Ethiopia’s announcement on 21 July that it had already filled its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) to its first year’s target has temporarily quelled tensions between it, Egypt and Sudan. The GERD, which will be the largest dam in Africa when completed, has been a source of great tension between these three states since it was initially announced in April 2011. Sudan and Egypt, downstream from Ethiopia on the Nile River, regard the dam as a threat to their water security and dominance over the Nile. But the current easing of tensions is temporary. The three countries will return to talks, under the auspices of the African Union (AU), to negotiate future filling of the GERD and the conclusion of a comprehensive agreement. This will be no easy task, especially since Cairo stubbornly insists that it is entitled to the bulk of the Nile water, and should have a veto over upstream dam construction or other developments. This attitude, which originates in the British colonial era, is, however, incompatible with the changing balance of power in the Nile Basin and with international norms regarding water-sharing.

Historic overview

The two tributaries of the Nile flow through eleven countries, and are relied upon by over forty per cent of the African continent’s population. Its small capacity (eighty-four billion cubic metres relative to other large rivers, such as the Amazon River (5 500 billion cubic meters), Congo River (1 250 billion cubic meters), and even the Niger River (180 billion cubic meters), and large number of dependent people and countries means that it has often been seen as having the potential to create conflict. This is especially since two downstream states, Egypt and Sudan, individually receive less than twenty-five millimetres of rain annually, thus contributing little to nothing to the river, but consuming more of its water than any of the other Nile riparian states. Egypt, particularly, is dependent on the Nile for over ninety-five per cent of its fresh water and irrigation needs. 

The Nile River originates through two main sources, Lake Victoria (bordered by Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya) giving rise to the White Nile, and Lake Tana in Ethiopia, the source of the Blue Nile, with feeder tributaries from Rwanda and Burundi. The White Nile comprises around fifteen per cent of the river, and the other eighty-five per cent is the Blue Nile. Both tributaries meet in Khartoum, Sudan, and then flow into Egypt. Egypt, South Sudan, Sudan and Ethiopia are very highly dependent on the Nile; Uganda is highly dependent; Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya and Burundi are moderately dependent on it; and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has a low dependence on it. 

Although the Nile has, for thousands of years, played a critical role in the lives of communities through which it flows, two more recent factors have influenced its current water usage: British colonisation of most of the area comprising the basin, and, thereafter, Egyptian attempts to ‘secure’ the river for itself. In relation to British colonialism, two main treaties regarding the Nile were agreed upon, one between Egypt and Britain, which, at the time, ruled many of the upstream states such as Tanzania and Uganda, and the other between Egypt and the Sudan. Egypt continues to cite these colonial-era treaties as its justification to deflect attempts to make Nile usage more equitable. The 1929 treaty recognised Egypt’s ‘natural’ and ‘historic’ rights to the river, and affording it the major share of the water. The treaty also tasked Egypt with monitoring the river, and gave it a veto vote over any Nile projects in upstream states. 

The second treaty, signed in 1959 by Egypt and the Sudan, renewed the 1929 treaty, granting Sudan the use of four billion cubic metres of water, and Egypt 48 billion. This second treaty hinted at the possibility of other states sharing the water, but Sudan and Egypt would first have to agree to such usage. The water allocation to Sudan and Egypt has since been revised upwards as a result of the construction of the High Aswan Dam in Egypt, and the Roseires Dam in Sudan. Sudan is now allotted 18.5 billion cubic meters, and Egypt 55 billion. The two countries have historically negotiated between themselves regarding the building of dams in either of their territories, and regarding water allocations, and they have generally adopted a common stance in negotiations with upstream states. In light of the clean slate and Nyerere Doctrines on treaty succession, both of which assert that newly-independent states can choose which colonial era treaties to remain bound by, the legitimacy of the 1929 and 1959 treaties is questionable.

Egypt is almost totally dependent on the Nile, especially since ninety-seven per cent of its population resides in the Nile valley; it is reliant on the river for over ninety-five per cent of its fresh water needs. The Egyptian state therefore threatened to use force to secure the river’s flow through its territory. In order to do so, both Egypt and Sudan even supported Ethiopian rebel groups, including the Eritrean and Tikrayan liberation movements, to weaken the country. This ultimately led to the 1993 secession of Eritrea. Egypt also pressured financial institutions to refrain from funding dam construction projects in upper riparian states. Thus, even if they had wanted to, it was no financially not possible for most Nile basin states to carry out construction on the river.

