While Egypt is facing several internal crises, it is also caught in an international dispute over the Nile. The future of the country’s water resources is now in question following Ethiopia’s construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. At the time the dam’s construction began in 2011, Egypt was preoccupied with the aftermath of January 25 Revolution, but when Ethiopia temporarily diverted the flow of the Nile in May, Egypt responded with a political uproar. As diplomatic relations between the countries become increasingly stained over the dam, Egypt Oil & Gas spoke to leading experts to assess possible solutions to the dispute.

Historical Claims
Egypt’s claims to Nile waters are based on two treaties, neither of which directly involved Ethiopia. The first was agreed to in 1929 between Britain, which controlled Egypt at that time, and the British colonial administrations in Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Tanganyika. The agreement prohibited the upstream colonies from constructing water infrastructure on the Nile without Egypt’s consent. The second treaty was signed in 1959 between Egypt and Sudan, dividing the Nile waters between the two countries.
In 1999, Nile basin states launched the Nile Basin Initiative to achieve “equitable utilization” of the river’s waters1. Under the initiative, negotiations were held for years to establish a Cooperative Framework Agreement over the use of the Nile waters that would replace the previous colonial treaties. In 2010, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania signed the agreement despite Egypt’s objections. Burundi later signed as well.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
In March 2011, the Ethiopian government announced plans to construct a hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is expected to generate approximately 6,000 MW of electricity, becoming Africa’s largest power plant.2 The Ethiopian government believes the dam will help meet the needs of its citizens, as much of the population lacks access to electricity and relies on biomass fuel. The dam is expected to generate enough electricity to meet domestic needs with excess available for export to countries in the region. The filling of the dam’s reservoir will start at the end of 2014, when it will also begin electricity production. The project is expected to be complete by 2017.
Concerns have been raised over the dam’s impact on Egypt. According to some, filling the dam’s reservoir may cause Egypt to lose 20% of its Nile waters.3 Experts say that such a loss could curtail Egypt’s cultivated farmland by up to one-fourth4 “The Egyptians already have a deficit in their water supply of about 10 billion kiloliters. If you add just one kiloliter to that, it will be a disaster,” claimed Dr Bahaa Alkoussey, the former chairman of Egypt’s National Water Research Centre. “Every one billion kiloliter reduction in natural flow to Egypt will cause 200,000 feddans (207,600 acres) of land to go out of production and 500,000 farmers to be out of work, which will affect 2.5 million families,” he asserted.

Such predictions contradict the findings of an expert panel that was tasked with assessing the impact of the dam on downstream countries. The 10-member panel was comprised of international experts, including two from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan. The panel’s report found that the dam will have no significant negative impact on downstream countries, since once the reservoir is filled the waters are free to flow through its turbines.5 While Sudan accepted the panel’s findings, Egypt objected.

Political Fallout
Tensions over the dam increased in May when Ethiopia temporarily diverted the flow of the Blue Nile as part of the construction process. On June 3rd, Egyptian politicians met with President Morsi to discuss solutions to the crisis. Participants proposed hostile measures, including military action against Ethiopia, unaware that the meeting was being broadcast on live TV. Following the airing of the meeting, Ethiopia summoned the Egyptian ambassador to Addis Ababa to discuss the matter.

Publicly, both governments have firmly made their stances clear. On 10 June, Morsi warned that “all options are open” in dealing with the construction of the dam. “If it [the Nile] loses one drop, our blood is the alternative”, he insisted.6 The Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn responded, vowing that “nothing” and “no one” would stop the dam’s construction. In June, the foreign ministers of Egypt and Ethiopia met in Addis Ababa and agreed to hold further talks on the construction of the dam. Given Egypt’s current political transition, it remains to be seen how the post-Morsi government will handle the dispute.

Arbitration vs. Negotiation
Finding a compromise to the conflict is complicated by the fact that there is no way to fully know what the impact of the dam will be, informed Lori Pottinger, head of the Africa program at International Rivers. “First, there is no way to predict the long-term impacts of climate change on the Nile flow. Second, it is not at all certain how long it will take to fill the huge reservoir, which can store a year’s worth of the Nile flow. Third, there is not good data for the Blue Nile’s flows,” Pottinger explained. With these uncertainties in mind, Pottinger recommended a more transparent assessment of the dam’s impact. She added that according to some experts, the design of the dam is “inefficient” and a number of smaller dams would have been a wiser choice. But in order to solve the current dispute, “some form of international arbitration is clearly needed,” Pottinger believes.

“Egypt can certainly try to halt construction of the dam through arbitration or other dispute resolution mechanisms, maybe even through the International Court of Justice”, said Gabriel Ecksten, professor of law at Texas Wesleyan University, director of the International Water Law Project and a counsel with the law firm of Sullivan & Worcester. While reaching a verdict might take years, Egypt would be within its rights to demand that, during the arbitral or judicial proceedings, Ethiopia does not resume any construction that has adverse effect on the flow volume to Egypt, Eckstein informed.

