The Looming Crisis Over the Nile River

Author: Mohammed S. Ahmed (M.Phil International Relations at Zhejiang University, China. Mr Ahmed is currently based in California)

Co-Author: Makam Khan Daim (Studying Security, Intelligence and Strategic Studies in a consortium degree program at the University of Glasgow, (UK), DCU (Ireland), OTH (Germany), and Charles University, Prague. Mr Daim studied M.Phil. International Relations at Zhejiang University, China. During his student life, he served as Secretary of Foreign Affairs of Afghan students in Pakistan. Moreover, on behalf of Afghan students, he joined both national and international conferences. He currently serves as an editor at Security Distillery.


The Nile River has been the source of livelihood for millions of people in Africa. Despite Ethiopia being the biggest contributor as a major upper riparian country to the Nile River, it has never utilized the Blue Nile. On the contrary, Egypt with no contributions has been enjoying the lion share of the water for the past thousands of years. Ethiopia has finally built a dam on the Blue Nile, where the GERD is in the final stage of completion and engineers are readied to start the first phase of filling the dam. As the completion draws near, Egypt’s fear of losing its lion share is growing by the day and is refusing to compromise to reach an agreement with Ethiopia. Egypt rejects Ethiopia’s position, arguing that it is a breach of prior agreements citing the 1902, 29 and 59 so-called agreements that Ethiopia does not recognize. This article explores the main cause of the problem and argues that to solve the dispute without the involvement of global powers is in the best interest of both countries and the region at large.


The confrontation between Egypt and Ethiopia prior to the COVID-19 pandemic was intensifying, and the two regional powers were engaged in an implicit war of words. Egypt’s perception of Ethiopia has not changed overnight. There were various attempts and successful intimidations by Britain and its protectorate Egypt before its independence to stop Ethiopia even from contemplating the idea of utilizing the Blue Nile. Notably, in 1902 Ethiopian Emperor Menelik signed an agreement forced by the British to make sure his country will not attempt to reduce the water flow of the river or build any major construction over the Nile “without the consultation of the Egyptians.”[1] Following the demise of the monarchy the communist dictator Mengistu Hailemariam declared his intention of building a series of dams on the Nile in 1978, that prompted the then Egyptian president Anwar El Sadat to send an ominous warning, “we are not going to wait to die of thirst in Egypt, we will go to Ethiopia and die there.”[2] Thus, Egypt has been viewing Ethiopia as a threat for its lifeline the Nile River for many years.

There was some fear among observers following a speech by the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed after he told Ethiopian lawmakers that “No force could prevent Ethiopia from completing the dam” and if the situation escalates to the conflict he would get “millions readied” to defend the sovereignty of the nation.[3] This statement was wary for some analysts that could escalate tensions and will lead to direct military confrontation. However, Egypt will not risk taking the issue to direct military confrontation with Ethiopia at least, for now, that has a population of over a Hundred Million where over seventy per cent of the population is under the age of thirty-five. Some aggressive and undiplomatic voices might come out here and there, but Ethiopia does not have the intention to take the dispute to a battleground either. In terms of military, Ethiopia has a sizable personal despite its outdated military equipment in comparison with Egypt’s modernized army. Regardless of Egypt’s oppressive authoritarian government, all Egyptians will unite to defend what they perceive as their right over the Nile river, where 95 per cent of the population is dependent. During the recent virtual presentation, the foreign minister of Egypt Sameh Shukri claimed that the Nile issue is an “existential threat” and warned that it might lead to military conflict. Nevertheless, the possibility of direct military confrontation between the two countries is slim.

