Ethiopian power play can electrify regional cooperation

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam can transform Ethiopia even while it looks out for its downstream neighbors’ needs.

From learned legal debates on what defines ‘significant harm’, to allegations about mediators-turned-arm-twisters; the benign, but naïvely optimistic, talk of carrying on in the spirit of the stalled Cooperative Framework Agreement, to the pragmatic appeal of the 2015 Declaration of Principles, there are abundant choices to provoke a heated discussion about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

Notwithstanding, given what would be at stake in the event of a prolonged Nile crisis, this article focuses on the following three aspects:

  • The privileges the GERD affords Ethiopia to provide for its riparian brethren;
  • The numbers posing problems; namely, the releases expected from GERD during drought and dry spells;
  • And, geopolitically more important, why Ethiopia opposes a legally binding agreement, including the resolution of disputes by arbitration.

In the last section, I will focus on the methods chosen for dispute resolution, and highlight why Ethiopia is justified in refusing to lay the GERD—this pride of its people—at the mercy of a global order where might equals right.

But let me get over with the part that may be the most annoying to the hawks among my countrymen.

The privilege to provide

I will be matter of fact: Sudan and Egypt need the GERD’s water—and there will be a lot of it—more than we do. Please do not read ‘Abay’ in place of ‘GERD’. This statement is not about water rights. It is about how to collaboratively use the GERD, a dam that impounds, at full capacity, an amount of water that is almost twice the average annual flow of the Blue Nile shortly before Abay crosses the border into Sudan.

The GERD reservoir’s capacity is 74 billion cubic meters (BCM) at a height of 640 meters above sea level (MASL). The initial filling target is 49 BCM at 625 MASL at the end of the dry season and the beginning of the wet season in any given year; the first being 2025, if all goes to plan and the Rain Gods behave, for everyone’s sake.

The reservoir will fill to the brim during the ensuing kiremt, and at least 25 billion cubic meters, drawing down from brim to 625 MASL, will then be released at a schedule of Ethiopia’s choosing throughout the year, to make room for flood routing, to simultaneously both generate electricity and meet Sudan and Egypt’s (somewhat legitimate) water needs.

There is practically no irrigable land along this 20-kilometer stretch before the Sudanese border. Ethiopia has no plan to use the GERD for irrigation; well, not for herself, at least. Water used for electricity will result in a regulated downstream flow that will enable whoever is in-between the Mediterranean and our Grand Dam to use it for their crops. With flood plains on the Nile banks and several dams across the river, Sudan has plenty of such advantages. Egypt, too, has the High Aswan Dam (HAD), Lake Nasser, and seven other barrages placed along a 1,200 km stretch of the Nile, feeding over 13,000 kilometers of canals, through which it can gain a similar advantage.

The two countries depend on the Nile for navigation, electricity and, more critically, for municipal use, including drinking water. The GERD is also supposed to protect settlements along the Nile’s path from extreme floods and excessive silt during wet months. In addition to a regulated year-round flow, the GERD is located in a less arid climate than HAD and has less surface area per reservoir volume, which reduces evaporation and leaves more water for downstream use during the year. No matter how large their dead storages are, sooner or later silt eroded from the Ethiopian highlands will fill up Sudanese and Egyptian Nile dams. The GERD will delay that calamity, which for the HAD may otherwise have happened around 2150, by about 60 years.

But to be fair to the environment, a dam GERD’s size is likely to be a hostile intrusion on any robust riverine ecosystem—let alone on one as distressed as the Easter Nile’s. Even the seemingly simple issue of trapping silt has the potential to impoverish downstream wetlands; with less silt, the river’s water is likely to be more torrential and erosive to the fragile fluvial ecosystems. The debate whether Sudanese farmers are better off pumping up a regulated dry season flow than depending on seasonal recession floods also still rages.

