Skip to main content
Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)

Ethiopia’s winning card over Egyptian Nile monopoly

The geopolitics of the Nile waters always remained under the heavy influence of Egypt and whatever narratives Egypt has portrayed, the international community often has leaned to the one side of the story.

Despite the Nile, waters belong to dozens of countries both located in the upper and lower riparian with the single largest contribution originating from Ethiopia, Egypt, and its allies for years have opted to listen to one voice and that is that Egypt has the right. Ethiopia has both natural and legitimate rights more any other riparian states of the Nile waters. Ethiopia is the source of 85 percent of the Nile waters with 77 billion cubic meters of waters, has managed to reclaim its natural and legitimate rights to utilize the Nile. 

The long-standing Egyptian sole monopoly of utilizing the Nile has now faded with the commencement of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) some eight years ago. Since then, Egypt has been mounting pressures and influences over Ethiopia to obstruct the construction of the hydroelectric dam project. To that effect, Egypt succeeded in bare Ethiopia not to have access to funds. The USD five billion project commenced despite lack of foreign coffers to finance the construction. That didn't deter Ethiopia to turn to its local resources and the public to contribute finances for the GERD. 

When that didn’t work out, the pharaohs’ nation has instigated various political, diplomatic, economic tactics and more often it has painted doubts on the engineering and technical aspects of the GERD project.

When Egypt knew nothing will force Ethiopia to stop the grand power project, the northern African nation has launched an extensive and highly tuned offensive claiming Ethiopia is about to stop the flow of the river Nile into Egypt and the rest of downstream countries. It launched campaigns to ridicule what Ethiopia doing is nothing other than self-serving interest while the rest of the Nile basin states have their shares of the waters.

Well, Ethiopia magnanimously extended its intentions of sharing electric powers to countries of the Nile. It also invited diplomatic communities to visit project sites and find out for themselves how the project is progressing despite huge diplomatic barrages from Egypt.

Efforts didn't stop there. Ethiopia has hired an international panel of technical experts to independently examine the safety of the technical aspects of the GERD. When Egypt and Sudan expressed interest to have their representatives, a tripartite body of water experts has been formed from a pool of the countries.

While the construction of the GERD proceeding, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan had multiple meetings, consultations, and negotiations as to how much water should be stored and released, to what limit of height the dam should be built and what precautionary measures will be considered in times of droughts and lack of proper water volumes.

Such ongoing process and openness have never convinced Egypt to adamantly accept Ethiopia's hydro dam project has no meaningful impacts on the flow of the river Nile to Egypt. Ethiopia explicitly made it clear that it has every right to utilize the Nile and at the same time, it has provided every detail of the project it has initiated. Egypt liked to have every bit of information from Ethiopia as both sides have agreed. When Ethiopia requested the reciprocity of the sharing of information, Egypt declined. That infuriated Ethiopia not only because Egypt has acted unfaithful but Ethiopia didn't want to be entrapped and forced to become liable by its information also avoided to send technical reports to Egypt.

From the very beginning, Egypt never has coincided with the very idea that Ethiopia has an absolute right over the Nile waters. For long Egypt has been preoccupied with claims and counterclaims that it has a sole monopoly over-utilizing the Nile often referring to the agreements of 1902, 1929 and 1959. These three agreements according to Hailu Woldegiorgis, a veteran diplomat, who wrote an influential book some ten years ago has refuted Egyptian claims that they have legal and historical rights to monopolize the Nile.

For instance, in the 1902 treaty which Emperor Menelik had inked with Great Britain which was relative to the frontiers between the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, and Ethiopia, in other words, Great Britain had signed the treaties on behalf of Egypt and Sudan. The original Amharic version of the treaty, according to Hailu depicts that Ethiopia's rights. The treaties, as Egypt claims didn't bare Ethiopia except not to block the flow of the waters. Ethiopia agreed not to construct projects that might completely block the water flows.

However, those treaties currently have no legal ground to bind Ethiopia to abide by. For one thing, Great Britain is no more the rule of those countries and secondly, the agreements were focused basically on delaminating boundaries with Sudan and not necessarily on water flows and management. Both ways, the treaties had been nullified long ago and have no effective implementation for current circumstances, Hailu argues.

Egypt claims both the 1929 and the 1959 agreements over the Nile waters utilization and shares give it legal rights. Again both agreements had excluded Ethiopia and have no grounds in any international undertakings Ethiopian officials countered.

In his recent interviews with The Reporter Magazine, Seleshi Bekele (PhD), Minister of Water, Irrigation and Energy said that Egypt has never been mindful of sharing the Nile waters with upstream countries. “If they were considerate of the upstream countries at least morally, they could have allocated some volumes for these countries. We contribute 77 billion cubic meters of the Nile waters and they have allocated zero shares for us", the minister said.

Egyptians have realized that Ethiopia is not going to back away from its hydroelectric power project came to terms to sign what known as "Declaration of Principles" in 2015. But before this agreement was signed, Ethiopia was able to bring on board other Nile basin countries to come into forming a joint force and a comprehensive agreement was signed and some six African countries in the Nile basin have ratified the accords to claim their rights of utilizing the Nile. That has enraged Egypt and enforced its determination to turn and unearth every possibility to force and pressure Ethiopia to halt its dam project.

After some months of stalemates on the previous negotiations, recently resumed talks in Washington have ended with foulest outcomes. Egypt dragged the US to get into the negotiation process calculating its geopolitical games in the Middle East that have got to with the politics of Israel and Palestine involving the administration of President Donald Trump. Backing Trump's US plan for Israel and Palestine which the rest of the Middle East nations have expressed concerns, Egypt stood up backing it and as it turned out has played this card to leverage on the ongoing GERD talks.

Ethiopia couldn't resist the requests Washington has offered to facilitate talks and to remain an observer in the proceedings of the negotiation process. With the progress of the talks, the US has grown out to be a self-made chief arbitrator to anger Ethiopia.

Explicitly expressing its reservations, Ethiopia remained in the negotiation rounds until Ethiopian experts and authorities found it difficult to sign a deal ill-fated deal that infringes “national interests” as Gedu Andargachew, Minister of Foreign Affairs Minister openly denounced it. Both the World Bank and the Department of US Treasury chiefs have forced Ethiopia to sign a deal that tilted towards Egypt.

When Ethiopia refused to sign, the treasury chief came out blatantly to order Ethiopia not to proceed with the storing and filling stages of the dam and that brought the whole process to a cliff edge.

Despite the growing pressure and the US siding to Egypt, Ethiopia is working on to start storing some 4.9 billion cubic meters of water in this year. It will do so next year with storing some 13 billion cubic meters to be able to commence an early generation of some 750 megawatts of electricity next year. That is a work in progress as the overall construction of the GERD reaches 72 percent completion.

By Emrakel Sileshi