Political and power balance alterations

Since the mid-1990s, the power balance in the region has been shifting. Ethiopia has strengthened politically, economically and militarily, while Egypt and Sudan have weakened. Sudan split into two entities in 2011, with the Republic of Sudan losing much of its oil and agricultural resources to the new South Sudan state. Funding difficulties were alleviated for some states with the entry of China into the continent; it funded a number of dam projects, including the Tana Belez and Tekez dams in Ethiopia and the Marowe Dam in Sudan. Furthermore, the global discourse around water usage has changed. Whereas treaties and hard power had previously been the norm, human security and equity are now increasingly being promoted. The Helsinki and Berlin rules on water usage developed by the international law association, and the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, emphasise equity in water usage allowances. 

A combination of these factors resulted in the 1999 creation of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), between the ten countries through which the Nile traversed. The NBI’s aim was to achieve sustainable socioeconomic development through the equitable utilisation of the Nile. A new water-sharing framework, the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA or Entebbe agreement) was conceptualised to replace the outdated 1959 treaty. Although Egyptian and Sudanese opposition stalled the process, it was adopted since upstream states had a majority of members The CFA provided for Nile water to be shared equitably among all Nile Basin countries while causing as little harm to downstream counties as possible. It also stipulated that upstream countries would no longer require Egypt’s consent for water projects. Water security rather than ‘historical rights’ would be the criterion for water usage, according to Article 14B of the CFA, resulting in it being vehemently opposed by Egypt and Sudan. They claimed this had crossed a ‘red line’, and Egypt predicted that it lead to the NBI’s collapse. Six states – Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia – have signed the agreement, making it legally enforceable.

GERD and its consequences

Following the overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Ethiopia saw an opportunity to assert itself in the matter of the Nile. In April 2011, it announced the creation of the Millennium Dam, now known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The idea had previously been touted by the US National Bureau of Reclamation in 1966, in response to Soviet funding of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam, as part of the US-Soviet proxy war in Africa. The proposed dam was conceived as a strong source of hydroelectrical power for the country, which could supply over 6 000 megawatts annually. Sixty-five million of Ethiopia’s 110-million population could receive energy from it. Former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi also asserted that it would be used to irrigate 500 000 hectares of land. However, Addis Ababa subsequently asserted that it would used solely for electricity generation.

Funding for the dam was generated through a variety of measures, including the issuance of bonds to Ethiopian citizens and businesses, and public servants being docked a month’s salary. Wealthy Ethiopian businesspeople such as Mohammed Al-Amoudi also invested in the project, but this was minimal compared to the amount raised through public funding. Ethiopia thus did not require foreign funding, a factor Egypt had initially hoped would prevent the project going ahead. Costing around five billion dollars, the dam is being built in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia, about twenty kilometres away from the Sudanese border. It will be the largest dam on the continent, the tenth largest in the world, and its reservoir will hold around seventy-four-billion cubic metres of water once completed. Originally planned to be completed in 2017, delays and the suicide of its chief engineer meant that it is currently only seventy per cent complete. The current level of completion did, however, allow filling to begin in 2020. 

Egypt and Sudan have opposed the dam from the planning stages, arguing for their ‘historical right’ to determine the Nile’s usage. Egypt insisted it would impair the Nile’s flow, and the electricity generation capacity of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam. Some studies, which were confirmed by Ethiopian officials during negotiations, put the losses at between eight and twenty billion cubic metres annually, accounting for between twenty and forty per cent of the Blue Nile’s flow to Sudan and then Egypt, which could drastically impact fresh water access for Egypt’s ninety million people. Further, the Aswan High Dam’s electricity generation capacity will drop by between twenty-five and forty per cent. However, this risk will be realised only if Ethiopia fills the dam in four years. Although this was the original intention, Ethiopia subsequently agreed to fill it in seven to nine years. Tensions came to a head in May 2013, when Ethiopia diverted the river’s course to facilitate the dam construction. Egyptian politicians in a parliamentary meeting, accidentally livestreamed by Egyptian television, called for the bombing of the dam and Egyptian support to rebel groups to destabilise Ethiopia. Both Ethiopia and Sudan condemned the calls.