Of all the benefits of the GERD, none is more valuable, and least debatable, than the priorities the two downstream countries will enjoy on GERD-generated energy contracts, as per the Agreement for the Declaration of Principles on the GERD (DoP). The DoP is an agreement among peers and these priorities may even supersede Ethiopia’s. Using these priorities, Egypt and Sudan can even insist on the GERD meeting a sustained base load of demand (regular rather than peak flows of electricity), in lieu of, for instance, the contentious environmental release.

Granted, environmental flows are derived via rigorous protocols, but the reportedly competing 500 cubic meters per second requested by Egypt and Ethiopia’s offer of 200 cubic meters per second are suspiciously close to the 90-year average maximum and minimum dry season volumes of the Blue Nile at GERD. The better option would have been for environmental impact studies determine the minimum requirement, but, post-DoP, the parties failed to agree on the baseline conditions for conducting such research.

Still, according to Ethiopian official studies, an energy contract with a minimum monthly supply of 750 gigawatt hours (GWh) and no less than a 1,000 GWh monthly average in any year will ensure a minimum monthly release of 2.4 BCM and a total annual release of 38 BCM. Negotiating for an average monthly energy supply of 1,227 GWh (in total, GERD is set to produce around 15,000 GWh a year) will guarantee an annual flow of over 47 BCM, just two BCM less than the annual average. Thus, the extended negotiations about mitigation releases for drought conditions and prolonged dry spells can be addressed in a mutually productive way—and Egypt’s environmental flow demand can be met in the course of generating foreign currency for Ethiopia.

Ultimately, providing for its historic riparian neighbors during dry spells from a vantage point of a scale as grand as the GERD will certainly be a great privilege for Ethiopia, one to be envied by future generations on both sides of the divide; it will also entrench regional cooperation. But a look at the actual numbers, which supposedly are thwarting progress in the negotiations, raises questions about why the parties have failed to collaborate, and instead got trapped in a stalemate after years of negotiations.

The numbers: hydrology and mitigation

No one country can claim sole riparian right to a transboundary river. Neither can anyone deny Ethiopia its fair share from such a flow, nor challenge the sovereignty it enjoys over its watercourses and structures thereon. Society at large may express notions contrary to the adage and opposite to that of the state; still, one wonders if such wrongheaded beliefs may not be used to pander to populist fervor that derails the desired objectivity of high-level technical and geopolitical negotiations.

Solutions hoping to induce the three riparian countries to collaborate on the GERD have been proposed several times with mixed success. By far the most successful was the summit in Khartoum that resulted in the DoP. Another achievement that preceded the DoP was the formation of the International Panel of Experts (IPoE), a panel of three pairs of national and four international, independent experts whose scrutiny of the GERD from a broad spectrum of perspectives led partly to the realization—and arguably, shortcomings—of the present-day issues after the recommended studies were never completed due to an array of disagreements.

By last February, the U.S. Treasury was at the center, impatiently steering Nile diplomacy through an array of hydrologic quantiles.  Over the years between the IPoE 2013 report and the US-World Bank brokered stillborn deal of 2020, Egypt has come a long way from its Pharaonic claims on the Nile and seemed ready to settle for sharing from the fruits of the Renaissance Dam. Most surprisingly, Egypt threw an initialed document on the negotiation table, an act that may have unsettled those tired of its strategy of throwing spanners in the works. If you ignore the obvious deal-breakers— namely, the perpetuity trap and the dispute resolution by arbitration—the guidelines and rules as initialed by Egypt was a document worthy of Ethiopia’s consideration. Most pertinently, despite Ethiopians in unison crying ‘water debt’ and ‘water sharing’, the Prolonged Dry Years and drought-mitigation releases sought are much less onerous than in earlier Egyptian positions.

Of course, there is still the risk of delaying reaching the full supply level of 640 MASL and 74 BCM reservoir storage by several years. But if that materializes due to below-average rainfall over the next half decade, Sudan and Egypt will be more at risk of significant harm from water and energy shortages than Ethiopia in the context of the utility of the GERD alone. That is because Ethiopia would be bound to produce energy, to use it or sell it, and also humanely release the equivalent amount of the water by default. Sudan and Egypt, depending on the level of their dams and the severity of their shortages, will then decide whether to save the water in their dams or produce energy and release it for downstream use (for Sudan this may entail a transboundary release issue similar to Ethiopia’s). The lack of a sunset clause—the proposed ten-year expiration came with the catch of requiring unanimity—may indeed make the guidelines and rules effectively a permanent Blue Nile water-allocation arrangement. But all these issues are negotiable when one looks at the benefits on offer from a collaborative operational framework.

