Lifeblood and Sovereignty: Conflict on the Nile over Ethiopia’s New Dam

A NextGen Blog by Anna Canny, Cornell University.

All Photos © Alison M. Jones.

This is the latest post to our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series. Since 2007, NWNL has supported watershed education with college internships and blogging opportunities. Our NWNL NEXTGEN BLOG series posts only student essays; sponsors a forum for its student contributors; and invites student proposals to write on watershed values, threats and solutions.

A rising senior at Cornell University, Anna Canny is earning a degree in Environment and Sustainability with a concentration in land, air and water resources and minors in Climate Change, English and Law and Society. She is passionate about environmental health and justice and sharing stories of conflicts, communities, and the immeasurable values which are attributable to our world’s watersheds.


As the lifeblood of human and ecosystem health, fresh water is arguably humanity’s most vital natural resource. In many arid regions across the globe it is also a symbol of power and sovereignty. Thus, negotiations over water resources can be a hotbed of conflict. One of the most delicate and historic water conflicts has raged on between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt for over a decade. This issue of transboundary water rights is centered around the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance on the Nile River.

Ethiopian fisherman on Lake Tana, a source of the Blue Nile

What is the Grand Renaissance “Mega-Dam”?

The Grand Renaissance Dam project, the largest infrastructure undertaking in Ethiopia’s history, began construction in 2011. It is located on the Blue Nile tributary on the border of Ethiopia and neighboring Sudan. This dam project is the first of its kind, for both the nation of Ethiopia and the continent of Africa. At 45 meters high [148 ft] and 1,708 meters long, the dam is one of the largest in the world. At full capacity, it is expected to generate over 6,000 gigawatts of electricity.1International Rivers Funding the project was a major milestone for Ethiopia. A massive $4.5 billion (USD) for construction was furnished domestically, an effort which is essentially unheard of for many of the world’s impoverished nations. According to the Ethiopian government, the operation of this dam will advance the development of the nation and the prosperity of its citizens.2BBC News So, where does conflict arise?

Ethiopian’s filling jerry-cans of water from water-tank cart

Who Owns the Nile?

In much of northern Africa, the Nile is key to wealth, stability and life itself – thus its control is invaluable. There are eleven African nations located in the Nile River Basin. Among them are Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan – the main players in the Grand Renaissance Dam controversy. The battle over “ownership” of rights to the Nile has been waged for decades; but until the 21st century Egypt’s control of the river went unchecked. Egypt derives most of this power from the vestiges of colonial rule, particularly a 1929 treaty between Egypt and the former colonial power of Great Britain. This agreement granted Egypt access to the Nile and the power to veto construction projects on the river, even for upstream countries. It stipulated that Ethiopia could not take water from the Blue Nile.3BBC News The terms of the treaty were largely influenced by Great Britain’s desire for steady Egyptian cotton supplies for textile mills back in the United Kingdom. Cotton, a water intensive crop, can only survive in Egypt’s desert climate with substantial irrigation. In 1959 the original agreement was adapted by Egypt and Sudan, and negotiations excluded Ethiopia entirely. The 1959 agreement granted 66% of Nile water to Egypt, 22% to Sudan, and 12% to account for evaporation.4Tekuya, Mahemud

Nile River, Upper Egypt,

Decades later, negotiations over modernizing equitable sharing of the Nile water rights still influences water politics in the Nile Basin. However, as surrounding nations continue to develop, this precedent is confronted more and more frequently. Many are calling for new agreements for the governing of the Nile basin. One of the most notable developments on this front has been the work of the Nile Basin Initiative, an intergovernmental partnership of 10 Nile Basin countries. The construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam in particularly significant because of its placement along the Blue Nile tributary, which flows north from Ethiopia’s Lake Tana. Since Ethiopia’s Blue Nile tributary contributes 80% of the water to Egypt’s Lower Nile Basin, any changes in the hydrology and downstream volume of the Blue Nile are economic and existential concerns for the downstream countries of Sudan and Egypt. Egypt’s foreign minister Sameh Shoukry said of the dam “A threat of potentially existential proportions has emerged that could encroach on the single source of livelihood of over 100 million Egyptians.”5Zane, Damian

Anfushi Fish Market and vendors, Egypt

What is at Stake?

