Nile: the dam of discord

© The Nil in Assouan, Egypt. Photo: Méline Peyrot.

Some analysts consider water to be the major issue of the 21st century. For several years now, we have been witnessing the intensification of conflicts linked to this increasingly scarce resource. There are many examples of tensions linked to water, whether in the Middle East between Turkey and Syria, who are fighting over the Euphrates, or in South-East Asia where China, having little access to water, is multiplying the number of dams at the expense of its neighbours.

One of the representative conflicts of this “water war” is the conflict over the waters of the Nile between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.

The Nile, with a length of about 6700 km, is one of the longest rivers in the world. Originating from the meeting of the White Nile and the Blue Nile in Khartoum, the river meanders through the African continent crossing eleven countries. It is Africa’s most important water resource, which makes it a coveted object in all the countries it crosses. Indeed, for several years now, the project of a large dam in Ethiopia has been worrying Sudan and Egypt, downstream, who are afraid that their access to the Nile’s water will be reduced.

Sharing the waters of the Nile: Egyptian hegemony

The division of the waters of the Nile dates back to the 20th century. In 1929, the Treaty on the Exclusive Use of the Waters of the Nile was signed between Egypt and Sudan. It gave Egypt and Sudan a respective amount of water and a right of veto over all hydraulic projects that could affect the waters of the Nile. The countries upstream of the river were excluded from the agreement and did not obtain the right to exploit the Nile. This treaty was in line with previous agreements signed during the colonial era, which testified to the privilege granted by the British authorities to Egypt, its former colony.

This agreement was renewed in 1959, giving Egypt broad support. The agreement allowed the sharing of the entire average annual flow of the Nile estimated at 85 billion m3 between Sudan which obtained 18.5 billion m3 and Egypt which benefited from 55.5 billion m3. This agreement also gives Egypt the right to build the Aswan dam.

Egypt thus seized the Nile by excluding all the other riparian states from the agreements concerning the river. Ethiopia quickly denounced these arrangements from which it was excluded and which deprived it of the exploitation of the Blue Nile.

Egypt’s hegemony over the waters of the Nile was called into question in 2010 with the signing of a treaty between six countries of the river basin (Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya). This treaty allows countries upstream of the river to develop irrigation projects and hydroelectric dams without having to obtain prior approval from Cairo. This new treaty therefore directly challenges the 1929 treaty and the right of veto it granted to Egypt. Obviously, Cairo and Khartoum are opposed to it because it puts an end to their privileged position.

It is from this perspective of contesting previous treaties and reappropriation of the Nile that Ethiopia reveals in 2011 its project to build a large dam.


The Ethiopian project

On 2 April 2011, the Ethiopian government launched the construction of the Great Renaissance Dam, also known as the Millennium Dam, located on the Blue Nile just before the border with Sudan, whose evocative name symbolizes the country’s renewal. This project began at the same time as Egypt, a fervent opponent of the project, was facing the Arab Spring.

It is a pharaonic project since it involves building the largest dam on the African continent.

The dam required a budget of 4.7 billion dollars. It was almost exclusively financed from the country’s public finances (including a reduction in civil servants’ salaries and significant contributions from the diaspora), as foreign investors were held back by tensions with Egypt and the environmental impact of the project.

©Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, vidéo TV5 Monde.

If this dam is ambitious, it is to meet the country’s development needs. Since the beginning of the 2000s, Ethiopia has experienced a significant growth of 10% per year over the last 10 years, coupled with a population growth of 25.2% per year and an urbanization of its population. This dam has therefore become a vital development project for the country.

This construction is part of a desire to meet not only the growing energy needs of the population, which are increasing by 30% per year, but also food needs, since the water from the dam will also be used for agriculture. This project also has more strategic objectives since it would enable the Ethiopian government not only to earn income from electricity exports but also to position itself as an important regional player. In Ethiopia, the dam is presented as a true national monument.

The dam could provide 6,000 megawatts of electricity, the equivalent of 6 nuclear power plants (report), making Ethiopia the leading electricity producer in Africa. The size of the dam and more particularly the size of its reservoir, with a surface area of 1700 km2 which could hold 74 billion m3 of water, worries the countries downstream.

An existential threat to Egypt.

The Nile irrigates the agriculture of the riparian countries, particularly in Egypt.

The Nile irrigates the agriculture of the riparian countries, especially that of Egypt.

The Blue Nile, which flows through Ethiopia, is the largest tributary of the Nile, supplying almost all the water that reaches Sudan and Egypt. This dam project raises fears of a drop in the river’s flow, despite the fact that it is a vital resource for the two countries downstream and especially for Egypt.

Egypt, 98% of whose water needs are supplied by the Nile, with 95% of its population concentrated on the banks of the river, is already facing an alarming situation. Proportionally to the increase in its demography and the decrease in its agricultural areas, its water needs are continually increasing, although they are already estimated at 73 billion m3 per year, i.e. nearly 20 billion more than their theoretical share of the Nile’s water.

The UN estimates that Egypt will face a water crisis by 2025 and that the country would theoretically need 20% more water resources by the beginning of the decade 2020. This situation could therefore deteriorate further under the effect of the great Renaissance dam, as some studies show that the structure could lead to a 25% drop in the flow of the Nile in Egypt.

