Egypt and Ethiopia Said to Be Close to Accord on Renaissance Dam

But talks in Washington haven’t yet solved the trickiest questions still looming over the dam’s impact on countries downstream.

By Keith Johnson, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
A general view of the Blue Nile as it passes through the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which has been a flash point for tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia, on Dec. 26, 2019.
A general view of the Blue Nile as it passes through the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which has been a flash point for tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia, on Dec. 26, 2019. Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty Images

Three days of intensive discussions in Washington, under the auspices of the U.S. Treasury and the World Bank, may have laid the groundwork for a preliminary agreement that could defuse growing tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia over the construction of Africa’s largest dam.

The overtime talks—lasting a day longer than scheduled—did not yet reach final agreement on the trickiest questions about how Ethiopia will operate the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) or fully address Egypt’s fears about how the hydroelectric project could affect downstream flows of the Nile River, for millennia the country’s literal lifeblood. The two countries, along with Sudan, agreed to meet again at the end of January with an eye toward nailing down precisely those technical questions, which have so far defied consensus and led to bitter recriminations between Cairo and Addis Ababa.

But at least, after four inconclusive meetings in recent months, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan seem to have reached an agreement on what’s left to solve if they are to avoid open conflict over a project that has generated ill will and threats of military intervention since Ethiopia announced the dam’s construction almost a decade ago.

“The filling of the GERD will be executed in stages and will be undertaken in an adaptive and cooperative manner that takes into consideration the hydrological conditions of the Blue Nile and the potential impact of the filling on downstream reservoirs,” the concerned parties said in a statement late Wednesday.

The preliminary agreement, even if it leaves many important details undetermined, is important because Ethiopia is just months away from beginning to fill the dam’s giant reservoir, during which it could begin to divert flows of water from Egypt downstream. The fight over the GERD has become one of the most watched water conflicts in the world and, if not solved soon, could be a harbinger of what’s to come as climate change and shifting rainfall patterns put even more strain on water-stressed countries with growing populations.

“It’s a foreshadowing of the water issues that we will be facing in the future, in which water will be a source of conflict much more than in the past,” said Paul Sullivan, a water and energy expert at the National Defense University. The three countries have spent the past eight years trying to find a solution, before finally turning toward the potential of international mediation last year if differences couldn’t be resolved.

“It won’t just be the Nile. There will be some massive water conflicts, and if we can’t solve this one, it doesn’t bode well.”

“It won’t just be the Nile. There will be some massive water conflicts, and if we can’t solve this one, it doesn’t bode well,” he said.

This showdown between Ethiopia and Egypt began in 2011, when Ethiopia took advantage of Egypt’s distraction with the Arab Spring to begin construction on the long-planned GERD, a massive hydroelectric project on the Blue Nile just across the border from Sudan. A dream since the 1960s, the dam is meant to provide huge amounts of clean electricity for the power-starved nation, energy that could both fuel economic development and bring in cash through international electricity sales. Across several Ethiopian administrations, the dam has become a must-have project politically—especially since Ethiopians themselves underwrote its $4.6 billion cost with a popular bond issue—and that’s doubly the case this year, with parliamentary elections tentatively set for late summer or fall.

But for Egypt, the dam at the headwaters of the Nile represents a potentially existential threat. Some 90 percent of Egypt’s water comes from the Nile, and about 57 percent of that Nile water comes from the Blue Nile flows that Ethiopia is seeking to dam. And it will be a huge one: The reservoir behind the GERD, once filled, will hold about 74 billion cubic meters of water—well over a year’s worth of river flow through that location.

In recent years, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had threatened to use military force to stop the dam’s construction, and it remains a heated subject in both the Egyptian and Ethiopian press. Sudan, caught in the literal middle between the other two countries, initially opposed the dam but came to support it since it promises irrigation and electricity benefits and a way to regulate irregular flows of water that often lead to devastating floods.

For Egypt, Ethiopia’s project is a violation of a 1959 treaty that essentially divvied up the Nile’s waters between Egypt and Sudan—cutting Ethiopia out altogether. Since then, Egypt has used even more water than it is allocated under the treaty, since Sudan’s underdeveloped economy requires less than it is entitled to. Now, Ethiopia is essentially asking Egypt to forgo supplies of water that it has come to count on, at least for the next few years.

“They disagree on the fundamentals—who owns the water,” Sullivan said. “It’s one of those water issues that looks almost unresolvable.”

