Video analysis: “The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: A water conflict along the Nile River”

Located in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia is the continent’s oldest independent country and the second largest in terms of population with almost 120 million inhabitants.

Although the country has one of the fastest growing economies in the region, it is one of the poorest countries in Africa. Ethiopia is not able to provide enough energy to its population thereby hindering its economic potential and the well-being of its people [1]

There is, however, a solution to this problem: a hydroelectric dam that will generate almost 16’000 GWh a year – the equivalent of four nuclear power plants. [2] [3] Known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (in short GERD), construction was started in 2011 and has essentially been completed, making it the largest hydroelectric dam on the African continent.

The GERD transforms the water course of the Blue Nile into energy – energy that will allow Ethiopia to provide electricity to its own inhabitants as well as exporting it to its neighbouring countries. The cost of this project amounts to about $5 billion and is funded by government bonds and private donations. [4]

Standing 655 m tall and almost 2 km long, the dam is near completion and already in use; a fact that has strained relations for countries along the Nile River, especially Egypt. [5] Egypt initially did not want Ethiopia to build the dam out of fear it could endanger its water supply. Debate rages over how fast the dam should be filled, what to do in times of drought and basically who has the right to control the Nile.

“This is what the Egyptians were worried about: that the construction of the dam would interfere with water flowing from the Blue Nile into the Nile River. But that problem would only occur during the time the dam is being filled. If the period for filling the dam is extended perhaps to as long as seven years, then the impact on water going to the Nile would not be very significant”, stated Mr. Mbaku, Brady Presidential Distinguished professor of economics and John S. Hinckley Fellow at Weber State University.

Another country caught in the middle of this dispute, both geographically and politically, is Sudan. It also depends on the Nile, albeit to a lesser degree. As a traditional ally of Egypt, Sudan initially opposed the construction of the Dam but soon realized that it has more to gain from it.

 One of the GERDs greatest benefits for Sudan is the ability to expand agricultural production by better regulating annual floods. In 2020, the floods caused the death of 103 people and the loss of thousands of head of livestock and agricultural inputs. [6] [7] Much of the flooding was triggered by heavy seasonal rains in Ethiopia.

Additionally, the dam will bring cheap electricity to millions of households [8], and it is in Ethiopia’s best interest to find external consumers for the hydroelectric power it will generate. Sudan represents a potential top export market.

However, Ethiopia has rejected any binding legal agreement towards its neighbors on filling and operating the Dam. Consequently, despite the benefits, Sudan joined Egypt to request the UN Security Council’s intervention to solve this dispute. [9] At issue in this dispute are historic claims based on colonial policies and an agreement signed in 1959 between Egypt and Sudan [10], which ignored the water rights of the other riparian countries – including Ethiopia. Despite the fact it contributes 80% of the total Nile flow, Ethiopia has been denied a spot at the negotiating table. [11]

Due to its location on the Nile Delta, Egypt is the actor that has the most at stake in this conflict. It is one of the world’s most water-poor countries, and Ethiopia controls 85% of its freshwater supplies, which is not a favourable geopolitical situation. [12]

Out of Egypt’s population of 100 million people, 90% of them are squeezed into the Nile valley. Therefore, Egypt is heavily reliant on these waters for drinking, farming, trading, and communication.  However, while the population expands, water fades away. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN forecasted that Egypt would cross the threshold of “absolute water scarcity” by 2030. [13]

Egypt faces two main unsolved questions:

1.   The speed with which Ethiopia fills up the dam’s reservoir: the faster, the less water will flow to Egypt

2.   To what extent Egypt can trust Ethiopia’s promises that the Dam won’t harm Egyptian water supplies. 

In the media landscape of both countries the dam’s construction has taken on a nationalistic tone. Ethiopians see it as a symbol of national pride while Egyptians see it as an existential threat that needs to be countered at any cost.

Egypt considered using military force to halt the Dam’s construction but for now only sought international support through dialogue, bilateral negotiations and diplomacy. Up to today, its efforts have been in vain. [14] The Dam is built, and Ethiopia started filling the reservoir last summer. [15]

 The GERD represents for Egypt a national security concern and an existential threat which spurs for political violence. Last October, U.S. president Trump assured that Egypt would ‘blow up’ the dam if no agreement was reached. [16]

In the meantime, Egypt should undertake reforms to secure its water supply. For instance, more than 85% of its water goes to thirsty crops, such as cotton or sugarcane, through inefficient open-field irrigation. [17] Switching to more efficient crops and fixing infrastructures that wastewater could go a long way.

For now, Cairo has stayed on the path of diplomacy. However, all three countries need to find a way to collaborate over sharing the Nile to avoid the outbreak of a conflict. [18]While the dam itself is a done deal, agreements must be reached on what to do in times of drought. Many factors have to be considered, such as growing populations, the need of electricity and climate change. If this is not done, future droughts have the potential to spark conflicts over water.