Egypt’s dependence on the Nile is total: economic, agricultural and social at the same time. Faced with this situation, one can understand Egypt’s nervousness about the dam project, which is perceived as a national security problem. Egypt is therefore opposed to this project both for historical and symbolic reasons (the link between the Nile and the emergence of Egyptian society and Egypt’s stranglehold on the river until now) but also and above all to protect its real needs.

Tensions have been particularly intense since the start of the dam’s construction and the situation has even worsened in the face of Ethiopia’s refusal to stop work. Thus in 2013, in several declarations under the presidency of Mohamed Morsi, Cairo said it was ready to use military means to enforce its rights on the Nile. Since then, the tone has eased somewhat, but tensions remain high.

Egypt has several times called on Sudan to stand up against Ethiopia, however Sudan, which supported Cairo for a while, is now leaning towards the Ethiopian government, trying to get the most out of its geographical position, the country could also benefit from the export of Ethiopian electricity. The loss of the Sudanese ally further isolates and weakens Egypt.

However, on 23 March 2015, an ‘agreement in principle’, the Khartoum Agreement, was signed between the 3 countries and shows for the first time a sign of cooperation. It is a first 10-point agreement, in which Egypt and Sudan agreed in principle to the construction of the Ethiopian dam pending the finalization of the final agreement. It provides for the equitable use of the waters of the Nile, the obligation not to harm the interests of the other states on the Nile and finally to set up a dispute resolution mechanism.

In reality, this agreement remains imprecise and illustrates more of a shift in the balance of power around the coveted river, in favour of Ethiopia in the face of an Egypt that seems increasingly dependent.

semble de plus en plus dépendante.

“Egypt is a gift from the Nile” according to Herodotus, a Greek geographer and historian (5 century BC).

The Current Situation

Discussions in recent years between Egypt and Ethiopia have focused mainly on the filling time of the dam. Egypt wants the dam to be filled as slowly as possible, from 12 to 21 years, to minimise its effects on the flow of the Nile, whereas Ethiopia wants it to be filled much more quickly, between 4 and 7 years. The question of the quantity of water that the dam will release once full is also raised because Ethiopia does not wish to announce a figure and Egypt is concerned about the control that Ethiopia could have over the Nile water.

After a period of stagnation and despite a new meeting in 2018, progress in the negotiations resumed in January 2020 with three days of negotiations in Washington, under the mediation of the United States, in the presence of the American Secretary of the Treasury and the President of the World Bank. While no solution had been found for years, the 3 countries seem to have agreed on a beginning of a compromise: the filling must take place in a cooperative manner in stages and must be carried out largely during the rainy season in July and August.

Washington’s negociations, january 2020.

On 21 July 2020, Ethiopia announced that it had reached the reservoir filling level planned for the first year, which should allow power generation to begin by the end of 2020. The dam is expected to be fully operational by 2022.

This news comes at a time when negotiations between the three countries have still not led to a final agreement, despite a final meeting in June 2020 under the aegis of the African Union. The filling of the dam could therefore lead to new tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt since no legally binding agreement has been reached for the moment.

Egypt has so far not reacted to the news.

According to Franck Galland, the great Renaissance dam remains a “hotspot” of the region.  He believes that to avoid conflict, Egypt must be supported financially to help it invest massively in water infrastructures: “because what this country urgently needs is a Marshall Plan to limit the use of the waters of the Nile. A plan to support a less intensive agriculture, less water-intensive and to build desalination plants”.

This conflict seems insoluble for the moment. Despite numerous meetings and negotiations to ease tensions and find a compromise, no final agreement has yet been signed. In the meantime, Ethiopia continues the construction and commissioning of the dam and Egypt remains concerned about the consequences that the dam could have on its access to water.

Beyond the simple opposition between a country that wants to develop and another that wants to continue to ensure its needs, Marc Lavergne sees the tensions around the dam as a “race for regional primacy”. On the one hand, the dam allows Ethiopia to assert itself as a key player in the region and on the other, Egypt does not want to lose its past influence and hydro-power.

The conflict between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt is the most striking current example of the war for access to water. Moreover, the CNRS considers that this issue could become, in the coming century, one of the main causes of international tensions.

It is difficult to predict how the situation will evolve in the coming years. Will Egypt and Ethiopia come to an agreement or will their relations deteriorate further? The evolution of the geopolitical context of the region, population growth and global warming will certainly also have a role to play in the course of the history of the Great Renaissance Dam.

Méline Peyrot.

Sources (in French) :

We recommend viewing the documentary “The Renaissance Dam” available on Youtube:

We also recommend the programme France culture with guest Franck Galland:

and his book “The Great Game. Geopolitical Chronicles of Water.”

His article “The Nile at the Heart of Egyptian Political and Social Stability”

Marc Lavergne’s interview on RFI:

The RFI radio program “Dam on the Nile: How to avoid the water war?” :

An article Les Clés du Moyen Orient :

A dissertation from the IEP of Lyon:

Several articles in Le Monde :