Ethiopia’s Grand Nile dam represents justice, not a threat

The GERD will not harm downstream countries and instead marks Ethiopia overcoming decades of Egyptian aggression

In 1929, Egypt, nominally an independent kingdom, but in reality still controlled by imperial Britain, signed the Anglo-Egyptian agreement over the Nile, which gave it legal hegemony over the world’s longest river.

In a bilateral 1959 treaty, Sudan was allocated 18.5 billion cubic meters per annum, and evaporation 10 bcm, leaving the other 55.5 bcm for Egypt.

Both manifestly unfair agreements left out the nine upstream African countries.

Ethiopia launched the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in 2011, driven by this injustice and a desire to escape poverty through industrial development. South Korea alone consumes more energy than Africa, excluding Egypt and South Africa.

That is the correct perspective to understand the GERD.

Egypt asserts that GERD threatens its claimed share of the Nile. Rather than adjusting to the new reality, Cairo tries to uphold the unjust historic agreements. The 2014 version of its national constitution makes the stance clear: “The state commits to protecting the Nile River, maintaining Egypt’s historic rights thereto.”

Out of Africa

In a sign of its bad faith during the GERD discussions, Cairo has taken the debate outside of Africa by approaching the Arab League and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Yet the 2015 Declaration of Principles (DoP) between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan says:

“The Three countries will settle disputes, arising out of the interpretation or implementation of this agreement, amicably through consultation or negotiation in accordance with the principle of good faith.”

After the failed U.S.-led talks, in February, Ethiopia notified Egypt and Sudan about the first two years of filling of the reservoir—whose technicalities have been agreed by all parties—which resumed in May this year. Egypt rejected the suggestion and instead wrote a letter on 1 May to UNSC accusing Ethiopia of not respecting the DoP by acting unilaterally. Cairo did the same after the trio resumed talks in June.

In addition to the DoP, Article 33 of the UN Charter says disputes should first be handled at the regional level. Ethiopia maintains this while giving priority to the DoP. Egypt, on the other hand, has violated principles in the agreement.

For instance, the first insists on “Principle of Cooperation” “to cooperate in understanding upstream and downstream water needs in its various aspects” and the fourth one is the “Principle of Equitable and Reasonable utilization.” Notwithstanding, Egypt fails to respect upstream states development needs, including via power generation and irrigation. It worries only about its quota of water, and even at times wants to ensure the GERD agreement maintains a minimum volume at the Aswan High Dam, a condition Ethiopia rejects as it’s out of its hands.

Egypt has been against the GERD from the outset, and also scuppered the Cooperative Framework Agreement designed to replace the obsolete colonial-era accords. Now it’s insisting on minimum releases from GERD during times of below average rainfall to ensure its needs—as in, its 1959 quota—are guaranteed. Ethiopia rightly baulked at these demands and stuck to its principles.


Egypt and Egyptians maintains that they rely on the Nile for 90 percent of their water. In January, Qatar’s Al Jazeera documented an Egyptian minister saying, other Nile basin countries have “other water sources but Egypt has only Nile.” This is not a fact. Instead Egypt has been using false information to play the victim.

Aswan High Dam’s Lake Nasser is the largest man-made lake in Africa. The project not only expanded irrigated agriculture in Egypt, but also alleviated drought. It can hold about 1.5 times the average annual flow of the Nile. Egypt also has enormous amount of aquifer groundwater that can green its desert. Abdel-Shafy and Kamel in their 2016 co-authored research asserts; “Groundwater is one of the most important resources of water in Egypt. It ranks the second source after the Nile”.

Mariam G. Salim (2012) adds that this groundwater is not only available in vast amount but so is desalination using solar as Egypt lie in a part of the world with the highest number of sun hours. Egypt can therefore do more to desalinate the waters of the Mediterranean and Red seas. In fact, Egypt has built numerous seawater desalination plants in the coastal governorate Marsa Matrouh, with a capacity to purify up to 100,000 cubic meters of seawater daily.

Instead of pursuing alternatives, Egypt continue to insist on its patently unjust Nile share—to the detriment of upstream livelihoods. This status quo was unfair and thus unacceptable.

Slap in the face

Ethiopian rivers are a source of 86 percent of the Nile, and the river as important to Ethiopia as it is to Egypt. Moreover, there are nine riparian states that should have equal rights to the water that they share. For now, though, the North African country uses the Nile for drinking water, hydropower, and irrigation—including, infamously, the Toshka Project to green the desert—whereas the GERD is merely for generating electricity. More than half of Ethiopians live in darkness, while close to 100 percent Egyptian enjoy artificial light, some of it powered by the Nile.

