As yet another round of negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) commenced this week, looking back on the decade of failed negotiations between the three main riparian states – Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt – may offer us some insight into the future of the Nile River Basin. The negotiations among the three states concerning the utilization of the Blue Nile have been characterized by a complex process of trilateral negotiation and international mediation, consistently concluding with Ethiopia bowing out before any substantive agreement can be reached.

Ethiopia’s construction of the GERD has the potential to shift the current flow regime of the Nile, a crucial source of water for both Egypt and Sudan. Fears of even minor changes in the availability of an already over-taxed river system have brought the three riparian states back to the negotiation table again and again. For Ethiopia, a major sticking point is the imbalanced utilization of the river. The Blue Nile is the major tributary to the Nile River, and up to 85 percent of its waters originate in Ethiopia.1 Despite this fact, Ethiopia utilizes just 1 percent of the river.2 The past twenty years have seen major droughts plague the country, causing desertification and water scarcity; just 49 percent of Ethiopians have consistent access to clean water.3 Even so, the country relies on groundwater for 70-90 percent of its domestic and industrial use and has historically been constrained by international law from significantly developing, utilizing, or altering the Blue Nile’s waters.4

The legacy of asymmetric allocation of the river extends back nearly a century to the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian agreements that gave nearly the whole of the Nile’s waters to Egypt and Sudan. This agreement and subsequent bilateral negotiations in 1959 outlined consumption rights (55.5 billion cubic meters [bcm] to Egypt and 18.5 bcm to Sudan – nearly 90 percent of the Nile’s 84 bcm total flow) that excluded the Nile’s eight other riparian states. These agreements left upstream states without any institutionalized rights to the river’s waters, regardless of origination point or internal demand within those states.

Ethiopia sees the history of limitations on its ability to consume even a fraction of the waters originating within its borders as an infringement on its own sovereignty. The combination of Ethiopia’s upstream riparian position and the construction of the GERD offer Ethiopia the ability to heavily regulate the flow of the river’s waters, fortifying their claims to production-based utilization of the river. Construction of the dam itself was done without consultation of Sudan or Egypt, and no negotiations over the fill rate last year were reached before Ethiopia began its first year impounding the river’s waters into the GERD Reservoir.5 In fact, nearly every step of dam construction and negotiation has been used as a means for Ethiopia to reclaim sovereignty and self-determination in the region, wagering that neither Egypt nor Sudan will pursue military options to return the region to a situation of stasis that asymmetrically favors them. From Addis Ababa’s perspective, the GERD is a way to assert the country’s influence in the region and has become both a point of pride and a symbol of Ethiopia’s future. Completely self-financed, construction of the $5 billion (USD) dam is projected to be the linchpin in Ethiopia’s economic transformation.

Currently, 65 percent of Ethiopians are not connected to the nation’s power grid and do not have consistent access to electricity; this insufficient access has historically posed serious barriers to national development. Once filling of the GERD Reservoir is complete, it is projected to have a 74 billion cubic meters capacity (about 1.2 times the total annual flow of the Nile), and will be able to supply the country with hydropower even in periods of drought. The dam is expected to create as many as 12,000 jobs and will be the largest hydropower plant in Africa, supplying Ethiopia with up to 6.45 gigawatts of energy, enough to supply electricity to all of its citizens with enough left over for export to surrounding countries.

Egypt sees the GERD as a threat to not just their hydro-hegemony in the region, but also to their ability to provide for their citizens who are almost entirely dependent on the river for freshwater. The Nile River supplies up to 97 percent of Egypt’s freshwater, meaning it is highly susceptible to fluctuations in supply. Of the 55.5 bcm of the Nile allotted to Egypt, just 4 bcm empties into the Mediterranean Sea each year, meaning the country consumes 93 percent of its allocation annually. With plans to further expand the agricultural sector,6 even fully utilizing their allocation of the river’s waters will not be sufficient to meet Egypt’s growing demand.7

Egypt has a long history of meeting any threats to its hydro-hegemonic control of the river with open hostility often accompanied by threats of military intervention. In 1980, former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat stated, “Any action that would endanger the waters of the Blue Nile will be faced with firm reaction on the part of Egypt, even if that action should lead to war.”8 While current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has publicly taken a softer stance in his approach to negotiations,9 Yohannes Woldemariam, expert on the Horn of Africa, does not rule out conflict between the nations altogether. While he concedes the likelihood of open war between the states is unlikely, Ethiopia’s escalating intra-state conflict may provide the very real possibility of Egypt’s involvement via proxy.10 Sudan’s position on GERD is not dissimilar to Egypt’s. Sudanese Irrigation and Water Resources Minister Yasser Abbas stated the next filling of the dam set to commence this June could pose a direct threat to Sudan’s security.11

After a decade of negotiation frustrations and stalemates, deciding on the rate at which the GERD Reservoir will be filled remains unresolved. Ethiopia withdrew from negotiations with Egypt and Sudan mediated by the United States last year, despite former US President Donald Trump’s decision to directly tie American aid to Ethiopia to the country’s willingness to cooperate during Nile River negotiations.12 In September 2020, Trump followed through on his threat, resulting in a cumulative loss of approximately $100 million USD in aid,13 although current US President Joe Biden has since reversed the decision.14