The talks in Washington, and the next meeting slated for the end of the month, zero in on a critical, if seemingly technical, question, said Kevin Wheeler, an expert on Nile water issues at the University of Oxford: How fast will Ethiopia seek to fill and operate the reservoir behind the dam?

If Ethiopia, as it has often vowed to do, seeks to fill the reservoir to get its hydroelectric plant up and running quickly, that would mean less water for Egypt in the short term. But if Ethiopia fills the reservoir slowly, letting more water flow downstream, it could take years to fully realize a project that is already almost a decade in the making.

In the last round of technical talks, Ethiopia reportedly balked at Egyptian demands that the reservoir be filled over a period potentially lasting between 12 and 20 years—too distant a date for an Ethiopia that needs more immediate payback for its big investment and that has argued for a filling period lasting only five to seven years.

But what matters, Wheeler said, is less the number of years the sides agree on to fill the dam than how much water will keep flowing in the meantime—and how flexible those plans are to account for sudden periods of drought or abundant rainfall.

“The time element can be flexible based on agreed release rates,” Wheeler said, so that Ethiopia could fill the reservoir faster during rainy periods (like this year) and more slowly during droughts, like in 2015.

There are related issues that technical talks have so far failed to address, such as Ethiopia’s willingness to ensure that Egypt’s Aswan High Dam has enough water of its own to generate electricity. “Under average hydrologic conditions, the water level at the Aswan High Dam will drop, but it is not likely to fall to critical levels,” Wheeler said. “The big question is what happens if there is a drought while filling.”

That’s why Egypt initially wanted some sort of guarantee that Ethiopia would ensure the Aswan High Dam had enough water during the years it would take to fill the new dam, but so far the two sides haven’t worked out a final agreement that includes such provisions.

The five parties in talks in Washington essentially danced around the big questions but deferred their solution to a later date.

“The subsequent stages of filling will be done according to a mechanism to be agreed that determines release based upon the hydrological conditions of the Blue Nile and the level of the GERD that addresses the filling goals of Ethiopia and provides electricity generation and appropriate mitigation measures for Egypt and Sudan during prolonged periods of dry years, drought and prolonged drought,” they said in the statement.

An agreement is technically possible—but politics in both Egypt and Ethiopia have gotten in the way. The Nile’s importance to Egypt’s entire existence makes the river’s flow seem an existential question, and protecting its historic rights to Nile waters makes it a nationalistic lightning rod. Ethiopia, for its part, wants to see a speedy return on the nearly $5 billion project that successive governments have sold as critical for the country’s economic future.

If there is enough trust between the two sides, Wheeler said there are sound technical solutions to the problem, ones that would enable Ethiopia to fill the reservoir and start generating power in a reasonable amount of time while ensuring that disruptions to downstream flows to Egypt are minimal—especially if there is any repeat of the 2015 drought.

In an influential 2016 study, Wheeler and his co-authors found that as long as Ethiopia ensures a decent minimum flow of water downstream—say, 35 billion cubic meters a year—and agrees to help keep the Aswan High Dam sufficiently full during the filling process, while Egypt promises to take drought mitigation measures of its own, both sides can weather the GERD’s construction with minimal disruption.

The study concluded that “a middle ground does indeed exist” and has provided a road map for the technical talks in Washington and elsewhere.

Failing a final agreement on the dam itself, there are other potential solutions that outside powers like the United States, Europe, and Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia could use to try to address the underlying issues.

Ethiopia has abundant renewable energy resources, especially in geothermal power, Sullivan noted—something that outside investment support could help galvanize, addressing Ethiopia’s need for more electricity without resorting to the controversial hydroelectric project.

Likewise, financial support could help Egypt build expensive desalination plants that could bolster its water security, as well as help cushion the inevitable adjustments as the country seeks to make painful reforms to the way it uses water, which is largely used in inefficient flood irrigation agriculture for thirsty crops unsuitable for desert climes.

But for now, all eyes will turn to the next phase of ongoing technical talks to see if the two countries, along with Sudan, can work out a solution that meets Ethiopia’s desire to get the dam filled and operational as soon as possible while ensuring Egypt doesn’t face any water shortfalls that could dent its own power generation or stunt agriculture downstream. Contentious as those talks may be—with bitter fights over guaranteed river flows, suspicions over long-term plans for irrigation, and the ever-present fear of drought—they are better than the periodic saber-rattling that for years has threatened to spark open conflict between the two countries.

“The last thing we need is for Egypt and Ethiopia to come to blows,” Sullivan said. “It would be a total disaster for both.”

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP