Disputes over Ethiopia’s controversial dam, whose construction began in 2011, centres around water-sharing rights between the three riparian countries of the Eastern Nile Basin, namely Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia argues that the dam’s development is crucial for the country’s economic development and to overcome poverty and famine. Meanwhile, Egypt fears that the dam could disrupt downstream river flow and threaten its agricultural and hydropower sectors. Sudan, on the other hand, could stand to gain from increasing its water use through the dam’s development, although it has traditionally allied with Egypt against upstream development projects.
A key point of contention is a 1959 agreement in which both Egypt and Sudan agreed on their respective acquired rights for Nile river flows. Ethiopia, however, was never a signatory to this agreement, and this, along with Egypt’s fading hegemony in the region, have given Ethiopia some precedent in pushing ahead with its unilateral decision to construct the GERD.
There is also the issue of climate change, specifically its impacts on water resources along the Nile. Although projections vary, there is a general consensus that its impacts, through warming temperatures and sea level rise, could contribute to Egypt’s growing water scarcity, given its rapidly growing population, rising water consumption and increasing irrigation needs. With regards to the GERD’s hydropower production and revenues, future changes in temperature and rainfall levels may not result in major losses, but this would require careful management so as to avoid inter-state tensions.
Several attempts have been made to bring all three countries together to iron out their disagreements over the dam’s operations. After announcing the dam’s construction, the Ethiopian government invited both Egypt and Sudan to form an International Panel of Experts (IPoE) to solicit understanding of the GERD’s benefits, costs and impacts. A Tripartite National Council was later established with the aim of carrying through the IPoE’s recommendations. In March 2015, a ‘Declaration of Principles’ was signed by all three countries to set the foundations for an initial cooperation. However, a binding agreement, particularly with regards to the dam’s technical operations, has not been realised.
The stalemate continues
Despite limited success, negotiations have persisted even throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and with mediation support by regional and international actors including the African Union and World Bank. In September, the UN Security Council issued a Presidential Statement encouraging all three countries to resume negotiations under the auspices of the African Union to finalise all outstanding disputes over the GERD’s filling and operation, calling for talks to be done “in a constructive and cooperative manner”.
Negotiations, however, have recently stalled following Ethiopia’s decision to proceed with the dam’s second filling in July. Furthermore, the recent coup that ousted Sudan’s civilian-led government and the country’s subsequent suspension from the African Union could derail talks further, with observers pointing out that Sudan’s political crisis could provide Ethiopia a pretext to delay negotiations and allow the third filling of the dam to proceed without waiting for any talks to take place.
Despite these challenges, it is unlikely that Egypt will allow the matter to rest. In recent months, Egypt has maintained its willingness to resume talks in order to reach a binding agreement over the GERD, with the country’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry noting in October 2021 that “Egypt is always ready to engage in negotiations.”
Moreover, as Egypt prepares to take the helm of the next climate summit, its leaders are emphasising that, as host, they will represent the interests of their African partners and the developing world more broadly. This focus on shared interests around COP27 could help Egypt and its upstream neighbours to move closer to its stated aim of a mutually acceptable and beneficial agreement on filling and operating the dam.
At COP27 itself, this regional question could also help give impetus to a broader debate about transboundary water cooperation, particularly as the impacts of climate change on security and diplomacy - and consequently the need for action - gain momentum at the highest political echelons, as we have seen in Glasgow. Perhaps after ten years of talks, the time has finally come when all three countries of the Eastern Nile manage to find a way forward, in order to safeguard the region’s security in the face of a changing climate.