Sudan subsequently dropped its opposition to the GERD in December 2013, mainly because it would also benefit with increased electricity supply through its connection to Ethiopia’s electricity grid. The dam would also regulate the flow of the river to South Sudan and Sudan, thus reducing floods during the rainy seasons and enabling Sudan to increase crop rotations to three times annually from the current once a year. It would also reduce sediment flow; currently, Sudan is able to use only half the water capacity of the Saddar and Roseires dams because of sediment. Sudan uses only around twelve billion of its eighteen billion cubic metre water allocation from the Nile, even though it is a water scarce country; the Sudanese are less dependent on Nile waters than Egypt. Sudan is also less dependent on the Blue Nile, whose flow Ethiopia will impede, because the White Nile, unaffected by the GERD also flows through it.

Sudan’s changed position, together with Ethiopia’s obduracy, forced Egypt to also alter its position. I August 2014, Cairo acquiesced to the GERD’s construction, insisting on an expert panel’s technical analysis of the dam’s impact, but dropping its demand that construction be halted until the completion of the analysis. This paved the way for a March 2015 agreement, the ‘Agreement on Declaration of Principles between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on the GERDP’ The agreement recognised that Sudan and Egypt would be impacted by the dam’s construction, but stipulated water sharing among the three states. Principle four of the ten-principle declaration also acknowledged usage rights based on river drainage; Ethiopia has the third largest land drainage of the whole river, including its Blue and White branches, after Sudan and South Sudan. The agreement further clarified that the dam would only be used for electricity generation and not irrigation, which was a victory for Egypt. However, it implicitly excluded the International Court of Justice from adjudicating on the dam’s legality, instead proposing for mediation and negotiations in the case of differences. Egyptian politicians had touted the ICJ as a means of delaying and halting the GERD’s construction. By endorsing the agreement, Cairo acquiesced to the validity of the GERD’s construction, and, since then, has sought only to ensure that the filling period is extended as much as possible.

Following the election of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister of Ethiopia in April 2018, relations further warmed between Cairo and Addis Ababa, especially since Abiy has been, in general, critical of dam projects. He argued that such projects were used for ‘political expediency’. At a 2018 summit between him and Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, Abiy told Sisi that he would never harm Egyptians, a comment seen by Egyptians as an acknowledgement of his opposition to the GERD.

Current situation

Despite Ethiopia’s assertion that it has already filled the dam to its first year carrying capacity, agreement on its ongoing filling has not yet been concluded. Taking advantage of the heavy rains, Addis Ababa rapidly filled the dam unilaterally in about two weeks, causing much consternation in Sudan, which saw its dam levels drop, and Egypt.

In November 2019, Egypt had roped in Washington and the World Bank to mediate. The US Trump administration continues to see Cairo as an important ally, and thus supported its position during negotiations. A draft ‘agreement’ on the filling process, signed only by Egypt in February 2020, was criticised by Addis Ababa. Abiy’s mind seems to have changed on both his previous willingness to negotiate, and his previous opposition to dams, especially after Cairo’s attempts to involve the USA in negotiations, and because of his loss of domestic support.

There remain a number of contentious issues regarding the dam. One of them is about the period of the filling of the dam. Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia agree that it should be phased, with the first phase spread over two years and the dam being filled to a depth of 595 metres, thus allowing for small-scale electricity generation and testing. Egypt, however, insists that Ethiopia releases over forty billion cubic metres of water each year, while Ethiopia wants to release thirty-billion cubic metres. Egypt currently receives forty-seven to forty-nine billion cubic metres of water from the Blue Nile annually. Ethiopia has conceded to providing a maximum of thirty-seven billion cubic metres annually, an amount Egypt will probably have to reluctantly accept. Addis Ababa is concerned that Cairo also wants it to empty the GERD’s reservoir to supplement the river’s flow in times of drought.

The parties have also not yet agreed on a monitoring and dispute resolution mechanism to ensure compliance. The UN asserts that the legality and binding nature of a possible agreement has not yet been agreed upon by all parties. Egypt and Sudan want the agreement to be legally binding and enforceable, while Ethiopia is wary that this may constrain it in the future, especially since it has a growing economy and because the GERD provides only one-fifth of the possible energy it could generate from the Nile.