The contested figures are either timelines or water lines. The timelines are about when to test generation with a few turbines; or when to commission the GERD’s full operational capacity. The water lines are about when and how much impounded water to use. That is, save water stored above, say, 610 MASL, for tomorrow’s energy production, or share it ‘now’ with the folks downstream, and generate power anyway.

There is also the added uncertainty of what future developments may be induced, or thwarted, by a GERD agreement—but this issue too is being overblown. However favorable the GERD may be for downstream irrigation, the amount of economically irrigable land in the Sudanese Nile Basin only needs a maximum of 4 BCM of the enhanced annual flow. As to the prospects of future Ethiopian irrigation developments that may jeopardize current GERD guidelines, or vice versa, the amount of land that can be economically irrigated in the relevant section of the Blue Nile Basin is estimated to be not much more than around half a million of hectares. With a water need of 5,000 cubic meters per hectare, the annual abstraction from potential economical irrigation schemes will be around 2.5 BCM. This would be a mere five percent of the Grand Dam’s live storage.

Above all, quite aside from reflecting a reaffirmation of the 1959 Nile water quotas of 55.5 BCM to Egypt and 18.5 BCM to Sudan, the likelihood of the dam remaining half empty owing to burdens of mitigation releases prescribed by the Washington Agreement  may be farfetched. There is a significantly wide margin between the mitigation thresholds and the regular flows. While the long-term average Blue Nile flow at GERD is 49 BCM, the minimum expected releases during the first stage filling (the fait accompli of 560 MASL for this year and the minimum operating level of 595 MASL next year) is only 31 BCM.

The flow rates at which threshold for prolonged four years of drought and prolonged five years of dry are set at an average of 37 and 40 BCM, respectively. In addition, drought (dry) mitigation releases, which kick-in based on a four (five) year moving average flow rates, are at Ethiopia’s discretion, provided half of the requirement is satisfied in any year. Numerically, this mandatory annual release works out to an eighth of the water retained above an agreed threshold (say, 610 MASL) in case of prolonged droughts, and a tenth of the storage in case of prolonged dry spells. This is by no means overly burdensome.

Much of the Blue Nile flows between June and November. And mitigating is all about compensating for the hydrologic imbalance from impounding the wet flows by a minimum release from reservoir holdings during the dry months. Presumably for this purpose, negotiations on filling and operation set the hydrologic year to begin in July and the mitigation-release year to begin in November. This helps decide on how much to hold or release from the abundance of the four months in between, and much of the uncertainties of the mitigation year may be resolved early on. If the wet flows are above normal, flood-mitigation measures, which get accounted into the current release year water balance, will likely fulfill most of the drought-release requirements. If the flows are below average, the calendar allows four months to ponder on how to correct the imbalance (the mitigation release) from replenished reservoir levels in the remainder of the hydrological year.

There is also an unnervingly smart idea that suggests the generation of the majority of the 15,000 GWh annual energy of the GERD—roughly equivalent to Ethiopia’s current yearly electricity production–during the wet flows from June to October. This will release nearly all the flow on the Blue Nile as if the GERD was a run-of-the-river power plant featuring a huge concrete weir. Promoters of this idea say the energy produced will allow Ethiopia to fully replenish reservoirs in Ethiopian river basins other than the Nile, in order to use them for production of electricity during the dry season.

Such a radical idea may have been a reaction to the increase of the Grand Dam’s capacity to its present enormity. With a plant factor of 35 percent—the ratio of the energy produced annually by the available water to the total annual energy that could be generated from the installed capacity if there was no limitation of water—the GERD is often criticized for its relative inefficiency. As an owner, I counter that the dam has both “girth and reach”, meaning it can respond to peak load as well as total demand.

