Image: Mo Gabrail (Unsplash)

Egypt and Ethiopia, the two main contenders surrounding the Nile dispute have failed to reach an agreement regarding the fill time of the Ethiopian hydroelectric dam. Since its construction, these two states, as well as Sudan have contested the issue and this has consequently heightened tensions in East Africa and jeopardised regional relations. Therefore, it is the intention of this article to assess the situation, the challenges and the implications for a win-win solution.  

The Nile River is made up of 3 tributaries namely the Atbara, the Blue Nile and the White Nile. The Nile is crucial to the development of the economies of its basin countries, it is a source of fresh water for agriculture and domestic consumption. The rising demand for water has put a strain on the Nile, resulting from social and environmental conditions, specifically increased human activity, growing population and climate change. Thus, the water shortage now poses a direct threat to human security. Hence, necessitating protection of the Nile which is essential to the survival of the Nile basin countries, namely South Sudan, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Burundi, Eritrea, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Presently, inequitable water sharing of the Nile is sustained by power asymmetries between upstream states, which favour equitable and sensible utilisation, and downstream states, which advocate the responsibility to avert significant transboundary harm. The Nile holds both geostrategic and geopolitical importance for Egypt and Ethiopia. It is also the cornerstone of Egypt’s economy, agriculture and to an extent its tourism sector. Historically, Egypt has derived the largest share of the Nile waters, based on the bilateral agreements of 1929 and 1959. Both agreements had the endorsement of Great Britain and were signed by Egypt and Sudan. These agreements essentially assigned ownership of the Nile River to Egypt by granting it the largest share and the authority to overturn projects on any of the Nile tributaries in upstream states. For Egypt, any perceived threat to the Nile, is considered a threat to Egypt’s national security. Egypt has at times threatened to use force against any state seeking to withhold the waters of the Nile. 

Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa, with a history of droughts and famines. In the past, Ethiopia was unable to embark on large projects due to poverty, instability and an inability to access the technology to construct the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).That is no longer the case, as several upstream states, including Ethiopia, have acquired the capacity to undertake large-scale projects. In 2011, Ethiopia broke ground on its hydroelectric mega project. The GERD is a $4.6 billion project, which is set to be Africa’s largest dam and a source of revenue for Ethiopia. The Blue Nile River which originates in Ethiopia, is interrupted by rapids and riffles, thus it renders more benefits to Ethiopia’s neighbouring countries. The GERD will collect peak flow water and rainfall in order to harvest clean, cheap and safe energy from the Nile to generate electricity. This project has the potential to be a source of sustainable energy production, to facilitate economic development, alleviate poverty in Ethiopia and counter Egypt’s long hydro hegemony. Egypt perceives the GERD to be an imminent threat to its security. Egypt receives the greatest share of the Nile water annually, however, nowadays it is largely consumed or evaporated before it reaches Egypt. Furthermore, the construction of the GERD will decrease the flow of the Blue Nile, thus lessening Egypt’s share.

The flow of the Nile through Egypt is largely balanced by the Aswan High Dam, however, the GERD will significantly reduce the water reaching the Aswan dam. Sudan also has a stake in the matter as the GERD is located close to its border and will also reduce its share of the Nile. To date, there is no tripartite agreement on the dam’s reservoir fill-time. Egypt wants the reservoir to be filled over a period of 15 years. Ethiopia has the capability to fill it in 2-3 years, but they plan to fill it in 4-7 years, the goal being 5 years. Filling the reservoir over a period of 5 years will further reduce the flow of the Nile by 25 percent, thus adversely affecting Egypt’s economy. Previously, Egypt has threatened to use military action to halt construction of the GERD if it reduced its supply of the Nile water. More recently, Egypt pledged to use “all available means” to secure its water interests, Ethiopia responded by vowing to “retaliate” if Egypt attacked the dam. The perceptions of a threat by both Egypt and Ethiopia has triggered a security dilemma in which both states are prepared to take action to defend their respective interests. Egypt has greater capabilities than Ethiopia in terms of its military, however, it seems unlikely that military force will be used against Ethiopia, as Egypt’s past threat remained just that. Perhaps Ethiopia’s vow to retaliate served to deter any military action by Egypt. Egypt’s concerns are valid, so are Ethiopia’s survival claims; there has been very little transparency and non-disclosure regarding the GERD project. Ethiopia has restricted journalists from investigating the dam and withheld information from the public.  Several sources reported an undeclared no-fly zone and anti-aircraft defences around the dam. The maximum security around the dam and secrecy breeds distrust amongst the Nile contenders.    

Presently Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have resumed African Union-led talks in the hope of reaching an agreement on the fill-time. Egypt’s insistence that the dam’s reservoir should not be filled without a legally binding agreement was disregarded by Ethiopia as they began the first phase of filling the reservoir. In early September 2020, the United States of America (USA) announced that it will be withdrawing aid to Ethiopia due to the ongoing dispute. It is clear that the USA is backing Egypt in this matter, no doubt driven by the USA’s interests in the Suez Canal. External interference only serves to deepen the divide between Ethiopia and Egypt, the dispute has destabilised regional relations. Furthermore, the colonial-era agreements that privileged Egypt at the expense of countries in the Nile environs, constitutes a historical source of divisions.  

There are three possible outcomes to the Nile dam dispute, the first is a ‘win-lose’ outcome in which one party wins and the other loses. This is an unsustainable option which will not bring about durable peace and economic prosperity, rather it will breed resentment from the losing party and the relationship between the two parties will suffer. The second option is a ‘lose-lose’ outcome in which both parties lose. This outcome would not only adversely impact Egypt and Ethiopia, but the entire region of East Africa. Egypt has stipulated on a number of occasions that all options remain on the table, implying that even force is an option, if necessary. Statements such as these, breed mistrust and an atmosphere characterised by animosity. Similar to a win-lose outcome, a lose-lose outcome will not offer stability and development. On the contrary the consequence of intransigence may be a war of attrition, because wars in the 21st century are unwinnable, as all states have allies, thus many will suffer. The best possible option is a ‘win-win’ outcome. Although rarely achieved, it is possible, a solution based on the notion of “African solutions to African problems” and negotiations in good faith, can solicit a reciprocal stance by both parties. Through collective cooperation, the Nile can be utilised to the benefit of its basin countries.


If not resolved, the Nile dam dispute could have disastrous implications for East Africa and African unity.  Egypt has the opportunity to emerge as the leader and champion of its region and the continent. In order to ensure sustainable peace and development, the waters of the Nile must be shared equitably and to the benefit of all its basin countries, through constructive and collective cooperation and reciprocal accountability. The duty to resolve this dispute cordially falls to both Egypt and Ethiopia, Egypt’s concerns are valid; however, it must refrain from using threats of military action and strive to secure its interests through political and diplomatic actions. Furthermore, Egypt must adopt a post-colonial orientation as well as relinquish its hydro hegemony and loosen its uncompromising policy attitude towards matters regarding the Nile River. Egypt as well as Ethiopia and Sudan must negotiate in good faith and be prepared to make compromises and concessions. All parties involved must be transparent and contribute to confidence building measures and actions in order to attain a solution which is collectively beneficial. 

Tshegofatso Ramachela is a certified paralegal and a final year student at the University of Pretoria, currently completing a degree in International Studies, Political Sciences and History. She is a humanitarian, an intersectional postcolonial feminist and an aspiring international development and peace worker, who hopes to one day be a Doctoral student. Tshegofatso is a permanent member of The Art of Politics writing staff.

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