12 Mar 2015: Report

On the River Nile, a Move to
Avert a Conflict Over Water

Ethiopia’s plans to build Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam on the Nile have sparked tensions with Egypt, which depends on the river to irrigate its arid land. But after years of tensions, an international agreement to share the Nile’s waters may be in sight.

by fred pearce

For thousands of years, Egyptians have depended on the waters of the Nile flowing out of the Ethiopian highlands and central Africa. It is the world’s longest river, passing through 11 countries, but without its waters the most downstream of those nations, Egypt, is a barren desert. So when, in 2011, Ethiopia began to build a giant hydroelectric dam across the river’s largest tributary, the Blue Nile, it looked like Egypt might carry out its long-standing threat to go to war to protect its lifeline.

But last weekend, all appeared to change. Ministers from Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan agreed on the basis for a deal for managing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which would be the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa. So is peace about to break out on the River Nile? Longtime Nile observers
Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam construction
William Lloyd-George/AFP/Getty Images
A short section of the Blue Nile was diverted in 2013 as part of the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
are warning that a dispute that has lasted for a century may not end so easily.

Some 8,000 Ethiopian construction workers are currently at work building the Ethiopian dam at a site close to where the Blue Nile crosses into Sudan, before joining the White Nile and heading on to Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea. The scheme currently is about a third completed. Ethiopia says the dam is essential to its own economic development, while Egypt has called for construction to halt.

It looked like a stalemate until Sudanese foreign minister Ali Karti emerged from a week of talks with his counterparts from Ethiopia and Egypt in Khartoum to declare that “a full agreement has been reached ... on the principles of the use of the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.” The agreement would be submitted to their respective heads of state for approval, he said, calling it “the beginning of a new page in relations between our three countries.”

So far, so good. A water war seemed to have been averted. But Karti gave no further details of what the agreement contained. And analysts involved in the negotiations point out that secretive land deals for irrigation projects in Sudan could scupper the new accord.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the Nile to Egypt. The river is the only source of water for 40 million farmers irrigating their fields in a desert nation. Turbines in Egypt’s own barrier, the High Aswan dam, also
At a cost of almost $5 billion, the Renaissance Dam is a huge endeavor for a poor country.
generate electricity for portions of the country.

But Egypt is at the bottom of the river. There are ten other nations further upstream, of which the largest is Ethiopia. A colonial-era treaty gives Egypt most of the river’s flow. But since it gives no upstream nations other than Sudan any share at all, those nations don’t recognize it.

A rival power with an even bigger dam upstream could be disastrous for Egypt, which, in the past, has threatened to go to war if Ethiopia ever barricaded the Nile. The threat worked until 2011. Then, at the height of the chaos of the Arab Spring, when the Egyptian government was preoccupied with its own survival, Ethiopia without warning began building what is set to be the world’s eighth largest hydroelectric dam. The question then became: How would Egypt respond?

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will flood 1,700 square kilometers of forest and bush close to Ethiopia’s border with Sudan. The dam would more than double the country’s electricity generating capacity, leaving spare power to be exported to neighbors on a planned east Africa power grid. At a cost of almost $5 billion, it is a huge national endeavor for a poor country. To make the dream come true, civil servants in Ethiopia are being encouraged to devote at least a month of their wages every year to buying bonds to help fund the project.

“GERD is part of a larger social movement against poverty,” says Mulugeta Gebrehiwot, a former military and political leader in Addis Ababa, who is now a fellow at the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University. “It has a symbolic impact in demystifying the fight against poverty – even a shoeshine boy can take part in building it by contributing coins and buying bonds that start at five U.S. dollars.”

Some of the hopes may be far-fetched. The dam will have turbines capable of generating 6,000 megawatts of power, making it Africa’s largest hydroelectric project. But outside experts believe it will rarely be able to generate so much, because there will not be enough water flowing in the

Grand Renaissance Dam map

Wikimedia Commons/Yale e360
Ethiopia's Renaissance dam is being built near its border with Sudan.
river. One said: “They will only be able to get 6,000 MW for 1 percent of the time; 3,000 MW would have been better.”