Negotiations are being made more difficult by Egypt and Ethiopia both viewing the dam as an existential matter for their regimes. Article Forty-Four of Egypt’s constitution tasks the state with protecting the country’s ‘historic right’ to the Nile. Sisi already received much backlash for handing over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia in June 2017, including from Egyptian nationalists and military officials who saw his act as a betrayal of Egypt’s territorial claims. He would be careful about creating another such scandal. With Egypt’s population predicted to rise to 150 million by 2050, the country will become even more dependent on the Nile for its survival. Egypt’s annual water capacity per capita is already predicted to be forced to diminish from 570 cubic metres per person annually to 500 cubic metres in the coming years as a result of climate change. 

Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, the fact that many Ethiopians purchased GERD bonds to fund the building of the dam means that the regime has minimal wiggle room. Popular songs have been written in support of the dam, with some likening its construction to the 1896 battle of Adwa, when Ethiopians united to defeat Italian colonisers. The current domestic political context worsens the situation. Abiy’s popularity is waning, and the decision to postpone elections to 2021 has been criticised. Further, in recent weeks, the assassination of popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa sparked riots in Oromia, with the Oromo people, who comprise a third of the country’s population, arguing that the prime minister was not benefiting them. Abiy thus sanctioned the filling of the dam unilaterally, without obtaining consent from Sudan and Egypt as the two countries had expected, partly in an attempt to deflect from his domestic travails. His unstable position will likely influence any negotiations regarding the second year’s filling process, and will likely be deployed in electoral campaigns, making compromise less likely.

Sudan, on the other hand, has adopted a more balanced approach, siding with Ethiopia and refusing to agree to a March 2020 Arab League resolution condemning the GERD. Although largely agreeing with Egypt regarding the GERD’s filling and the need for a binding agreement, Khartoum has recently indicated a further willingness to compromise. It has conceded that Ethiopia will have to have flexibility regarding releasing water from the reservoir during drought, and also accepted that Addis Ababa might want to build more dams on the Nile in the future. However, it wants an agreement between the three states to be binding and enforceable. Moreover, consistent with the emphasis on ‘historic rights’, Sudan wants Ethiopia to notify it and Egypt before any dam construction.

Ethiopia and Sudan requested the AU, in June, to mediate between the three states. This was after the failures of trilateral negotiations between the states themselves, and after Ethiopia accused the USA of being biased towards Egypt. Before this, the AU had been relatively uninvolved in the GERD issue, calling on the states to negotiate among themselves. Some commentators argue that the continental body did not want to be involved in mediating a conflict between two powerful member states, especially since this would inevitably be perceived as it siding with one side if an agreement was not concluded. Following a failed first round of AU mediation at the end of June, which was to result in an agreement within two weeks thereafter, the three countries again announced, on 22 July, their willingness to accept AU mediation. The issues under mediation are especially contentious since they may be precedent-setting, and upsetting either Egypt or Ethiopia is not what the AU would want. However, successfully dealing with the Nile matter can position the AU as a serious continental structure that can resolve conflicts even between its strongest members, especially after external structures and foreign states were unable to bring the matter to conclusion.

 

Conclusion

The AU’s involvement in the Nile dispute has the potential to both resolve the matter, and enhance the reputation of the body. However, while on many substantive issues the parties have come closer, there remains much ground still to be covered and many disputes still requiring compromises. Ethiopia’s unilateral filling of the dam and its announcement that the first year filling process has completed has deescalated the situation temporarily, giving the AU some breathing space to address the more with cooler heads. However, a few of the serious issues will continue to make negotiations difficult. Whether the agreement should be legally enforceable, and whether Ethiopia should accept Cairo’s demand to release large water reserves during droughts are among those thorny issues.

It is highly unlikely that differences over the GERD issue could result in military conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia, despite the rhetoric from both sides. Cairo is involved in a seemingly-unwinnable conflict against the Islamic State group’s ‘Sinai province’, and is getting itself mired in Libya. It is unlikely that it will want to open up a third front. Moreover, the balance of power in the Nile is shifting, with Ethiopia gaining influence regionally and continentally. Addis Ababa’s confidentially filling up the dam unilaterally in the past few months, without any consequences, clearly indicates this shift.

A comprehensive solution will need to be based on the Entebbe agreement if it is to have a chance of long-term success. Egypt will need to give up on its insistence that it has a ‘historic right’ to the Nile waters, and on its demand that upstream states obtain its approval before undertaking construction projects on the river. Climate change, coupled with the increasing growth of countries such as Tanzania and Ethiopia, will result in these states seek to use the river’s water much more than previously to sustain their growing populations.

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