The river is existential to Ethiopia: 70 percent of its waters are tributaries to Nile and out of its total water resources 97 percent of its water is transboundary. And 70 percent of its irrigation and hydropower sources are dependent on the Nile. So, this defies those who claim Ethiopia has alternatives. Moreover, Ethiopia is landlocked and does not have the desalination option, unless it was to deepen its economic integration with Djibouti.

Another incident that indicates Egypt’s disrespectful position was in 1978 during Sadat’s visit in Haifa. He announced his plan to construct the Suez Canal tunnel and said to the Israelis:

“After the tunnel is completed, I am planning to bring the sweet Nile waters- this is the sweetest of the four big rivers of the whole world to the Sinai. Well, why not send you some of this sweet water to the Negev Desert as good neighbors?”

This was a slap on the face to Ethiopia. On one hand, Cairo warns Addis Ababa that if Ethiopia uses Nile for its development it would go to war. On the other, Cairo offers Israel the waters of Nile.

Displacement theory

When completed, GERD will fill a 74-billion cubic meter capacity reservoir. It will generate power and reduce flooding in Sudan. The GERD will enable it to brings light not just to Ethiopians, but to neighboring countries, so generating foreign currency. As it generates electricity, water will flow downstream.

The negative impacts listed mostly by Egyptian researchers are that 60 percent of agricultural land in Egypt will be lost, and during filling up of the reservoir water flow may decrease by 25 percent among others. In contrast, Ethiopian researchers studied GERD’s impacts during impounding. They concluded that under normal and wet flow scenarios, it has no significant impact on agricultural in Egypt.

The worst scenario, according to Mulat et al, is if there’s consecutive six years of drought, like the 1980s, during filling. In this case, if the flow is lower by 10 percent or more, then the planned six years filling of GERD is insufficient to fill the reservoir without affecting downstream water uses. In that scenario, Ethiopia would slow the filling. This accommodative Ethiopian position is roundly ignored by the Egyptian press.

The Aswan High Dam was Egypt’s giant leap forward. It brought light to Egyptian households and enabled the cultivation of hundreds of thousands of acres of desert, achieving year-round crop production. Nevertheless, the gains were not without losses. The dam displaced 120,000 Nubians who become refugees in their own country. Secondly, the dam was terrible for archeology, as it meant the costly relocation of 20 temples in Nubia.

Thirdly, annually, four million tons of fertile soil washed away from the highlands of Ethiopia with the flood, and which were used as a natural fertilizer for farmers, now clogged up the reservoir. This led farmers to use artificial fertilizers that cause health problems.

War drums

Egypt is playing with three cards: Arab, Islam and Africa. Okechukwu maintains that Africa comes last for Egypt. Nasser himself affirmed this and made it clear that Islam and Africa are of secondary importance.  For Egypt, African institutions are a final resort to solve issues that arise within Africa. Its current participation in the African Union process is after involving the Arab League and the UNSC.

Egypt’s attitude to sub-Saharan Africa is affected by its pan-Arabism and alliance with the U.S.. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who tells it like it is, said in 2013 “No African wants to hurt Egypt; however, Egypt cannot continue to hurt black Africa and the countries of the tropics of Africa.” Ultimately, the Nile is in Africa, and the riparians are African states – therefore Egypt should seek an African solution.

Egyptian drums of war against Ethiopia have been beating since independence and are supported by the constitution. “Egypt is ready to go to war with any nation that is going to stop the flow of river Nile,” an expert said in a 2011 documentary. Ethiopians know that Egypt has invaded Ethiopia and assisted Ethiopian rebels. In the last century alone, Egypt destabilized Ethiopia through supplying weapons, opening offices for rebels in Cairo (Kendie, 1999) and funding opposition parties’ media.[1]

These are some instances of Egyptian belligerence:

Nasser, 1967:

After Egypt’s defeat during Six Days war with Israel in 1967, President Gamal Abdel Nasser said; “There is no reason for Egypt to go to war except for water.”

Sadat, 1978 (May 13):

Any action that would endanger the water of the Blue Nile will be faced with a firm reaction on the part of Egypt, even if that action should lead to war. As the Nile waters issue is one of life and death for my people, I feel I must urge the United States to speed up the delivery of the Promised military aid so that Egypt might not be caught napping.” (Kendie, 1999)

Hosni Mubarak, 2010:

“If it comes to a crisis, we will send a jet to bomb the dam and come back in one day, simple as that. Or we can send our special forces in to military option now. ….”

Muhammed Morsi, June 2013:

Methods of destroying the dam be considered, including support anti-government rebels.”  Later a presidential advisor has apologized about this scandal. Yet again, Morsi was also quoted saying “if the Nile decrease by drops then our blood is the alternative.”