The Ethiopian government says the dam is no threat to Egypt. It is a hydroelectric dam, designed to catch water and pass it on downstream through turbines. The country has no plans to divert water for irrigation, the government says. But one American expert on the Nile – who spoke last week on condition of anonymity, since he was advising all sides in the talks – warned that Egypt has two reasons for concern.

The first concern is short-term: What happens while the reservoir behind the dam is being filled? The dam will be able to hold back more than a year's flow of the Blue Nile as it leaves Ethiopia. In theory, while filling the reservoir for the first time, Ethiopia could cut off the entire flow for that year. Even filling over five years would significantly impact Egypt, especially if they are dry years.

Yale Environment 360 has learned that the preliminary agreement reached in Khartoum last week sets rules for how quickly Ethiopia can fill the dam. It also appoints independent consultants to arbitrate on key technical issues. A previous international panel of experts, appointed with the approval of Ethiopia, had reported in 2013 that there were numerous gaps in the hydrological analysis of the impact of the dam downstream.

The second concern for Egypt is that the dam will allow Sudan to massively increase the amount of water that it can take out of the river for irrigation. This is because most of the Blue Nile’s flow comes in a few weeks of the year, after monsoon rains in the Ethiopian highlands. Sudan’s own dam on the Blue Nile, the Roseires dam, is small and only provides water for a few months, says Alex de Waal of the World Peace Foundation, who is an expert on Sudanese hydro-politics. But the Ethiopian dam will deliver a year-long flow downstream through its turbines and across the border. With that, Sudanese farmers will be able to abstract water for year-round irrigation of crops. “The Sudanese government is already selling land leases
There are 11 nations along the Nile’s banks, but no agreement on sharing its waters.
for new farmland that will be irrigated when the Grand Renaissance Dam is completed,” says de Waal.

If that happened, less water would end up flowing through Sudan and on into Egypt. That would mean less irrigation water for Egyptian farmers and less hydroelectricity for its cities. It is unclear whether the new agreement made last week addresses this issue.

The disputes between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over the waters of the Blue Nile are only part of the problem on the Nile. There are 11 nations along the river’s banks, but no agreement on sharing its waters. The only treaty was created by the British when they still held sway in the area. The 1959 Nile Waters Agreement allocated 55.5 cubic kilometers to Egypt, 18.5 cubic kilometers to Sudan — and none to anyone else. Unsurprisingly, those upstream nations excluded from the share-out do not accept the validity of the treaty.

In 2010, five of them — Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania — signed the Entebbe agreement, calling for a redistribution of the waters to include them. Burundi later also joined. But Egypt and Sudan rejected the call. (Apart from Ethiopia, all these nations are along the river’s second major tributary, the White Nile. This smaller, though longer, tributary rises in the highlands of central Africa, before collecting in Lake Victoria and flowing north through South Sudan to Sudan, where it joins the Blue Nile at Khartoum.)

These upstream countries see Egypt taking the great majority of the Nile’s flow. In fact, Egypt currently takes even more water than it is entitled to under the 1959 agreement. This is because Sudan, having never built enough dams to capture its allocated flow, takes only 12.5 cubic kilometers, or two-thirds of its entitlement. Every year, Egypt tops up its official entitlement by taking the other third, which amounts to 6 cubic kilometers. But, thanks to the Renaissance dam, Sudan could soon be abstracting its full entitlement and potentially much more. So Egypt’s days of relying on most of the Nile’s water reaching its territory could be numbered.

But as the most populous nation in North Africa, Egypt won’t give up easily. And here a new actor joins the story: the new state of South Sudan.

When the 1959 treaty was signed, Sudan was a single country. But in 2011 it divided in two. The new state of South Sudan occupies a long stretch of the White Nile. Yet bizarrely, when the two countries divided, no mention
Climate modelers are uncertain how climate change might affect the Nile’s flow in the future.
was made of whether or not South Sudan should get a share of the 1959 treaty rights to the Nile’s flow. “The cooperation agreements between Sudan and South Sudan covered just about everything, but not the Nile waters,” says de Waal.