“There is a possibility for an agreement. The only problem that I see is that the leaders of both countries do not want to lose faith international; they don’t want people to think of them as being weak, and I think that’s a big problem that leaders for both countries have but which they have to understand that the only way forward is forcont them to sit down and talk to each other. Going to war would not benefit them because the water is in Ethiopia. So, the approach to the Nile River should be a Regional one; not one in which one country is always fighting with the other. So, if these countries involved in this conflict are able to get together, they could come up with an arrangement they can manage the water in such a way that it will benefit all of them”, concluded Mr. Mbaku.

By: Marisa López, Duncan Moore and Johannes Luigi M. Kunz Saponaro

Master students in Geopolitics and Strategic Studies at University Carlos III of Madrid Subject: Workshop on Geopolitical and Strategic Reports


[1] “Ethiopia Country Profile.” BBC News, BBC, 5 Nov. 2020. Retrieved January 2, 2021 from  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13349398

[2] Gebregiorgis, Abebe Sine, and Semu Ayalew Moges. Optimal Power Production of GERD with and without Upstream Irrigation, 2020, environment.fiu.edu/news-events/2020-international-conference-on-the-nile-and-grand-ethiopian-renaissance-dam/abstracts/abebe_sine_abstract.pdf.

[3] Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) – U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), 28 Dec. 2020, http://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.php?id=104&t=3#:~:text=In%202019%2C%20the%20R.E.%20Ginna,relatively%20high%20annual%20capacity%20factors.

[4] Woldemariam, M. “Nile Be Dammed” Foreign Affairs, August 10, 2020. Retrieve December 26 from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/africa/2020-08-10/nile-be-dammed

[5] The Bitter Dispute over Africa’s Largest Dam. The Economist. July 2, 2020. Retrieved Januay 2, 2021 from http://www.economist.com/middle-east-and-africa/2020/07/02/the-bitter-dispute-over-africas-largest-dam.

[6] Assem, A. & Moneim, B. A. & Shalhoub, D. “Death toll from Sudan floods rises to 103”. Anadolu Agency. Retrieve January 5 from https://www.aa.com.tr/en/africa/death-toll-from-sudan-floods-rises-to-103/1967734#:~:text=Sudan%20said%20on%20Wednesday%20that,people%20and%20injured%2050%20others

[7] Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nation.  The Sudan 2020 Flood Response Overview. Retrieve January 5 from http://www.fao.org/3/cb1386en/cb1386en.pdf

[8]Woldemariam, M. “Nile Be Dammed” Foreign Affairs, August 10, 2020. Retrieve December 26 from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/africa/2020-08-10/nile-be-dammed

[9] Security Council Press Release. “Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Agreement within Reach, Under-Secretary-General Tells Security Council, as Trilateral Talks Proceed to Settle Remaining Differences” SC/14232. June 29, 2020. Retrieve January 5 from https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/sc14232.doc.htm

[10] Ferede, Wuhibegezer, and Sheferawu Abebe. “The Efficacy of Water Treaties in the Eastern Nile Basin.” Africa Spectrum, vol. 49, no. 1, 2014, pp. 55–67., http://www.jstor.org/stable/24589165. Accessed 12 Jan. 2021.

[11] “The Nile Waters Agreement.” Bulletin of International News, vol. 5, no. 23, 1929, pp. 3–10. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25638630. Accessed 12 Jan. 2021.

[12] Dunne, M. & Pollock, K. “An Ethiopian dam may sharply reduce the Nile’s flow, leaving Egypt high and dry”. Malcolm h. kerr carnegie middle east center. October 23, 2017. Retrieved January 4, 2021 from https://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/73491

[13] FAO AQUASTAT Report (2016). Country Profile- Egypt.  Retrieved January 4, 2021 from http://www.fao.org/3/i9729en/I9729EN.pdf

[14] Woldemariam, M. “Nile Be Dammed” Foreign Affairs, August 10, 2020. Retrieve December 26 from https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/africa/2020-08-10/nile-be-dammed

[15] BBC News “River Nile dam: Reservoir filling up, Ethiopia confirms”. July 15, 2020. Retrieved January 4 from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-53416277#:~:text=A%20reservoir%20behind%20Ethiopia’s%20disputed,images%20showing%20water%20levels%20rising.

[16] Meseret, E. “Ethiopia blasts Trump remark that Egypt will ‘blow up’ dam”. Associated Press. October 24, 2020 . Retrieved January 5, 2020 from https://apnews.com/article/donald-trump-ethiopia-egypt-abiy-ahmed-sudan-4a71496ab630c5cc6dbd242be894d24a

[17] Osman, R. & Ferrari, E. & McDonald, S. “Water Scarcity and Irrigation Efficiency in Egypt”, Water Economics and Policy, vol. 2 (2016). Retrieved January 4, 2021 from https://www.worldscientific.com/doi/10.1142/S2382624X16500090

[18] The International Crisis Group. “Bridging the Gap in the Nile Waters Dispute”, Nairobi/Abu Dhabi/Istanbul/Brussels, March 20, 2019. Africa Report N°271 Retrieved January 4, 2021 from https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/horn-africa/ethiopia/271-bridging-gap-nile-waters-dispute


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