Based on an unpublished report by dam owner Ethiopia Electric Power on share of energy production, with the exception of Tana Beles’ impressive 60 percent, Ethiopian hydro-dams rarely feature plant factors higher than that of the GERD’s. In 2017, Gibe III’s was 30 percent, while Tekeze’s only 26 percent. The average plant factor for all the country’s installed capacity was a mere 35 percent, as much as the GERD’s would be when its installed capacity reaches 5,150 MW.

By the above reasoning, the presence of a long-term energy contract with downstream countries will be helpful for simultaneously planning the annual water supply for energy contracts as well as drought mitigation. An energy contract that aims to satisfy a pre-determined base, average, and peak load regularly may, by default, also satisfy the annual mitigation release burden, in years when that is an issue.

Unfortunately, contested water rights are no less acrimonious than border disputes. Hostilities often endure across civilizations or collapses thereof. A modern energy contract derived from probable numerical outcomes, however sophisticated, may not allay the fears emanating from an entrenched hydro-hegemonic order.

The rule of law or might is right

It is now common knowledge how Washington midwifed a precipitated labor to deliver a severely stunted deal. Ethiopia may have many issues against the Washington text, but its refusal to be legally bound by its rules, and objections to resolving disputes via arbitration, conforms to the assertive posture it has assumed in Nile geopolitics since embarking on its grand project a decade ago.

With the finishing line in site, and Ethiopian resoluteness winning the day, now is by no means the time to adopt a meek stance.

A sustainable resolution of any tension among Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan requires high-level discernment and insightful leadership. Yet, despite over a century of contesting postures over the Nile waters, the three countries have few binding legacies by which any claims may be evaluated, let alone disputes resolved. As things stand, March 2015’s DOP is the latest agreement between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.

That agreement on principles was a big win for Ethiopia. Its importance was refreshed once again when the preamble to the Washington-sponsored document, “reaffirming the agreement of the DoP”, stated “the purpose of [the DoP] was to provide general principles to guide and facilitate the present agreement”.  And Article 10, the “Principle of Peaceful Settlement of Disputes” stipulates that “disputes may be resolved by consultation or negotiation” and failing that “mediation or conciliation or may refer the matter for the consideration of the Heads of Governments/States” of the three countries.

About the time the DoP was signed, a scholarly study by Rafia Tawfik, of Cairo University, investigated the claim the GERD is the pinnacle of Ethiopia’s counter-hegemonic response to Egypt. The scholar questioned if such geopolitical tit-for-tat will ever bring about a more stable water order, and subtly suggested counter-hegemonic initiatives such as Ethiopia’s might worsen regional stability more than the unfair order dominated by Egypt. To be fair, the analysis recommends water rights and regional stability are best ensured by a shared-benefit framework. But even the concern on the futility of countering a hydro-hegemon may be unwarranted in the case of the GERD, as the evidence suggests the path Ethiopia traveled along that line has started to yield tangible rewards.

The advancement of Ethiopian Nile policy—from an “apparent consent” to a “veiled-contest” and finally to an “open contest”, to use Miss Tawfik’s scholarly phrases—has been documented since the 1902 agreement between Britain’s Edward and Ethiopia’s Menelik II, in which the latter undertook “not to construct any structures on the Blue Nile,[…], that would have the effect of obstructing the flow of [the] Nile”. The reference to the Blue Nile was a sly insertion in a treaty intended, according to the preamble, “to establish the frontier between Sudan and Ethiopia”. But in the spirit of the quip by the late Meles Zenawi, that “only God can ‘arrest the flow” of the Nile”, the upstream country might have had the last laugh from this archaic treaty.

