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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchWater Conflict Between Egypt and Ethiopia: A Defining Moment for Both Countries

Water Conflict Between Egypt and Ethiopia: A Defining Moment for Both Countries

Authors: Khalil al-Anani

Affiliations: Doha Institute for Graduate Studies & Arab Center Washington DC

Organization/Publisher: Arab Center Washington DC

Date/Place: June 16, 2020/USA

Type of Literature: Analysis 

Word Count: 2300


Keywords: Egypt and Ethiopia, Water Conflict, GERD


Decades of tensions and disputes between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile River’s water and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) heightened as recent talks between water ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan on guidelines for the filling and operation and safety rules failed to reach consensus.  So far the utilization of the Nile River among the Nile Basin countries has been governed by the Nile River Agreements signed during the colonial times (in 1902, 1929 and 1959), which gave the downstream states (Egypt and Sudan, then British protectorates) veto power over any projects or construction plans that tend to affect their share of the water, and require the upstream riparian states (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Ethiopia) to respect the rights of the downstream countries’ water demand.  According to these treaties, the upstream countries need the goodwill and approval of the downstream countries, particularly Egypt, for building dams or launching construction projects on the river Nile. The upstream countries always contested these treaties and challenged the status of downstream countries in the agreements on the ground that they are not just and hinder their sovereign right to utilize their own water resources for development purposes. They argue that the reason they are not legally bound by these treaties is that they were signed by colonial powers, and that their governments were not part of such agreements.  The increasing need for development among upper riparian countries to meet the demands of their rapidly growing population escalates the tensions and disagreements among the Nile Basin countries, mainly Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. Meanwhile, Ethiopia unilaterally began the construction of a mega dam called the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in early 2011 which is considered as a national, sovereign, and development project.  The Ethiopian dam project on the Nile River is viewed by downstream countries, particularly Egypt, as an existential threat to its national survival, fearing that the dam will significantly reduce the amount of water flowing towards Egypt.  While the dam would provide electricity to Ethiopia and others to fuel economic development mainly through international electric power sales, the project signifies a critical moment for the Egyptian state, government, and society.  The distrust between Egypt and Ethiopia runs deep—to the extent of the exchange of words about potential military actions—and creates many problems to reach an agreement. The US government’s attempt to mediate the two countries to reach positive and balanced solutions failed due to the Ethiopian government’s observation that Washington has historically always sided with Egypt.  As Egypt and Ethiopia are the most important North-East African countries, their harmonious relations and cooperation are vital for the region’s peace and stability.  Thus Egypt and Ethiopia and their friends and allies, mainly the US, should find ways for compromise to avoid the dreaded maximalist position that will lead to unnecessary outcomes. 

By: Jemal Muhamed, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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