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Dec 18, 2017 | 09:00 GMT

9 mins read

Egypt Girds Itself for a Loss of Power Over the Nile

Construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile near the Sudanese-Ethiopian border is tentatively scheduled to end in late 2018.
  • Egypt will continue to maintain an aggressive tone against Ethiopia on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in an attempt to force Ethiopia to capitulate to Cairo's demands, but the dam will be completed.
  • Over the past decade, upstream states have shifted the balance of power in Nile River politics and are beginning to challenge Egypt's leverage over the use of the river's resources.
  • Egypt will be forced to come back to the negotiating table with Ethiopia because once the dam is built, Egypt must coordinate its dam operations with Ethiopia's as the new reservoir is filled.

It is no understatement that the Nile River is Egypt's lifeblood. Since antiquity, the Nile has allowed a civilization to flourish along its banks and in its delta. It should be no surprise, therefore, that Egypt's dispute with Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile River's most important tributary continues to vex Cairo as it exhausts all diplomatic avenues to ensure that its water supply remains secure.

The dispute, however, is now reaching crunch time, with the GERD's construction tentatively scheduled to be finished in late 2018. Once construction is complete, Ethiopia will push to start filling the dam's massive reservoir, which can hold up to 74 billion cubic meters of water. But negotiations between Ethiopia and its downstream neighbors, Sudan and Egypt, fell apart in November when disagreements over the results of technical studies of the dam's impacts and the potential ways to coordinate filling its reservoir prompted Cairo to walk out of the talks. Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn hopes to visit Cairo this month to try to get the talks back on track.

Location of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, on the Blue Nile near the Sudan-Ethiopia border.

Egypt: Leverage Washes Away

With a fast-growing population of 96 million people in Egypt, the challenges of managing its water supply are not going to get any easier in the coming decades. Because of the Nile, Egypt's water stress level is lower than many of its neighbors in the Middle East, but any diminishment of its access to the river's water, even for a short time, would quickly increase that stress. Historical rights and treaties have allowed Egypt to influence negotiations among other Nile Basin countries and thus maintain significant control over the politics of the river. Developments around the GERD, however, have highlighted how much Egypt's historical leverage has waned.

Egypt and Sudan have long relied on old agreements, many of them negotiated when many African states were European colonies, to justify their rights to the Nile's waters. In their dispute with Ethiopia over the dam, Egypt and Sudan — both former British colonies — say a 1902 treaty between Great Britain and Ethiopia gives them veto authority over any upstream projects that could threaten their water supplies. The Ethiopian government argues that the treaty was never properly approved domestically, and thus is invalid. Egypt and Sudan also point to a 1959 agreement between them that allocates 55.5 billion cubic meters and 18.5 billion cubic meters of water to each country, respectively. The total — 74 billion cubic meters — is most of the Nile River's estimated annual flow of 84 billion cubic meters (an amount not entirely adjusted for seepage and evaporation).

In most cases with transboundary rivers, upstream countries hold more leverage than downstream ones, but many of the Nile's upstream countries such as Uganda, Ethiopia and Rwanda were not sufficiently developed, or did not exist in their present form, when the agreements governing the Nile's flows were negotiated. Egypt's position as a powerful downstream state that holds more control over the Nile because of existing treaties is rare. Other geopolitical factors, however, are starting to line up for Ethiopia and other upstream countries, and they are starting to flip the Nile Basin back to a more "natural" order.

In 1993, Egypt and Ethiopia broke an impasse by agreeing to abide by international practices and frameworks in future Nile negotiations, which were to be governed by two principles: equitable distribution and do no harm to others. Egypt has stressed that this agreement gives it a say in upstream projects, while Ethiopia argues it should have a say in downstream projects. Downstream projects can affect equitable distribution of water, Ethiopia maintains, by forcing upstream countries to forgo future consumption, which is essentially the way Egypt (and Sudan) have been able to justify their high consumption rates.

The upstream countries have banded together more strongly over the past 25 years, and they have used the Nile Basin Initiative to strengthen their negotiating position vis-a-vis Egypt and Sudan, both members of the initiative. They also pushed for the Cooperative Framework Agreement in 2010, which Egypt and Sudan did not sign. The agreement aims to redistribute some of the historical rights of the Nile's water and, more importantly, reduce some of the leverage Cairo has over potential upstream irrigation plans. Egypt has accused Ethiopia of taking advantage of the turmoil during the Arab Spring and of the breakdown in negotiations over the Cooperative Framework Agreement to announce plans for the GERD in 2011.