President Sisi and his government is navigating all options to step up pressure on Ethiopia to come to terms with Egypt.  Egypt has a history of targeting Ethiopia making sure this day will not come. Unfortunately, the late prime minister Meles’s bold move has put Egypt in an uncomfortable position that it has never imagined. Following the inauguration of the project, Sisi’s predecessor Morsi in his short tenure in office as Egypt’s president, a video leaked unveiled a covert plan discussed with his cabinet on how to stop Ethiopia from completing the Great Ethiopian Renaissance dam.[4]

The GERD was inaugurated in 2011 during the Egyptian political upheaval and uncertainty by the late prime minister Meles Zenawi. Ethiopia has been looking for options to finance the project from different multilateral and western-backed financial institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). However, the pressure from the Egyptian lobby has failed Ethiopia to secure the finance required for this massive project. Thus, the Ethiopian government has designed a scheme to raise the finance needed domestically which was estimated to be over 4 billion USD. Egypt has objected to the building of the dam from the beginning and has been vocal about it ever since. Initially, Sudan also objected to the project but later it has come on board with Ethiopia for its own benefit. Research shows that the dam will prevent annual floods that destroy Sudan’s farmland and Ethiopia will sell cheap electricity after the completion of the dam to Sudan, which creates a win-win scenario. However, the new “transitional” Sudan government that is established following Bashir’s demise are retreating from their previous stance and wants to strike a new deal.

Now, who gave the right for Egypt and Sudan (to a lesser extent) to say who gets what in the water that is shared by 11 countries? To answer this question, it is imperative to go back in history and look at the so-called water agreements over the Nile river.

The Nile River and History of Water Agreements

God caused the Nile river to flow freely, making spring forth in one land and sending it to the other lands as sustenance for his creatures. The Nile is a revered source of life for many people in Eastern Africa and the Northern African nation of Egypt where 160 million people rely on for their livelihood.[5] The lower riparian country Egypt gets over ninety per cent of its water, which is essential for its world-renowned agricultural products and daily lives from the Nile river. Although Ethiopia contributes to more than 80 per cent of the Nile River, Egypt has been dictating the terms on how to share this precious resource. Egypt even did not bother to include Ethiopia or other riparian countries for that matter in the so-called “water agreements.”

The first so-called “water agreement” cited by the Egyptians in their defence that Ethiopia has “breached” previous agreements by building GERD, is the 1902 treaty signed between Britain (representing its colonies in Sudan and Egypt) and Menelik I of Ethiopia. The main purpose of the agreement was to determine the boundary between Ethiopia and Sudan. The British gave Menelik a piece of land and “convinced” the Emperor to sign the conditions, including “not to construct or allow to be constructed, and work across the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, or the Sobat, which would arrest the flow of their waters into the Nile except in agreement with his Britannic Majesty’s Government of Sudan.”[6] Now, for the Emperor to sign such as agreement, there are three possible scenarios:

  1. The king was an irrational monarch that gave up the interest of his country over a piece of land.
  2. He was coerced by the British to sign the “treaty” or face invasion.
  3. The “treaty” was signed without his acknowledgement or lack of understanding of the substance of Britain’s proposal.

No leader in the history of the world will abandon the interest of his/her nation unless it is absolutely necessary or a traitor. One possibility is that the King at that time was in a mission of consolidating his territorial ambition and desires the land more than utilizing the Blue Nile, in which by many accounts makes him irrational. The second scenario is more likely because the Emperor just survived a war in 1896 with the Italian invaders and did not want to risk another invasion by the British with their modernized and formidable army. The third scenario is almost impossible because it was not the first time for the Emperor to deal with foreign power at that time. He signed the Wuchale treaty with the Italians in 1889, and one of his advisors found that article 17 of the Italian translation technically makes Ethiopia Italian protectorate. That was the catalyst for the First Ethio-Italian war in 1896 at the Battle of Adwa. Thus, the chances of the Emperor not understanding the proposal by the British is very slim.

