an estimated cost of US$4 billion.

In early April, Ethiopian Water Minister Seleshi Bekele reportedly said: “We are not utilizing water generated from Egypt or Sudan and Ethiopia, as water doesn’t flow upstream to Ethiopia.” Bekele added that Ethiopia could not enter into an agreement that infringes on its rights to utilize the Nile.

David Des Roches, an Associate Professor at the Near East Center for Strategic Studies, described such a position as provocation for an escalation.

“That is really discouraging because it is basically a sort of absolutist position. It means ‘what is in our country is ours and whatever we allow to go downstream, be happy for it,’” Des Roches told Inside Arabia. “Unfortunately, the Ethiopian position is one that greatly concerns Egypt which is so dependent on the Nile, and the Egyptians can’t just grin and bear it.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has repeatedly called on Ethiopia not to compromise Egypt’s share of Nile water, saying “all options are open.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has repeatedly called on Ethiopia not to compromise Egypt’s share of Nile water, saying “all options are open” and stressing that “cooperation is better than fighting.” He said earlier in April that failing to resolve the dam crisis would negatively impact the security and stability of the region.

Egypt has already started a diplomatic campaign through an African tour by its Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, to brief leaders of several countries on Ethiopia’s reluctance to reach a binding legal agreement on filling and operating its dam.

However, Tekle, the Ethiopian Ambassador in Cairo, told Inside Arabia that his country is cooperating and compromising. “We have revised the filling of our dam from three years, to five to seven years’ time, therefore Ethiopia is negotiating in good faith despite a lot of rhetoric by the media in Cairo and Khartoum.”

But when asked about the core problem of water shares for Egypt and Sudan, he revealed an Ethiopian intention to deliberate on the matter going forward. “That is another topic to be negotiated separately, we did not have any kind of agreement on quotas in the past, so we can discuss this topic in the future,” Tekle said.

Allam, the former Egyptian Minister of Water Resources, disagrees with the Ethiopian Ambassador’s assumption. “While Ethiopia was not a party to the 1959 agreement that assigned Nile water shares for Egypt and Sudan, the Ethiopian Emperor Menilik signed another treaty with Great Britain on behalf of Egypt and Sudan in 1902, pledging not to affect the Blue Nile flow to the downstream countries,” he explained.

Professor Des Roches believes that Egypt is trying to bring in international powers to mediate and influence Ethiopia to moderate its rigid position, in an attempt to reduce the chance of war breaking out. But if such efforts fail, and push comes to shove, there could be a military conflict over the dam.

“Egypt has a very capable military, and if they are operating in conjunction with Sudan, they obviously would be able to stage raids in and out.”

“Egypt has a very capable military, and if they are operating in conjunction with Sudan, they obviously would be able to stage raids in and out. I think aerial bombardment from Sudanese bases could be done without having to refuel,” Des Roches said.

However, he warns that in the long term this would be a loss for Egypt because Ethiopia would probably invest in significant air defense capabilities and rebuild what was damaged.

Moreover, the national Egyptian debt in 2020 was nearly 90 percent of the country’s GDP, suggesting another sober outcome of any Egyptian military actions. If military operations against Ethiopia dragged on for a long time, it would eventually increase the financial burden on Egypt.

In an article in Foreign Policy, Egypt’s Ambassador to the U.S., Motaz Zahran, said that the Biden administration has to play a role to prevent such a conflict. “The United States has the leverage needed to successfully encourage Ethiopia to engage in good faith in the GERD negotiations, and to refrain from unilateral actions and the pursuit of narrow self-interests, which have been detrimental to its neighbors’ legitimate interests.”

Ultimately, as tensions between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan increase, without an international push to break the deadlocked GERD negotiations, the Ethiopian dam could end up being the curse of the Nile.

  • Latest Update, May 5, 2021:  Today, as part of a new push by the Biden administration to find a solution to the conflict, Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, held talks with President Sisi and other Egyptian officials. This was the first leg of a tour that will also take him to Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia from May 4 to 13.