So Egypt has spotted a chance. Last November, it signed an agreement with South Sudan “to develop water resources in the South Sudan state and a joint cooperation strategy that would preserve the historic right of Egypt.” This is being interpreted as encouraging South Sudan to assert its entitlement to a share of the Nile, which Egypt would then buy from the new nation.

Central to the plan, according to de Waal, is reviving an old engineering project to increase the flow of the White Nile by diverting it away from the Sudd swamp in South Sudan. The Sudd is one of Africa’s largest wetlands and a conservation jewel, rich in crocodiles and hippos. But from its shimmering surface, covering 30 times the area of the Florida Everglades, an estimated four cubic kilometers of water evaporates each year.

Back in the 1970s, engineers started digging a 260-kilometer canal to bypass the swamp and “save” the water. Digging of the Jonglei Canal was abandoned in 1984 after rebels from South Sudan attacked the contractors' camp. The local Dinka people said the canal cut them off from dry-season pasture in the Sudd. The canal became a central issue in the long civil war that eventually ended in South Sudan’s independence in 2011. But now Egypt wants to join with the South Sudan government to complete the canal.

While nations argue about who should have what proportion of the Nile’s flow, it is unclear how much flow there will be in the future. Climate change could drastically change its flow. But climate modelers cannot


Mideast Water Wars: In Iraq,
A Battle for Control of Water

Iraq water conflict
Conflicts over water have long haunted the Middle East. Yet in the current fighting in Iraq, the major dams on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers are seen not just as strategic targets but as powerful weapons of war.
figure out how. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has reported that different model projections for the Nile for later this century range from 30 percent more water to 78 percent less.

But for the moment, that remains a sideshow. For the good news is that after years of saber-rattling by his predecessors, Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, suddenly seems intent on reaching an accommodation with Ethiopia over the Nile. If he is serious, it could open up the prospect of a new, comprehensive agreement on sharing the waters of the Nile among all 11 nations along its banks. But if he is not, then the filling of the reservoir behind Grand Renaissance Dam, which is likely to begin sometime before the end of the decade, could be the most dangerous flashpoint yet on a lawless river.

POSTED ON 12 Mar 2015 IN Biodiversity Energy Forests Policy & Politics Water Africa Central & South America 


We Ethiopians can do everything by ourselves, and you the outsiders are feeling bad about it! You can't help! As usual, you are always around to get involved in these matters. If you could do it, you might erase us from the globe!
Posted by Fan on 12 Mar 2015

I am surprised this article does not mention that international financial institutes refused to fund this project. As someone that recently spent time in Ethiopia, the dam seems primarily focused on exporting energy. From what I experienced and heard, the technical infrastructure in Ethiopia is not set up or demanded for this new surge of electricity production.

Despite an agreement being reached, this is resource wars waiting to happen. This fear is why the project has been 100% funded by domestic sources. How about pumping $6 billion into education for the nation? Then that shoe shine boy will even have the opportunity to learn how to save and invest money. In a region already rife with political turmoil, how will a multi-billion dollar project, with limited international oversight, shift power dynamics?

How will blocking the source of the Nile affect nutrient flows? Is the main source of life in this region worth experimenting with?

There is one nation backing this project, so we will see how this experiment goes...
Posted by Erik on 12 Mar 2015

With these developments, maybe it would help to examine the work that went into the agreements on the Zambezi River Action Plan signed in 1987. UNEP supported the work of 8 riparian basin countries which examined 19 areas of collaboration. My assignment with Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique brought them into the Plan. It then led to Canada (Inland Waters Branch of Environment Canada) providing the documentation on the management of the Mackenzie River with some 7 jurisdictions (federal and provincial). There are lessons to similar situations, including that of the Mekong River.

