What The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) Conflict Is All About

I recently received a comment on Twitter, when I was talking about Egypt’s bright economic future, and I thought it warranted a full reply. See below for the Twitter comment that elicited the reply I’ll be discussing in this blog post.

“In a country such as Egypt, with a population of 90 million people, the opportunity for growth is staggering. Egypt has a young workforce with 18% under 25. The newly-extended Suez Canal is the hub for world maritime traffic, and it is the third-largest economy in Africa.”

What was the reply I received that prompted this blog post?

“And with a risk of being uninhabitable in the not so distant future.”

That is quite the claim! So let’s examine why they were under such an incredible notion. After some gentle probing and already having a good idea of what they were implying, I found out they were in fact talking about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

GERD is an Ethiopian dam project that is supposed to help make Ethiopia into a modern and sustainable country. The dam project will be used for hydro-powered electricity and turn Ethiopia into one of the biggest energy suppliers in Africa. Sounds great right, so what’s the problem?

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The problem is that the dam’s water supply will come from the Nile River, and this could potentially force surrounding countries – who rely on the Nile – into a drought or other economic hardships. Sudan and Egypt being the biggest concerns regarding water shortages if the project is allowed to go ahead unchecked.

Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia signed a pact called the Declaration Of Principles on the 23rd Mach, 2015, which is an attempt by the African Union countries at mitigating these severe risks and ensuring compliance to a set of guidelines that will protect the interests of Ethiopia and its neighbouring countries who rely on the river. Let’s take a look at the declaration of principles.

The Declaration of Principles

1. Principle of cooperation:

– Cooperation based on mutual understanding, common interest, good intentions, benefits for all, and the principles of international law.

– Cooperation in understanding the water needs of upstream and downstream countries across all their lands.

2. Principle of development, regional integration and sustainability:

The purpose of the Renaissance Dam is to generate power, contribute to economic development, promote cooperation beyond borders, and regional integration through generating clean sustainable energy that can be relied on.

3. Principle of not causing significant damage:

– The three countries will take all the necessary procedures to avoid causing significant damage while using the Blue Nile (the Nile’s main river).

– In spite of that, in case significant damage is caused to one of these countries, the country causing the damage […], in the absence of an agreement over that [damaging] action, [is to take] all the necessary procedures to alleviate this damage, and discuss compensation whenever convenient.

4. Principle of fair and appropriate use:

– The three countries will use their common water sources in their provinces in a fair and appropriate manner.

– To ensure the fair and appropriate use, the three countries will take into consideration all the guiding elements mentioned below:

a. The geographic, the geographic aquatic, the aquatic, the climatical, environmental elements, and the rest of all-natural elements.

b. Social and economic needs for the concerned Nile Basin countries.

c. The residents who depend on water sources in each of the Nile Basin countries.

d. The effects of using or the uses of water sources in one of the Nile Basin countries on another Nile Basin country.

e. The current and possible uses of water sources.

f. Elements of preserving, protecting, [and] developing [water sources] and the economics of water sources, and the cost of the procedures taken in this regard.

g. The extent of the availability of alternatives with a comparable value for a planned or a specific use.

h. The extent of contribution from each of the Nile Basin countries in the Nile River system.

i. The extent of the percentage of the Nile Basin’s space within the territories of each Nile Basin country.

5. The principle of the dam’s storage reservoir first filling, and dam operation policies:

– To apply the recommendations of the international technical expert’s committee and the results of the final report of the Tripartite National Technical Committee during different stages of the dam project.

– The three countries should cooperate to use the final findings in the studies recommended by the Tripartite National Technical Committee and international technical experts in order to reach:

a. An agreement on the guidelines for different scenarios of the first filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam reservoir in parallel with the construction of the dam.

b. An agreement on the guidelines and annual operation policies of the Renaissance Dam, which the owners can adjust from time to time.

c. To inform downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, on any urgent circumstances that would call for a change in the operations of the dam, in order to ensure coordination with downstream countries’ water reservoirs.

– Accordingly, the three countries are to establish a proper mechanism through their ministries of water and irrigation.

– The timeframe for such points mentioned above is 15 months from the start of preparing two studies about the dam by the international technical committee.

6. The principle of building trust:

– Downstream countries will be given priority to purchase energy generated by the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

7. The principle of exchange of information and data:

– Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan will provide the information and data required to conduct the studies of the national experts’ committees from the three countries in the proper time.

8. The principle of dam security:

– The three countries appreciate all efforts made by Ethiopia up until now to implement the recommendations of the international expert’s committee regarding the safety of the dam.

– Ethiopia will continue in goodwill to implement all recommendations related to the dam’s security in the reports of the international technical experts.

9. The principle of the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of the State:

The three countries cooperate on the basis of equal sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of the state, mutual benefit, and goodwill, in order to reach the better use and protection of the River Nile.

10. The principle of the peaceful settlement of disputes:

The three countries commit to settling any dispute resulting from the interpretation or application of the declaration of principles through talks or negotiations based on the goodwill principle. If the parties involved do not succeed in solving the dispute through talks or negotiations, they can ask for mediation or refer the matter to their heads of states or prime ministers.

As you can see from the principles in the signed declaration, this is a well-thought-out set of policies and if all parties are true to these guiding principles, the dam project can be a positive influence on Africa’s sustainable growth plans.

There has recently been a spate of news stories concerning the Ethiopian dam project and many people are concerned about whether these principles are being practiced in reality and what it could mean for the future of the countries who are downstream of the dam. So what are the concerns?