El-Sisi, September 2019:

Egyptian President Abdul Fattah El-Sisi has been busy holding meeting with the military officials, visiting military sites and sending out directly and indirectly war messages to Ethiopia.  He was quoted as saying in September last year that it would never have got under way had Egypt not been distracted by the political turmoil.

This is serious war talk from presidents. Furthermore, the belligerence is are echoed by Egypt’s military generals, government officials, political parties and the national experts in the area. In reaction to the recent escalation and Egypt’s war signals, Ethiopian army visited GERD and announced its readiness to “retaliate if there are any attacks.”


To acclaim from its people, Ethiopia has now completed the first-year filling. As Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said prior to that delayed event, Ethiopia has no intention to harm Egypt, only to develop its own economy. The GERD for Ethiopia is a national pride, something that cannot be reversed. Most Ethiopians are behind it.

The passion of Ethiopia and Egypt about their dams is understandable, but Egypt’s opposition to GERD is mostly incomprehensible. Ethiopia has all the right to build its dam within its territory. It does not need approval to develop its own resources. Egypt needs to wake up to a new world and accept the fact that all riparian states have rights. Today it is Ethiopia’s dam, but in the coming years, Tanzania, Burundi, Congo and other will build their own. Thus, as Meles Zenawi said: “The Egyptians have yet to make up their minds as to whether they want to live in the 21st or the 19th century.”

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Editor: William Davison
Main photo: After the first filling of GERD; 23 July 2020; ENA

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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

Mahlet Ayele Beyecha

Mahlet is an independent Pan-African researcher. She holds a Research Masters in African Studies from Leiden University and MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Ben Gurion University. Reach her at


  • Ethiopia has had a history of starvation because Egypt was taking all the water. To be fair Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan should share the water equally. For Egypt to want to claim all the water is not only callous but also unfair.

  • This is the best peice of writing by far from many that i have read recently. Packed with more accurate information.

  • 86% of Abay river(Nile River) is generated in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is a producer of the river not only has the right to use it to generate electricity at Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project but also has a total right both naturally, legally and morally can use it’s own river for further developments. Ethiopia has its sovereign right and power to use its own water.
    And please use the term Abay river ( not Nile River) let’s call its river name by its indigenous and authentic name from its source. The term Nile is used after the river exits Ethiopian boarder. Within its boarder its official name is “Abay River” which means the Father of Rivers. This gives clarity to the world.

  • 86% of Abay river(Nile River) is generated in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is a producer of the river not only has the right to use it to generate electricity at Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project but also has a total right both naturally, legally and morally can use it’s own river for further developments. Ethiopia has its sovereign right and power to use its own water.

  • Well versed! Keep on! I hope our Egyptian brothers and folks in the entire globe could benfit from the grains of truth, insights and critics adressed in this article.

  • You Egyptians really need to work with Ethiopia in the sense of mutual agreement largely for your own seek unless and otherwise you should remember that *the source is in Ethiopia*

  • You Egyptians really need to work with Ethiopia in the sense of mutual agreement largely for your own seek because unless and otherwise *you should remember the source is in Ethiopia*

  • Strong Institutional capacity should be established with team of volunteers Ethiopian national and international groups

  • The ethiopian r living in 19 th century the the land on which the benishagul dam is being built belongs to sudan invaded by minilik in 19th century who signed agreement with government of sudan not to build any obstacle on it give us back our land and built ur dam in any habasha land the habasha empire will collapse the supressed groups are moving out of the old habasha christian empire

    • I think you have to pay your Bill first for using Nile for such long time and then we will talk what is next. The Egyptian Civilization would have been not possible if Ethiopia used it earlier!
      But now it is our time to use it!

    • Well taught, well articulates article by one of our smart women.

      Most of Abay river water is generated from Ethiopia. We will use the water for generating electricity, large scale irrigation and drinking purpose for millions of our people.

      Its our water and we will use accordingly.

      • It is not an ethiopian river it is an INTERNATIONAL river subject to international law accordingly ethiopia should adhere to the law in action regarding this river

        • If understand that Abbaye iso the international water,you should have to recognize principles of international laws; stating that equitable & fair use of international waters,because Egypt is demanding 1959’s water demand, which is impossible to happen in the 21st century.

        • respect what,a colonial era treaty that give 0 share for the country which contribute more than 86% of the river water. You must be joking!

  • Well thought and comprehensive report. If Egyptians better be wise and make their mind to make use of the advises contained in this report.

  • “The Egyptians have yet to make up their minds as to whether they want to live in the 21st or the 19th century.”
    A Great sentence!! Love it

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