The second so-called “agreement” regarding the utilization of the Nile River was signed in 1929, but it was between Britain and its protectorate Egypt with the exclusion of the upper riparian countries. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty covered many issues regarding the utilization of the Nile water and its tributaries. According to the so-called “treaty”, it granted Egypt an annual water allocation of 48 billion cubic meters, and Britain’s other colony Sudan will get 4 billion cubic meters out of an estimated average generate of 84 billion cubic meters. Moreover, it grants “Egypt the authority to veto any construction projects on the Nile River or any other tributaries that could reduce the flow of water into the Nile.”[7] Thus, Egypt gets the lion share and get to dictate the terms in which other tributaries could utilize the water. Britain’s involvement in this treaty was not to help Egypt or Sudan, but its colonial interest in the agricultural products, such as cotton and other raw materials that were important for its industrialized economy back in the United Kingdom. Nonetheless, following their independence from Britain in 1959, Egypt and Sudan strengthened the 1929 colonial agreement by increasing their water share drastically. Now, based on the new agreement “Egypt gets 55.5 billion cubic meters of water up from 48 billion cubic meters and Sudan gets 18.5 billion cubic meters up from 4 billion cubic meters, leaving only 10 billion cubic meters which are left for seepage and evaporation. Moreover, in case there is an increase in water flow that amount is shared by both countries.”[8]

The so-called new agreement between the two countries is ludicrous and leaves nothing for the rest nine tributaries of the Nile river. Egypt has utilized its undisputed lion share of the Nile water to build one of the largest dams in the world, Aswan in 1970. The building of the dam following its independence has changed Egypt forever economically and politically. Economically, according to the World Bank data of 2019, Egypt has become a lower-middle-income country with the GDP ranked third in Africa as one of the largest, after Nigeria and South Africa. Politically and militarily, Egypt has built one of the strongest armies in the whole region and the Middle East that has put the nation as an influential regional power.

In February 1999, the first intergovernmental organization that includes all the tributaries of the Nile River was established to promote “equitable” utilization of the water resource. The initiative is an intergovernmental partnership of 10 Nile Basin countries, and Eritrea participates as an observer. The leadership is comprised of water Ministers in each member state and the technical advisory committee is comprised of senior government officials two from each member state.[9]

Despite Egypt’s membership and objectives of the initiative, nothing significant has been achieved since its establishment for various reasons. One of the main reasons being Egypt’s unwillingness to compromise with the upper riparian countries, particularly Ethiopia. For instance, Egypt refused to sign an agreement multiple times regarding the utilization of the Nile River by the upper riparian countries, wrongfully claiming that it would threaten its “fair share” of the water. Notably, the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) where the framework was designed by the signatories of the initiative that has outlined the concept of equitable water share and Nile river governance. Although the document was ready for signature beginning from May 10th of 2010 Egypt and Sudan refused to sign the agreement arguing that it won’t protect their so-called “acquired rights.” Egypt and Sudan pointed out sections from the accord’s article 14(b), that states: “Nile Basin states, therefore, agree, in a spirit of cooperation:…(b) not to significantly affect the water security of any other Nile Basin state.”[10] Instead, the two countries proposed a replacement for the article “Nile Basin states therefore agree, in a spirit of cooperation…not to significantly after the water security and current uses and rights of any other Nile Basin state.”[11]

The new proposal from Egypt and Sudan perpetuates the status quo without giving any thought for the rest of the tributaries. It was instantly rejected by the upper riparian states, in which they argued that Egypt and Sudan’s new proposal is a zero-sum game that has been put in place since 1920’s neglecting the interest of the rest nine riparian states. Egypt and Sudan’s (to a lesser extent) position is unfair to the upper riparian states by many accounts. It deprives those nations from figuring their way out from extreme poverty by utilizing this vital resource. On the other hand, Egypt and Sudan’s disproportionate utilization of the Nile water has not produced any solution for the upper riparian nations. On the contrary, Ethiopia’s utilization of the Nile water would bring a great deal of benefit for the entire region. For all concerned parties to give up their interest for greater outcome would be acceptable, however, to give up their interest and getting nothing out of it is a big loss.

The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)

Ethiopia is the source of the Blue Nile, despite its history of being among the ancient civilizations it has never utilized the water to the predicament of its citizens. Indeed, Ethiopia has never been dependent on the Nile River and it has failed even to utilize one per cent of the water for its agricultural dependent economy, where eighty per cent of the entire population is employed. The second populous country in Africa has a young population with a high unemployment rate. Over thirty per cent of the population lives under the poverty line earning less than two dollars a day. The agricultural sector where the country is dependent for its national income is prone to drought and a victim of primitive agricultural practices. Sixty-five per cent of the population lives without access to electricity and clean water.[12] The problems are countless, and we are not even talking about other things, these are basic things that are a challenge for Ethiopians.