It is impossible to predict what the result of international arbitration would be, especially since such disputes have never been presented to a tribunal, Eckstein admitted. He said that the historical use argument would not be an overriding factor for an international court. “The two chief principles of international water law are the rule of equitable and reasonable utilization and the rule of no significant harm,” Eckstein explained. “The problem with this argument, though, is to determine what constitutes ‘significant’ for purposes of establishing that the harm is illegal. Additionally, while a tribunal could seek an equitable outcome, one which may be acceptable to both parties, it can just as easily rule entirely in favor of only one of the parties,” he added. “Accordingly, the best option for both Egypt and Ethiopia would be a negotiated settlement,” Eckstein recommended.

Richard Paisley, a professor of law and the director of the Global Transboundary International Waters Research Initiative, also cautioned against international arbitration since it is costly and can further aggravate diplomatic relations. If Egypt and Ethiopia opt for negotiating a bilateral agreement, Paisley recommended they seek assistance from the UN Standby Team of Mediation Experts, which could send a small-scale mission to help forge compromise behind the scenes. However, the expert thinks that it would be the best to deal with the conflict in the frames of the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement which he also helped design. Whereas sharing water rights is a zero-sum game, the countries could cooperate to increase the total benefits from the water and share those benefits instead, Paisley explained.

Also  Dr. Ana Elisa Cascão, a program manager at the Stockholm International Water Institute whose main research topic is the hydropolitics in the Nile River Basin, recommends Egypt to sign the Cooperative Framework Agreement. “This negotiated agreement clearly states that any development upstream should not ‘cause significant harm’ to the downstream riparians. Once the agreement is signed and ratified, the Egyptian position will be protected by an international agreement,” she explained. Cascão also pointed out that the Ethiopian government has promised Egypt and Sudan to slow down filling the reservoir in case of lower than average rainfall. “It is important to note that it is not certain if the rainfall will be below average, nor that Egypt or Sudan will suffer from lower water volumes during this time,” she added.

“Without full access to the report from the international panel of experts, we cannot yet draw final conclusions,” Cascão responded to the question whether the benefits of the dam outweigh the risks, referring to the fact that the report has been classified at the request of the Egyptian authorities. However, she believes that the dam can bring several benefits to Egypt, including increased reliability of water-flood control, reduced evaporation loss, salinity control, and enhanced navigation. Cascão added that the overall benefits of the dam would increase if it became a regional project with joint management and ownership.

Léna Salamé, program specialist at the UNESCO division of water sciences, believes that the best solution is the countries sitting at the negotiating table and finding a mutually acceptable way forward. She thinks that it may not be realistic to expect halting the building of the dam. “From Ethiopia’s perspective, the dam’s construction is becoming urgent as it is the only way to allow the country to develop, and in turn alleviate poverty and suffering. From the perspective of downstream countries, this new development will change the usual and historical use of water from the Nile, which will in turn have a negative impact on their own development. Their perspectives are not exclusive. The needs of both, upstream and downstream countries should co-exist and should be met. No one’s needs for water should be ignored. No one’s need for life can be ignored,” she emphasized. Salamé added that a solution should be found to improve the lives of the people in Ethiopia without harming the people downstream.

“Ideally, all the Nile basin countries would sit together and evaluate the situation in order to decide how the advantages of the dam can benefit  the upstream and downstream states, in order to compensate for disadvantages that would occur downstream,” Salamé stressed. As possible benefits to be distributed, she named hydropower, but also any industrial or agricultural products that can be produced thanks to the activities that would become possible through the new infrastructure. The specialist added that the benefits to be allocated to the downstream countries as compensation would not necessarily need to be related to the dam. “Compensation can come from outside of the ‘water’ or the ‘dam’ box,” she explained.

“The countries are at a very sensitive point now and their relation should hopefully evolve positively.  If a negative spiral is started, all the people of the region will suffer. If each country digs into its own position, dialogue will be difficult,” Salamé concluded, adding that the UN can help the countries reach a positive solution through various means. It can provide a forum for discussion and a platform for accessing donors’ funds. It can also help building capacities in the basin or offer neutral third-party support if the states themselves request such kind of assistance. 

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has potential to bring benefits to the region, but these benefits must be weighed against the risks to the downstream countries. The dam’s full impact on water security is impossible to forecast with absolute certainty. While it is unlikely that Ethiopia halts construction of the dam, the two states should continue to seek a mutually beneficial agreement through negotiations. If negotiations fail, the countries are left with the options of international arbitration or war, which neither side can afford.

  1. Nile Basin Initiative, “About the NBI.”
  2. Hammond, M. “The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Blue Nile: Implications for Transboundary Water Governance.”  February 18, 2013.
  3. Al Jazeera, “Egypt Warns Ethiopia over Nile Dam.” June 11, 2013.
  4. The Guardian, “Ethiopia Rejects Egyptian Protests over Nile Dam.” June 11, 2013.
  5. Sudan Tribune, “Ethiopia, Egypt Ease Tensions Over Nile Dam, Agree to Hold Tripartitie Talks Including Sudan.” June 18, 2013.
  6. The Guardian, “Ethiopia Rejects Egyptian Protests over Nile Dam.” June 11, 2013.

By Laura Raus