Ethiopia: East Africa's Water Tower

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is designed to produce up to 6,450 megawatts of electricity, potentially more than doubling Ethiopia's power capacity. The Blue Nile, which the dam sits on, is the source of an estimated 84 percent of the combined Nile Rivers' water supply, and the 74 billion cubic meters the reservoir will hold is nearly an entire year's worth of the Nile's water supply. To fill the reservoir so it minimally affects Egypt requires a well-designed protocol, and operations at various dams downstream — principally the Aswan High Dam in Egypt — will have to be coordinated with operations at the GERD.

Dozens of studies have examined the potential impact of different strategies for filling the reservoir. Egypt wants the process to take up to 15 years, depending on rain conditions, while Ethiopia wants to fill it more quickly, so it can start reaping the benefits of producing and exporting electricity. Egypt has argued that Ethiopia should stop building the dam until the studies are complete. Ethiopia has said it doesn't need to respond to Egypt's demands because the Egyptians don't always notify Ethiopia of their water-related projects on the Nile.

Some of the studies suggest that the dam actually could improve Egypt's water security in the long term. For example, the GERD reservoir will lose less water to evaporation than the Aswan High Dam reservoir in southern Egypt. A coordination agreement with Ethiopia and Sudan potentially could benefit Egypt, at least slightly, because the dam would allow the governments to better control the Nile's flow. Such control would reduce the Aswan High Dam's electricity generation, but electricity via hydropower is becoming increasingly less import for Egypt. Meanwhile, the water supply created by the dam is set to benefit Sudan by potentially making irrigation more efficient and increasing the number of planting seasons in the country.

But for Egypt, the GERD is just one of many large Nile River projects Ethiopia is planning, and it comes in the context of its reduced leverage over Nile flows. Ethiopia sees a string of dams as critical to its potential long-term power generation and growing status as a cheap source of labor for export-oriented manufacturing. Although the GERD isn't meant to store water for irrigation, Egypt is concerned that Ethiopia could use other dams to irrigate crops. It's this potential threat to Egypt's water availability that explains why it is taking such a hard stand on the GERD, which is a risk only during its filling. Egypt is attempting to force Ethiopia into accepting its approval in order to set a precedent for future projects and to preserve its leverage in bigger disputes.

A Dammed Dispute

While Egypt has pushed back against Ethiopia for unilaterally moving forward on the GERD, it is in its interest to stay involved in talks. Indeed, the 2015 Khartoum agreement among Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia, which laid out a road map for talks about the dam, is indicative of Egypt's wanting to exhaust diplomatic options. The road map included choosing outside parties to study the dam's impact.

This is where talks have broken down. In September 2016, the three governments selected two European firms to study how to fill the dam, but once the studies came back in August 2017, there was disagreement — across old lines — on how to interpret them. Egypt has pushed for reports that highlight the potential risks it faces as it tries to get more concessions from Ethiopia over operating practices and filling protocols. Sudan and Ethiopia have pushed for interpretations that highlight practices and protocols. Egypt pulled out of the talks in November.

The story has taken on a life of its own in Egyptian media. Rarely a day goes by without a public official, member of parliament or an op-ed expressing concern about the dam. The reaction is somewhat reminiscent of the way the Egyptian media criticized the Red Sea islands deal with Saudi Arabia, which President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi pushed through parliament this year. Al-Sisi, who appears interested in getting Desalegn's visit finalized, also appears to be a moderating force in negotiations with Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian dam is about 70 percent complete. Construction continues regardless of Egypt's desire that it stop, either permanently or temporarily, and the reservoir eventually will begin to be filled. Egypt has issued military threats from time to time, but the international community, which largely supports the dam, will frown on any threats of military force to prevent its completion.

With the dam an inevitability, Cairo finds itself backed into a corner in negotiations and its ability to get Ethiopia to grant concessions increasingly limited. Egypt has pleaded its case to its Arab League partners and to the World Bank, but to little avail. With Ethiopia largely consistent in its message that irrigation is not a key part of the dam's plan, Egypt has found that its diplomatic pleas are falling on deaf ears. This is likely to force Egypt to come back to the negotiating table sooner rather than later, and it is possible that Desalegn's visit will initiate Egypt's return. In any case, Cairo's lack of options, its reduced ability to unite with Sudan against upstream countries and the dam's continuing construction have shown Egypt that its old tactics are declining and that upstream countries are gaining leverage in Nile Basin water politics.

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