The conflict over the Grand Renaissance Dam has gone on for over a decade – and for good reason. The stakes are high on both sides. Ethiopia’s economy is one of the fastest growing in the world, and this dam is part of a major strategy for the continued development of the nation. As it stands, only a third of the residents are connected to the electrical grid. The electricity generated at the dam’s full capacity will connect all Ethiopians to reliable power, and also create a surplus that could be sold to neighboring countries like Sudan, South Sudan, Kenya, Djibouti and Eritrea.6Mutahi, Basillioh

Lightbulb hanging outside Ethiopian church

For the first time, the installation of the dam would give Ethiopia control over the Blue Nile’s flow, which contributes 80% of the water in the Lower Nile, creating a significant symbol of Ethiopia’s national sovereignty. However, control of the Nile has been a symbol of sovereignty for Egypt as well. The Nile provides over 90% of the water used in Egypt, water that is critical for irrigation, industry, and human consumption. Any change in the natural flow is perceived by Egypt as a threat, especially since the United Nations predicts water shortages in the region by 2025. Egypt requests that the dam’s reservoir be filled over 12 to 20 years to spread out annual flow reductions over time as its reservoir fills. But Ethiopia, currently planning on 4 to 7 years, feels this is an unreasonable timeline, as it would unfairly delay the country’s move to electrification and needed income from sales of electric power. There is some dispute over the veracity of Egypt’s water shortage fears. The flow of the Nile in Egypt is almost entirely controlled by the High Aswam. Lake Nassar, located behind this dam, stores substantial national water resources. Thus, some are skeptical about whether Egypt’s motivations are truly fueled by water needs alone.7FAO

Lake Nasser, Egypt

Tensions and Negotiations

The negotiations over the dam have drawn on for years, and the rhetoric of leadership on both sides has demonstrated mutual distrust. Though Egypt has staunchly demanded that the filling of the reservoir be delayed until an agreement is reached, satellite imagery showed that it was being steadily filled throughout the recent rainy season. As of early July, water levels in the dam have reached the one-year goal. It seems that Egypt has lost its fight for total control, especially after a failed attempt at an agreement mediated by the U.S. and the World Bank in March 2020.

Outright conflict has not occurred, but leaders on both sides have maintained that there is potential for military conflict. In October of 2019, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said that “no force” could prevent the completion of the dam, and Ahmed has acknowledged war with Egypt as a possible last resort. In a similar way, Egyptian leadership has publicly stated that though democratic negotiations are preferable, a military effort is not out of the question.8Walsh, Declan

Though the African Union has taken over to continue negotiations, Ethiopia may have the upper hand, given the overwhelming support from other nations in the Nile Basin. And perhaps for good reason. The development of the Grand Renaissance Dam may represent the end of an era of Egyptian domination in the region. And even if it does not come to a military conflict, the debate over the Nile has showed the world that water is a powerful social, economic and environmental keystone; an increasingly contentious one at that.

Sources:

BBC News. River Nile dam: Reservoir filling up, Ethiopia confirms. BBC, July 15, 2020. Accessed July 31st, 2020 by AC. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-53416277.

FAO. Egypt Regional Report. FAO, 2016. Accessed Aug 12th, 2020 by AC. http://www.fao.org/nr/water/aquastat/countries_regions/egy/print1.stm

International Rivers. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Fact Sheet. International Rivers, Jan 24, 2014. Accessed July 31, 2020 by AC. https://www.internationalrivers.org/resources/the-grand-ethiopian-renaissance-dam-fact-sheet-8213

Mutahi, Basillioh. Egypt-Ethiopia row: The trouble over a giant Nile dam. BBC, Jan 13, 2020. Accessed July 31st, 2020 by AC. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-50328647

Tekuya, Mahemud. Colonial-era Nile river treaties are to blame for the unresolved dispute over Ethiopia’s dam. Quartz Africa, March 28, 2020. Accessed July 31st, 2020 by AC. https://qz.com/africa/1827558/ethiopia-egypt-grand-dam-battle-has-roots-in-british-colonial-rule/

Walsh, Declan and Sengupta, Somini. For Thousands of Years, Egypt Controlled the Nile. A New Dam Threatens That. The New York Times, Feb 9, 2020. Accessed Aug 12th, 2020 by AC. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/02/09/world/africa/nile-river-dam.html

Zane, Damian. Nile Dam row: Egypt and Ethiopia generate heat but no power. BBC, July 10, 2020. Accessed July 31st, 2020 by AC. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-53327668

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