Patrick Duffy, Vancouver, Canada
Posted by Patrick Duffy on 12 Mar 2015

This article is not a balanced one: You are writing
about the agreement reached at Khartoum as a
positive side and at the same time blaming the
Ethiopian approach on the construction of the
GERD. As an example, it started with "For
thousands of years, Egyptians have depended on
the waters of the Nile flowing out of the Ethiopian
highlands and central Africa. ... but without its
waters the most downstream of those nations,
Egypt, is a barren desert." For thousands years
does the Blue Nile favor Ethiopia? The article
indicated the GERD will flood 1,700 square
kilometers but fails to indicate how large and
which area lake Nasser will inundate. On one side
you indicated that the upstream riparian do not
accept the validity of the 1959 agreement, on the
other side, you indicate that "Ethiopia without
warning began building...GERD". At the same
time it should be clear that some of the riparian
countries that signed the CFA has started to
ratify this agreement. This agreement will be the
building block to unite the riparian countries on the
use of the Nile.

I hope those three nations reach an agreement
on the use of the Blue Nile. However, the
Ethiopians will keep on developing and utilizing
the Blue Nile based on the principle of equitable
utilization. Utilization of the water has started
with no turn back in the future.
Posted by Daster on 14 Mar 2015

All the sun power in the world. Use it!
Posted by freddie williams on 15 Mar 2015

I'm impressed on why the analyst failed to stress
and point out the historical breakthrough of coming
to an invaluable agreement which had never been
before for the benefit of all riparian nations. We need
fairer analyst than this one.
Posted by Messay Mekonnen on 01 Apr 2015

"The river is the only source of water for 40
million farmers irrigating their fields in a desert
nation Turbines in Egypt’s own barrier, the High
Aswan dam, also at a cost of almost $5 billion,
the Renaissance Dam is a huge endeavor for a
poor country." There are 10 riparian countries
that depend on the Nile just as much as Egypt,
yet the article is very biased, making Egypt
seem like the victim and Ethiopia the "bad guy".
Also how can a poor country hope to develop
and sustain its people without making an
investment in an expensive dam? As an
Ethiopian, who grew up with electricity blacking
out every Monday, I personally understand the
need for hydroelectric power. Also, Ethiopia has
all the resources such as 85\% of the Nile water
flow, plenty of land for irrigation and the
potential for expanding electricity and gaining
foreign currency. Yet, the country has never
been able to take advantage of these resources-
-based on Colonial agreements from 1929 which
should not be valid since they were signed
without Ethiopia's original consent and signed
before independence from colonialism--and has
suffered famines, hunger and high levels of
mortality. I have friend who recently visited Dire
Dawa, Ethiopia and her large family only had a
bucket of water for their domestic needs and
after that they must deal with dehydration and
starvation because there isn't even water to buy.
Please read this article that gives a more well-
rounded history of the Nile and the countries
involved before writing a biased article.

Posted by Mekdes Assefa on 27 Apr 2015

This is not only imbalanced article but also

The author knows nothing about African water
issues or the Nile. He calls the country of his
analysis as "Poor". (it is a shame)

His analysis falls short of basic knowledge of the
African region, the water and energy challenges,
the environmental stress in the Horn and the
East African regions, and the need for basic
infrastructures to help alleviate deforestation and
energy shortage.

This is highly politically oriented article with
major amalgamation of the issues.

He should focus on what he best knows rather than on
the issues he has no clue.
Posted by May on 27 Apr 2015

It would have been nice to have locks all the way up the river, UK then up the river get the river working as it should be.

Posted by jonhn aldred on 22 Dec 2015

I am confused is the author of this Article talking
about the 1959 agreement or the 1929 because is i
can see the 1929 agreement is the one that gave
the Egypt more powers or autonomy of the whole
Nile in which case other countries like my beautiful
Kenya should complain about instead of the 1959s'
agreement which only concerns two countries.
Posted by peter mutai on 24 Feb 2016

For centuries, the Nile River as is well under the close supervision of the downstream basins especially with the lions share of Egypt. But these days begging from the official establishment of the GERD under construction by the Ethiopian government it seems to be shared among the riparian. And the Nile was known as a sources of conflict, but as history changes through time it tends too a means of cooperation between the two stream countries.

Posted by SISAY KEBEDE on 20 May 2016


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Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He serves as environmental consultant for New Scientist magazine and is the author of numerous books, including The Land Grabbers. Previously for Yale Environment 360, he has written about why setting a global carbon budget is difficult and conservation efforts for Kenya's mountain forests.



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