Recognizing the need for external intervention on their behalf to reach an agreement, in March, Cairo and Khartoum jointly requested the intervention of the United Nations, United States, the European Union, and the African Union to help mediate the issue; but after a decade of stall tactics and failed negotiations, Ethiopia is primed to begin impounding the Blue Nile’s waters for the second time this summer. It began filling the dam during the rainy season last year, impounding some 4.9 bcm of water.15 It has since released a statement claiming that it aims to impound 13.5 bcm in 2021 regardless of whether an agreement is reached over allocation of the river.16 Egypt has vocally objected to this plan; PM Madbouly addressed the UNGA on March 18, stating, “The second filling of the dam contravenes international obligations and agreements. The second filling of the Renaissance Dam threatens to inflict serious damage to the interests of Egypt and Sudan.”17 This has left the two countries with few diplomatic options to forcibly compel Ethiopia to comply.

In the past decade, Ethiopia has delayed, withdrawn from, or demanded renegotiation of every major attempt to reach agreement between the three parties. If and when the three countries reach a consensus, Ethiopia will be legally constrained by the agreement – a situation that will dramatically restrict its unilateral execution of future infrastructure projects and curb its ability to consume waters originating within its borders. In the meantime, negotiations are increasingly being seen not just as a ploy to gain a better bargaining position or reach a deal it sees as more equitable, but as a tactic Ethiopia is using to redistribute de facto power and resources in a region that has historically been dominated by Egypt for the better part of a century. It is unlikely consensus will be reached over the dam before filling takes place this summer. In fact, until the better portion of the GERD Reservoir is filled, Ethiopia has limited motivation to make significant negotiation concessions at all and plenty to gain from continuing to defer agreement.

1 Wheeler, K.G., Jeuland, M., Hall, J.W. et al (2020) ‘Understanding and managing new risks on the Nile with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.’ Nat Commun 11, 5222 (2020).
2 Yihdego, Zeray. (2017) ‘The Fairness “Dilemma” in Sharing the Nile Waters: What Lessons from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam for International Law?’ Brill Research Perspectives in International Law, Vol 2(2), pp. 1-80
3 Shore, Rebecca (2016) “Water In Crisis – Spotlight Ethiopia.” The Water Project. The Water Project, n.d. Web. 01 May 2016. <
4 Grönwall, J., & Danert, K. (2020). “Regarding Groundwater and Drinking Water Access through A Human Rights Lens: Self-Supply as A Norm.” Water, Vol. 12(2). doi:10.3390/w12020419, p. 2
5 Impounding is defined as the accumulation of water into a reservoir for immediate or future use
6 Egypt’s agricultural sector constitutes 11 percent of its GDP, and despite laying out a plan to become wheat self-sufficient by 2030 (currently Egypt is the largest importer of wheat in the world), self-sufficiency is unlikely to be obtainable in the long-term. Plans to double the state’s irrigable land to achieve this goal will dramatically increase demand for irrigation water from 6 bcm to as much as 29 bcm should their goals of wheat self-sufficiency try to keep pace with their expanding population and projected changes in Egypt’s climate in the next 15 to 20 years.
Asseng, Senthold; Khier, Ahmed MS; Kassie, Belay T; Hoogenboom, Gerrit; Abdelaal, Aly I N; Haman, Dorota Z; Ruane, Alex C, (2018) ‘Can Egypt become self-sufficient in wheat?’ Environmental Research Letters, Vol. 13(9), pp. 1-11
7 Ibid.
8 Kendie, Daniel (1999). Egypt and the Hydro-Politics of the Blue Nile River. Northeast African Studies, 6(1/2), new series, 141-169, p. 141.
9 Sisi publicly denounced Ethiopia’s fait accompli actions in regard to the Nile but has not threatened violence publicly.
10 Woldemariam, Johannes. (2020) ‘Military Confrontation in Ethiopia, Trump and the Geopolitics of the Dam’ London School of Economics Blog November 17, 2020
11 Al-Jazeera (2021) ‘Sudan minister warns Ethiopia against filling dam without deal,’ al-Jazeera, February 2, 2021
12 Leaked documents from US mediation efforts indicated Ethiopia would like to fill the dam in 4-7 years with a designated release rate of at least 31 bcm/year to downstream states. Egypt maintains filling should be extended over 10-15 years and Egypt should be guaranteed a release of 40 bcm/year. After, the United States offered 37 bcm/year as a compromise. (Kimenyi, Mwangi; Mbaku, John)
13 Solomon, Salem. (2021) ‘US Restoration of Aid to Ethiopia Signals a New Course’ VOA News, February 25, 2021
14 Ibid.
15 Wheeler, K.G., Jeuland, M., Hall, J.W. et al (2020) ‘Understanding and managing new risks on the Nile with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.’ Nat Commun 11, 5222 (2020).
16 Davies, Jack. (2021) ‘The Control of Water as a Driver of Stability’ Human Security Centre, Africa
17 Hassanan-Tayea. (2021) ‘Madbouly Voices Egypt Concern over Dam to UN General Assembly’ Sada el-Balad English March 18, 2021