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How could Ethiopia's dam dispute escalate?

September 13, 2023

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam conflict has lasted for more than a decade without a resolution. Some experts warn that any further delays in settling the outstanding issues could have dire consequences.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a massive hydropower plant on the River Nile
Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile is the source of a long-running water dispute with downstream Egypt and Sudan Image: Minasse Wondimu Hailu/AA/picture alliance

The conflict over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, known as GERD, on the Blue Nile river has dragged on for 12 years.

Ethiopia has failed to find an amicable solution with the two neighboring downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan, who say the dam threatens to cut off their water supply.

But Ethiopia sees the dam as a boon for economic development in a country where half the 120 million citizens live without power.

There was a fresh outcry outcry by Egypt in mid-September after Ethiopia announced that it had finished the fourth and final phase of filling the GERD reservoir. 

How could the dam dispute escalate?

Ethiopia's announcement came just a fortnight after the three countries resumed negotiations — after a lengthy break — on an agreement which takes into account the water needs of all three. 

Some experts stressed the importance of settling the dam dispute sooner rather than later, warning that a prolonged spat could pose serious threats to the wider region.

Fidel Amakye Owusu, an African conflict resolution expert, told DW that the disputing neighbors should work to resolve their differences as a matter of urgency to avoid an escalation to possible direct clashes between nations.   

But Dr. Yakob Arsano, a former negotiator and Nile basin analyst, told DW that Ethiopia expects to continue its activities on the dam without the conflict being resolved. 

"As far as I understand, the water-filling process for the construction of the dam shows that the fourth round has been filled with water. The construction of the dam and its water filling capacity will continue," he said.

Timeline of the conflict

Ethiopia in 2010 first announced plans to build a dam on the Blue Nile to supply Ethiopia and its neighbors with more than 5,000 megawatts of electricity.

Egypt raised concerns at the time — escalating it to the United Nations and the African Union (AU) for resolution. But Ethiopia said that the dam designs had already been completed.

In 2011, Ethiopia laid the cornerstone for the new dam to kick off construction work on the project, offering to share construction schemes with Egypt amid the conflict.

The first meeting of the tripartite technical committee including the water ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia took place same year.

When Ethiopia diverted the Nile to build the dam in 2013, Egypt decided to negotiate. Talks resumed between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan.

In 2014, the establishment of a committee of expert resulted in the so-called Malabo Declaration that guaranteed Ethiopia would develop the dam while reducing potential impact on Egypt.

Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia in 2015 signed an agreement in Khartoum to resolve differences between the three countries. The deal was signed so that technical impact studies on the dam could be carried out.

Continued negotiations failed in 2017, but resumed in 2018. There had not been much progress between then and 2021, when the African Union stepped in. 

However, talks sponsored by the AU in April 2021 — which the bloc had hoped would result in a deal — also failed, resulting in the process being suspended.  

Negotiations resumed in August 2023 after Egypt and Ethiopia said in July that they hoped to reach a deal within four months.

Colonial era treaties

The conflict over the dam has some colonial era undertones dating as far back as between 1882 and 1956.

"During the colonial days and especially in the early 20th century, there was this agreement that was signed between the colonial masters," Owusu said, specifically when Egypt was occupied by Britain.

That agreement covered former colonies in eastern Africa, including Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, all of whom who all depend on the Nile.

Owusu said that the deal had been signed to prevent any hindrance to the flow of the river.

Egypt and Sudan want the rights maintained — but Ethiopia rejects that idea. 

Owusu said that the colonial-era treaties have led to the current impasse because Ethiopia wasn't part of the agreement.

"So, it is not as simple matter of somebody building a dam in this country. And it's not a simple matter of you threatening that somebody shouldn't let them," he explained.

"It is all about the technicalities, which are very complex because ... Ethiopia has no signature or has not signed any document."

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Resolving the conflict

There have been several unsuccessful attempts at resolving the conflict. And Owusu blamed the entrenched positions held by the parties.

Owusu said bodies like the AU have challenges when it comes to resolving the crisis.

"The African Union doesn't have sovereignty," Owusu said, adding that the bloc is only as effective as the domestic environment in which it operates.

The parties to the conflict will have to make concessions to reach an agreement, Owusu highlighted, the absence of which he said would prolong the conflict.

"The most consequential outcome would be a bilateral agreement or bilateral dialogue," he added.

The United Nations, the US and China can exert some influence to resolve the conflict, but Owusu urged the countries involved in the conflict to show maturity.

"They will have to agree that, well, this is how we can talk about it. You may fill it [the dam] to this level so that we can also get what we need. There's always a solution to anything of this nature," he said.

Edited by: Keith Walker

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