On April 20, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry invited officials and ministers from Sudan and Ethiopia to Cairo to resume discussions on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). After his invitation received no reply, Shoukry delivered a warning to both countries, saying Egypt “will not accept the status quo,” and will “continue to defend the interests of its people.” The call to convene in Cairo came after a deadlocked meeting between the three countries in Khartoum on April 5, in which the nations could not agree on technical details of the dam’s operation.
With construction beginning in 2011, GERD is being built on the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia. Upon completion, it will become the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa. The project is being funded entirely by the Ethiopian government, with work contracted out to Italian company Salini Impregilo. With Ethiopia’s opportunities for economic development limited, the dam is a beacon of hope that may lift the country out of poverty.
In 2012, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt formed a tripartite committee to facilitate cooperation on and study GERD’s potential effects on the climate. Since the committee’s formation, there have been fourteen rounds of consultation to resolve disputes between the three countries, but all have met with failure. The political impasse revolves around Egypt’s concerns that the dam will reduce its water supply and Ethiopia’s desire to control its own water resources. Hoping Sudan will capitalize on the electricity generated by the dam, President Omar al-Bashir lent his support for the project in 2017. Ethiopia is adamant that the dam will not undermine access to water for downstream countries like Egypt. Heavily reliant on the Nile, Egypt draws 97% of its water from this waterway. The Blue Nile in Ethiopia is the source of 85% of that water.
Throughout the talks, Egypt has based its claims about water allocation on the bilateral 1959 Nile Waters Agreement between itself and Sudan. The treaty sets water allocation amounts between the two countries and states that no construction projects can be undertaken on the Nile without prior approval from Cairo. Ethiopia argues that because it was not a party to this agreement, it cannot be bound by its rules.
In 2010, six Nile River riparian states signed the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), which was ratified by the Ethiopian parliament. The CFA emphasizes cooperation with respect to the Nile Basin’s water resources and obligates states not to take measures that might affect the water usage and rights of other Nile Basin countries. Egypt and Sudan, which have clung to the 1959 bilateral agreement, did not sign the agreement. Now, Egypt is using those circumstances to challenge Ethiopia’s dam project.
Egypt cannot continue to compel Ethiopia to recognize an agreement it never signed or adopted. As geopolitical boundaries shift and populations surge, should Egypt continue to remain strident in its position, it could potentially have dangerous consequences. By contrast, supporting the project will allow all three nations to foster positive economic and diplomatic ties over a valued regional resource.