By now you’ve already heard of Ethiopian-Egypt locking horns over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile.

The Nile which is the longest river in the world, stretches across 11 countries in its journey of 4,000 miles from the equatorial rivers that feed Lake Victoria to its final destination in the Mediterranean Sea. Among the countries that share the Nile, two have the most at stake. Egypt, a desert nation of 100 million people, is literally the creation of the Nile, relying on the river for 90 percent of its freshwater needs.

Ethiopia, contributes the lion’s share of the Nile waters, with its three tributaries—the Blue Nile, Sobat, and Atbara—carrying about 84 percent of the total runoff in the Nile. With a growing but otherwise resource-poor economy, Ethiopia is keen to develop its vast potential for hydroelectricity generation.

The GERD, a $5 billion project that will be the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa, is a part of that ambition. The dam is located on Ethiopia’s flank of the Blue Nile, just 12 miles from its border with Sudan. It will have paramount economic value to Ethiopia, doubling the country’s electricity generation capacity and earning as much as a billion dollars annually from energy exports to Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya, and potentially Egypt. The GERD’s massive reservoir will store 74 billion cubic meters (BCM) of water, roughly equal to a year-and-half’s worth of the Blue Nile’s flow, which will be gradually filled upon the dam’s completion.

Ethiopia-Egypt Conflict

In 2015, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt agreed on a Declaration of Principles that stipulated an “equitable and reasonable” utilization of the Nile that will not cause “significant harm” to other riparian countries. In spite of years of negotiations, however, they have made little progress in specifying the technical details on the filling and operating of the dam.

To safeguard its reservoir at Aswan, Egypt wants to secure an agreement that binds Ethiopia to releasing a fixed amount of the river’s flow and a process for monitoring Ethiopia’s compliance. Ethiopia, on the other hand, seeks to avoid a permanent commitment for a water quota that extends beyond the GERD’s filling period and demands a flexible agreement with a provision for periodic reviews. Behind the facade of legal wrangling, the scope for a future Nile project is at stake. Ethiopia wants to avoid an agreement that restricts its capacity to harness its massive hydropower potential of about 45,000 megawatts; Egypt wants exactly such a restriction.

The negotiations gained momentum in November 2019 after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called on U.S. President Donald Trump to help broker an agreement. The foreign and water ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan have held a series of meetings in Washington since December and met Trump at the White House. What the United States wants to accomplish through its involvement, however, is not clear and appears to be inspired more by Trump’s desire to broker a deal than by a foreign policy imperative.

Last year a deadline of January 15 was set to solve the long-standing impasse but the latest round of talks, last week, ended in deadlock between Egypt and Ethiopia, with Sudan caught in between, which some fear could lead to war.

At the centre of the dispute are plans to fill up the mega dam as Egypt fears the project will allow Ethiopia to control the flow of Africa’s longest river. Hydroelectric power stations do not consume water, but the speed with which Ethiopia fills up the dam’s reservoir will affect the flow downstream.

The longer it takes to fill the reservoir, which is going to be bigger than Greater London with a total capacity of 74 billion cubic metres, the less impact there will be on the level of the river. Ethiopia wants to do it in six years.

“We have a plan to start filling on the next rainy season, and we will start generating power with two turbines on December 2020,” Ethiopia’s Water Minister Seleshi Bekele said in September last year.

But Egypt has proposed a longer period – so that the level of the river does not dramatically drop, especially in the initial phase of filling the reservoir.

Three-way talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over operating the dam and filling its reservoir have made no progress in more four years. After the talks last week, Mr Seleshi accused Egypt of having no intention of reaching a deal.

Egypt relies on the Nile for 90% of its water. It has historically asserted that having a stable flow of the Nile waters is a matter of survival in a country where water is scarce.

A 1929 treaty (and a subsequent one in 1959) gave Egypt and Sudan rights to nearly all of the Nile waters. The colonial-era document also gave Egypt veto powers over any projects by upstream countries that would affect its share of the waters.

Neither agreement made any allowance for the water needs of the other riparian states that were not parties to the deal, including Ethiopia, whose Blue Nile contributes much of the river waters.

Ethiopia has said it should not be bound by the decades-old treaty and went ahead and started building its dam at the start of the Arab Spring in March 2011 without consulting Egypt.

Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi was quoted as saying in September last year that it would never have got under way had Egypt not been distracted by the political turmoil.

One of the North African country’s main concerns is that if the water flow drops it could affect Lake Nasser, the reservoir further downriver, behind Egypt’s Aswan Dam, even though it only accounts for a small share of Egypt’s electricity.

Ethiopia says one of the previous preconditions that Egypt had put for the agreement was that the dam should be connected to the Aswan dam.

Mr Seleshi said that he had explained to the Egyptians that it was “difficult to connect the two dams”.

“After that they had backed down a bit on the issue but they have brought the idea back today to some extent,” he said.

Egypt also fears that the dam could restrict its already scarce supply of the Nile waters, which is almost the only water source for its citizens. It could also affect transport on the Nile in Egypt if the water level is too low and affect the livelihood of farmers who depend on the water for irrigation.

There have been fears that the countries could be drawn into a conflict should the dispute not be resolved. 

In 2013, there were reports of a secret recording showing Egyptian politicians proposing a range of hostile acts against Ethiopia over the building of the dam. President Sisi has also been quoted as saying that Egypt would take all the necessary measures to protect their rights to the Nile waters.

In October last year, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed told MPs that “no force” could stop Ethiopia from building the dam.

The International Crisis Group warned last year that the countries “could be drawn into conflict” over the dam. A conflict between the two countries, could draw global interest as it would put millions of civilians at risk and potentially threaten the vital international trade route through the Suez Canal and along the Horn of Africa.

Both Egypt and Sudan appealed to the Security Council to intervene in the years-long dispute, which has seen bellicose rhetoric and escalating tensions.

The 15 Security Council members all expressed support for the AU action in reviving talks, but took no immediate action.

Egypt, which relies on the Nile for more than 90 percent of its water supply and already faces high water stress, fears a devastating impact on its booming population of 100 million.

Sudan, which also depends on the Nile for water, has played a key role in bringing the two sides together after the collapse of US-mediated talks in February.

Filling the dam without an agreement could bring the standoff to a critical juncture. Both Egypt and Ethiopia have hinted at military steps to protect their interests, and experts fear a breakdown in talks could lead to open conflict.

One analyst, however, believes it is unlikely any of the countries involved will resort to force.

“Ultimately, especially in the long run, the only way for Egypt to secure those [water] supplies is via cooperation with its upstream neighbours, very much including Ethiopia,” said William Davison, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group.