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  • The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Nile Basin Conflict
  • John Mukum Mbaku (bio)

In 2011, Ethiopia started building a dam on the Blue Nile called the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). That decision exacerbated long-simmering conflicts between Ethiopia and the two downstream States, Egypt, and Sudan. Since then, the three countries have been unable to agree on legally binding rules on filling and operating the GERD. While there are many reasons why these three countries have not been able to resolve their disagreements, especially about the GERD, the most important is the insistence by the downstream States that the colonial-era Nile Waters Treaties must be made the baseline for determining the impact of the GERD on their economies. Hence, the key to resolving the conflict over the GERD is the adoption of a new treaty that is mutually acceptable and recognizes the rights of all relevant States. For that to happen, both Egypt and Sudan must give up the claim to the rights acquired through the Nile Waters Treaties.


In the summer of 2021, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi told visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that he would take a firm stance on "preserving [Egypt's] water security in the face of an ongoing dispute over a giant Nile dam project."1 El-Sisi also reiterated what he called Egypt's "historical rights to the Nile waters and stressed the need to reach a binding legal agreement on the operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that worked in the interests of Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia."2

In July 2021, El-Sisi "vowed retribution if Addis Ababa denied Egypt its vital share of the Nile's waters."3 In response, Ethiopia's water minister Seleshi Bekele stated: "There is no need to enter an unnecessary war. A war can't start because of water. Water flows if you fight today, it'll continue to flow tomorrow."4 Experts have noted that a decision by Egypt to go to war with Ethiopia over Nile waters would present Cairo with mostly insurmountable challenges. These include Ethiopia's geography, the need for Egypt to strengthen its relations with other African countries, particularly the Nile's upstream riparian states, the political turmoil in Sudan, and the proliferation of foreign military bases across the region.5

The conflict between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan involves much more than the GERD, how long it will take to fill the reservoir, and how the GERD will be managed. There is also fear in Cairo that if Addis Ababa is allowed to complete and operate the dam without a legally binding agreement, that could open the door for other Nile riparian states to act similarly, effectively threatening Egypt's water security and its ability to control projects on the Nile and its tributaries.6 This is why Cairo wants an agreement that preserves Egypt's acquired rights, including its ability to veto Nile River projects. [End Page 84]

The GERD as a threat to Egypt and Sudan

On April 2, 2011, then Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, announced that the country would build a dam on the Nile River, about forty kilometers from the Sudanese border.7 The decision to build the GERD exacerbated long-simmering conflicts between the downstream and upstream States of the Nile Basin over the allocation and utilization of Nile waters.

Rivers originating in the Ethiopian highlands, which include the Blue Nile (Abay), Sobat (Baro-Akobo), and the Atbara (Tekeze), provide over 85% of the water that flows into the Nile, with the rest coming from the White Nile, which flows from the Great Lakes Region of Central Africa. For many years, Ethiopia's use of Nile waters has been negligible; this has been due to many factors, the most important of which are lack of capacity, and legal and institutional constraints imposed by various bilateral colonial-era treaties.8 This has resulted in what has been referred to by one researcher as "one of Africa's cruelest ironies: the land that feeds the Nile is unable to feed itself."9

Legal instruments governing the Nile

To fully appreciate the nature of the conflict over the GERD...