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How the Imperial past set the Stage for Nile Dam Conflicts between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia

Author: Mahemud Tekuya

Affiliation: Pacific University 

Organization/Publisher: Informed Comment 

Date/Place: March 30, 2021/US

Type of Literature: Commentary 

Word Count: 1700


Keywords:  Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, Nile, GERD


The contention between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), on the Nile River in Ethiopia, has roots in the imperial past that began with the occupation of Egypt by Britain in 1882. Great Britain’s textile factories were dependent on Egyptian cotton products which were cultivated through irrigation waters from the Nile River. To collect the Nile’s water during the rainy seasons for the dry seasons, Britain developed a plan called the Century Storage Scheme to regulate the Nile waters across varied seasons and years by building smaller dams and reservoirs in upstream states including Ethiopia. The plan was to avoid the accumulation of Nile waters in downstream countries and thereby prevent massive water losses due to evaporation. Meanwhile, Egypt became independent in 1922. Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s Prime minister between 1954-56 and then president until 1970 initiated the biggest project on the Nile River, to build a dam that would end Egypt’s reliance on upstream countries by storing the Nile waters in Egypt. The Aswan High Dam was completed in 1972 on Lake Nasser. The Dam was the antithesis of the Century Storage Scheme and the basin-wide approaches of Britain’s Nile water management. Sudan became independent in 1956 and the new government opposed the colonial treaties signed between Great Britain (on the behalf of Sudan) and Egypt and the construction of the Aswan High Dam due to its high social, economic, and environmental costs. Instead, Sudan favored Britain’s Century Storage Scheme and basin-wide approach to managing Nile waters and initiated the construction of several smaller dams. To implement their respective projects, both Egypt and Sudan strived to get funds from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, later to become the World Bank. However, considering the potential impacts of the Sudanese Roseires Dam on the flow of the Nile, and the socio-economic impacts of Aswan High Dam on Sudan, the bank required the two states to reach an agreement to get the funds. The two were not able to reach an agreement as the Sudanese parliament voted against the construction of the Aswan High Dam while Egypt was committed to starting the construction work. The deadlock was resolved when General Ibrahim Abboud overthrew the Sudanese government and signed the 1959 Nile Waters Treaty with Egypt that allowed the construction of the Aswan High Dam, which operates in favor of Egypt by providing water for irrigation and generating a huge amount of electricity. Despite Ethiopia’s long-time aspiration to use the Nile water, it couldn’t due to the lack of finances and Egypt’s extensive diplomatic efforts to prevent Ethiopia from gaining outside support to construct projects on the Nile River. After decades of political stability and economic growth, Ethiopia has managed to mobilize money from the local population and its diaspora and started the construction of the dam in 2011. Now, the Ethiopian dam joins numerous existing dams, including the Aswan High Dam and the Roseires Dam, and presents the ever-increasing importance of coordinated management and operation of downstream and upstream dams and basin-wide cooperation between upstream and lower stream countries. Thus Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt should manage all dams through the Nile Basin Commission as envisaged in the Cooperative Framework Agreement, which was negotiated for more than a decade by all riparian states and accepted by all states except Egypt and Sudan. 

By: Jemal Muhamed, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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