Ethiopia needed to look to other ways and designed a scheme to employ its large size youth population and create opportunities for everyone, but that cannot be achieved without access to secure energy. For instance, Ethiopia is becoming a regional hub for foreign direct investment (FDI), the main reason for being cheap labour. However, the country is challenged with the lack of consistent energy to provide for the industries that it is trying to entice. Today without access to secure energy, it is impossible to achieve the dreams of many Ethiopians and Africans at large to come out of extreme poverty. Living out of the generosity of traditional western global powers is not feasible anymore because of their mounting problems at home. Although other African nations have plenty of natural resources, lack of mismanagement, corruption and civil strife that has been perpetuated by global powers, they have not managed to come out of extreme poverty. Ethiopia is one of the resource-poor nations in Sub-Saharan Africa and it was time for Ethiopia to explore its options to utilize the one vital resource that the nation has. Since the time of Emperor Haile Selassie, Ethiopia has been trying to utilize the Blue Nile, but it has lacked the knowledge and was not able to secure the wherewithal to achieve its ambition.

On April 2, 2011, the longtime leader of Ethiopia, the late prime minister Meles Zenawi inaugurated the construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile in Benishangul-Gumuz region 626 KM from Sudan. Ethiopia who has failed to secure the funding for the project from the western-backed multilateral institutions, have finally raised the finance needed for the project estimated $4 billion USD domestically. That includes private donations, pledge, and purchasing of government bonds. Even civil servants who are the least paid in the nation, living at the time of economic inflation were contributing to the dam project from their low monthly salary. According to the initial schedule the project was supposed to be completed within five years, but that did not happen for various reasons including mismanagement and squandering of millions of dollars by the local government contractors that took the project of developing the turbine for power generation with no experience. Nonetheless, as of May 2020, it is 73 per cent completed according to the government and is on the final stage to start the first phase of filling of the dam.

Egypt’s Reaction to the Building of the Dam

In 2011 when the Dam project inaugurated, Egypt was in a political upheaval where millions of people were on the street demanding the resignation of their longtime leader Hosni Mubarak, which marked the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring. Egypt will not leave any stone unturned to prevent Ethiopia from completing the GERD dam project. However, since Ethiopia has raised the funds domestically and doing the project within its territory, it does not have any legitimacy or ground to dispute it as illegal in the international arena. The new leader of Egypt, Al Sisi is taking a strong stance and not allowing any compromise what he wrongfully perceived as protecting Egypt’s interest. Sudan who sided with Egypt for a long time on the Nile water issues now understands that the benefits outweigh their insecurity over the building of the dam. According to the studies, following the completion of the dam and once it has become functional, Sudan gets cheaper electricity and GERD is expected to “regulate the flood level.”[13] However, the new “transitional” government of Sudan is retreating from their previous leader’s stance and is looking to strike a new deal with Ethiopia. Although, Sudan is benefiting from the dam, it is wary of the “operation and safety of the GERD and said it could endanger Sudan’s own dam.”[14]

Now, Egypt who understands it cannot stop the building of the dam wants to secure an agreement that will not affect its “fair share.” Accordingly, in 2015 Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt agreed on a Declaration of Principles that stipulated “equitable and reasonable” utilization of the Nile that will not cause “significant harm” to other riparian countries.[15] This has been the biggest mistake for Ethiopia to sign the agreement and it shows the bad faith of the Egyptian on the utilization of the water. Some could argue that, based on the current utilization of the Nile river, it is not “equitable and reasonable”. Technically, the Nile water is utilized by two nations out of the eleven tributaries today. Where is the “equitable and reasonable” utilization? That is the language that the Egyptians want to manipulate and argue that any construction on the dam will be against the 2015 agreement.