During the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie I, dreams about Blue Nile dams recommended by the United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR), including the Border Dam (later, the GERD), were elusively unattainable. After the Emperor, “arresting the Nile” would be unthinkable due to decades of rebellion in northern Ethiopia during which the riparian states waged a proxy war against each other. And when that ended, the agreement between Meles and Hosni Mubarak, “Framework for General Co-operation between Ethiopia and Egypt”, in which they agreed to “work out in detail the use of the Nile waters through discussions by experts on both sides” and “cooperate on projects that are mutually advantageous [and] enhance the flow of the Nile through comprehensive and integrated development schemes”, was the beginning of the “veiled contest”, which eventually led to the GERD and the Declaration of Principles in 2015.

The provision by the DoP for disputes to be resolved by negotiations among the heads of state was an appreciation that any Nile water contest will reduce down to geopolitical currency. The theoretical framework is clear on how the hegemon ‘sets the rules of the game’ and dictates the water discourse for a ‘consolidated control’ that leaves no room for riparian dissent, thus defining what is contextually right by contextual might.

Hence, it is too much to ask Ethiopia to agree to GERD rules which are legally binding, nor will it be plausible for it to allow disputes to be resolved by international arbitration. Centuries of suffering from global inequity has led developing states to mistrust a lopsided world order—and the aspiring new Ethiopian leadership may have even more reason to recoil from any external redress or duress. More so, for at least three consecutive summers, during which it may carry-on with the first stage filling of the GERD based on the guidelines initialed by Egypt, and Ethiopian negotiators will still have the luxury of extracting the best deal out of future talks, making the GERD the most collaboratively effective dam in the Nile Basin.

As to those who threaten either to stall or withdraw their support, may they note whatever kindness was hitherto bestowed upon this resilient people, the true source of their fortitude lies in their unity against intruders, and their capacity to fend for themselves, however meagre that may be.

And in the final analysis, the fairness of the international arbitration system may not even be relevant in the context of the GERD. By refusing to be subject to a world water order that defined right and wrong long before the maturity of its counter-contest, Ethiopia is claiming its rightful place in Nile Basin politics. Most of the riparian states appreciate this fact. The trouble was, in February, the mediators did not. Let us hope the continental alternatives will fare better in discerning that in today’s dovish-peacock of the Horn of Africa, there still resides the indomitable lion of the Abay Gorge.

Cooperation on regional peace and integrated development with all our neighbors has been of greater geopolitical and economic value than most of our remote partnerships. Instead of hanging the balance of our common good on rainfall patterns that few are likely to forecast with any certitude, we need to sincerely appreciate each other’s legitimate concerns and wisely expand the promise of the DoP towards regional economic integration.

Meanwhile, we Ethiopians, after emerging on top in this grand geopolitical debate, must repurpose our collective mobilization over the GERD to inject energy into addressing our broader development challenges.

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Editor: William Davison

Main photo: The GERD reservoir after the first filling.

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Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. Cite Ethiopia Insight and link to this page if republished. 

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About the author

Tsedeke Yihunie Woldu

Tsedeke is the founder of Flintstone Engineering & Homes, the President of the Ethiopian Chess Federation, and a long-time economic policy activist.


  • Lots of good info, but the author incomprehensibly neglects the Crux of the matter: Ethiopia wants to use Nile water to generate electricity primarily FOR EXPORT, at a price of course. And at the economic expense of the water users downstream. Is Ethiopia offering to somehow “make whole” those downstream that suffered from Ethiopia’s actions? I don’t think so. Maybe Ethiopia wants to be the kickoff, first in line, of this century’s coming water wars. Who knows but it’s definitely putting its own economic interest, a little bit too avariciously if you ask me, way in front of its regional neighbors, which is never a good idea. Just saying….

    • Why can’t we export and get the Economy grow in turn getting the people of Ethiopia out of poverty?! Why would the down stream Country suffer, we are not diverting the water, it flows right down after making the electricity. I think Egypt wants to see Ethiopia in poverty, because the idea of prospers Ethiopia intimidates Egypt!

  • Thank you! I have learned so many scientific and legal insights here. Let the indomitable lion push even more in such incredibly rational appeal.

  • I don’t necessarily agree with the writer on everything included in the piece. However, I found the piece to be detailed, panoramic and assertive. Good job!

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