GERD Project Concerns

There has been a long-running feud over the allocation of the water resources between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. From Ethiopia’s perspective, they claim a right to use 85% of the water that flows from their highlands into the Nile River, so they can build a sustainable future for their people. From the downstream countries’ perspectives, there are major concerns over water security as Millions of their people rely on the Nile River to sustain life.

These tensions have escalated ever since Ethiopia started construction of the dam in 2011 and have intensified over the first filling of the dam because Egypt’s mandate was that there were supposed to be legally binding agreements over the allocation of the Nile River’s water resources in place before this could happen. Millions of Egyptians and Sundanese rely on the Nile River for their survival.

Egypt has called on the international community to provide support for their mandates in light of Ethiopia’s clear intentions to go ahead with the filling of the dam. The United States has already threatened to withhold developmental aid to Ethiopia in support of Egypt’s request for support. The United States has its own problems regarding elections, and it remains to be seen if a new administration will come to power there and what that means for international support for Egypt’s claim.

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Egypt’s claim comes from a 1959 agreement between Sudan and Egypt, which provides a legal framework for the allocation of water resources from the Nile River. The legal framework awards all of the Nile’s water to Egypt and Sudan, with a 10 Billion cubic meter allowance for seepage and evaporation. Ethiopia and other upstream countries disagree and reject this framework because it doesn’t allow them any allocation of the water from the Nile resource, even though the water that flows into the Nile River flows from these upstream countries. Egypt also has veto power over all future Nile River projects.

Egypt sees the dam construction as a threat to its continued wellbeing as a country of nearly 100 million people who rely on the Nile River resource. Egypt has stated that the dam is an existential threat to its country. The Egyptian authorities were opposed to the construction of the dam from the outset. Now that construction is completed, they demand reassurances surrounding the filling of the dam to avoid potential droughts in their country because the dam has the potential to negatively affect Egypt’s water supply. Ethiopian authorities say that the threat is inconsequential as the Nile River will not be negatively affected by the filling of the dam.

Since the construction of the dam has been completed, Egypt has shifted its focus to getting an agreement on the filling of the GERD reservoir. A major concern for Egypt is how will Ethiopia manage the GERD in times of drought and more specifically, will it release enough water from the reservoir in those periods to satisfy downstream requirements. Sudan was initially opposed to the dam construction but has recently warmed up to the idea, as they see a net benefit to the surrounding countries, but they are also worried about how this will affect their own dam projects in the future.

Sudan and Egypt both agree that Ethiopia will have to release water from the GERD in times of drought, but Ethiopia would prefer to make these decisions as they are worried that drought could negatively affect the filling schedule of the dam. When the flow of the Nile River falls below 35 -40 Billion Cubic Meters per year, that is considered a drought period. This flow-rate is when Egypt and Sudan would insist on water being released from the Gerd reservoir to mitigate any problems occurring from lack of water in their respective countries.

Egypt would like the filling of the dam to occur over a much longer period to avoid potential problems. Ethiopia doesn’t seem interested in handing over these reassurances by creating a legal framework and this is one of the major sources of tension that is escalating on a daily basis. Other riparian states of the River Nile include Tanzania, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, Eritrea, and South Sudan. Many of these countries are beset with poverty and food production problems and rely on the life-giving water in the Nile.

Agreements between these riparian states based on poverty alleviation through shared knowledge about Agricultural techniques have been floated as possible peaceful solutions to these evocative problems surrounding GERD, but these solutions will fall on deaf ears if there isn’t first a Trilateral agreement between the three main players; Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia.

Conflicts Of Interest

Ethiopia’s leader PM Abiy Ahmed is facing internal conflicts in his country with several tribal groups who see him as a divisive power, rather than the unifier they believed they had voted into power. The dam is something that he sees as helping him hang onto the power of the people within a bitterly disappointed and divided nation. There are more than 80 nationalities and ethnic groups in Ethiopia, consequently, there are many tribal allegiances that dominate outcomes within the country.

One analyst said that a war with the Tigra people could be “the biggest war on African soil since the 1998-2000 Eritrean-Ethiopian war.” The ongoing conflicts in Ethiopia are beyond the scope of this blog post, but let’s just conclude that the sooner Ethiopian elections are held, the better for all concerned.

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Egypt and Sudan have launched joint military exercises, the Egyptian army announced Saturday, in the latest sign of deepening security ties between the Nile Valley neighbors. The exercises run by Egyptian and Sudanese commando and air forces were the first joint combat training held since the ouster of Sudanese autocrat Omar al-Bashir last year.

Egypt’s military said in a statement that the joint combat exercises, dubbed “Nile’s Eagles-1,” are being held in Sudan and would last until Nov. 26. The exercises include planning and running combat activities, as well as commando groups conducting search and rescue missions. The joint initiative comes as regional tensions in Nile Valley are increasing. President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s government has intensified its efforts to rebuild ties with its southern neighbor since al-Bashir’s ouster, including supporting the new Sudanese government’s efforts to be delisted from the U.S. state-sponsors of terrorism list.


Whilst it is true that there are tensions over the dam, it is an incredulous statement for someone to say that Egypt could be uninhabitable soon, as was stated in the Twitter reply that prompted this blog post. Egypt has the 9th strongest Military in the world and has the backing of the international community on its side. They are working to find a peaceful solution to the problems that GERD and its proponents represent, but I’m willing to gamble that Egypt will defend its right to life and the water upon which it depends.

In conclusion then, from an investment perspective, I don’t believe the GERD project represents any imminent danger to Egypt’s burgeoning economy and I don’t ever see Egypt becoming “uninhabitable.”

What do you think? Comment below to let me know.

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