Egypt is playing a dangerous political game in the dam dispute with Ethiopia. While negotiating for a deal with Ethiopia on one side, it is lobbying multilateral institutions to pressure Ethiopia to go ahead with its schedule of filling the dam. Now, the biggest concern of Egypt is the filling of the dam. The GERD reservoir has the potential to hold about 74 billion cubic meters of water. In the coming rainy season beginning late July, Ethiopia has planned to start phase one of filling the dam depending on the amount of rain it gains. Based on the Ethiopian schedule the filling of the reservoir will take anywhere from four to seven years. However, Egypt wants Ethiopia to fill the dam within the period of twenty years. The reasoning being Egypt is already facing a crisis with its growing population coupled with climate change, the government is refusing to take any risk that lowers the annual flow of the Nile River. In other words, Egypt is claiming it is a life and death situation for its people. Ethiopia has the same legitimate claim that GERD is a life and death situation for Ethiopians. Currently, the negotiations are not going anywhere, and Egypt is engaged in another lobbying effort to step up pressure on Ethiopia. The Egyptian foreign minister has written a letter to the United Nations Security Council and warned that it is an “existential threat” for its people and indicated that the dispute with Ethiopia might ensue conflict. Moreover, Egypt as an important ally to the western powers including the United States and a powerful Arab country wants to leverage its strategic position to consolidate support from all-powerful countries and institutions.

Prime Minister of Ethiopia Abiy Ahmed’s first destination of his overseas working trip was Egypt, where he stands next to Mr. Sisi and assured him that “Ethiopia will not do anything to harm Egypt’s share of the Nile water.”[16]However, there is a clear misunderstanding in defining “fair share.” For the Egyptians as discussed above, “fair share” means the continuation of the status quo. However, the Ethiopian government and the rest of the upper riparian countries understanding of fair share is the equitable utilization of the water resource. The deliberate misunderstanding of the term “fair share” from the Egyptian side is an attempt to prolong the negotiations and the filling of the dam.

The construction of Aswan dam in 1970 following the revolution was a great leap towards development for Egypt. The dam construction was intended at that time to regulate flooding, enhance irrigation, and provide hydroelectric power that would facilitate the then planned Egyptian industrialization. Egypt did not consult or advise Ethiopia as a key contributor for the Nile water when it builds the Aswan Dam, or any other riparian countries for that matter. Now, Ethiopia is exactly doing what Egypt did in the 1970s. As Aswan dam played a significant role in today’s Egypt, Ethiopia hopes the GERD will play a similar role in the nation’s ambition to come out of extreme poverty to sustainable growth. Though, there is one significant difference from Egypt’s approach of building the Aswan dam, Ethiopia is addressing the concerns of the lower riparian countries including Egypt before the completion of the dam.

 Does Ethiopia have a Legitimacy and Urgent Need to Complete the Dam ASAP?

As far as international law is concerned, Ethiopia is building the dam in its own territory and planned to utilize its natural resources for development appropriately without the intention of harming any other country. Some might ask Ethiopians to have survived for the past thousands of years without utilizing this water resource, why the urgent need now? According to the data collected from the world bank, and and illustrated in the graphs below (Fig. 1 & 2), Ethiopia is in a dire situation and urgent need of finding ways to address the challenges that its people face every day. Notice that this is just a glimpse in the daily lives of millions of Ethiopians. Let us take the figure below and try to analyze some of the data compiled throughout the last 30 years.

Fig 1.  “Water Crisis – Learn About the Global Water Crisis,” (, 2017),

Based on the data available as recent as 2017, regarding death because of lack of access to clean water, Egypt has registered 3.340291 deaths per 100,000 of its population. Whereas, Ethiopia in the same year has scored a staggering 72.98917 deaths per 100,000 people related to lack of access to clean water. There are millions of people that lack access to clean water in Sub-Saharan Africa, and Ethiopia is one of those countries that most of its population does not have access to clean water or no water at all (in some instances). The figure above shows Ethiopia has come a long way just in the past 30 years in terms of access to clean water, however it is still scoring higher death rates. Egypt on the other hand essentially secured clean water access to its population.

Fig 2, World Bank (2020) Access to Electricity (% of Population) 1992-2018