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Renaissance Dam: Breaking the deadlock

After nearly 10 years of work, Ethiopia has almost finished building its massive Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile River, and is beginning to fill its 74-billion-cubic-meter reservoir. But Sudan and especially Egypt, which have historically controlled the lion’s share of the Nile’s waters, have refused to come to an agreement with Ethiopia, the source of most of that water, on the filling and annual operation of the dam. Mahemud Tekuya explains what’s at stake.

The current dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is directly linked to colonial-era Nile treaties. During the scramble for Africa, controlling the source of the Nile was a major colonial goal for the British. In 1902, the UK and Ethiopia concluded the Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty, in which Ethiopia agreed not to arrest or totally block the flow of the Nile.

Then there was the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty signed in 1929. This was between the British (on behalf of its colonies, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda) and Egypt. It prevented British East African colonies from using the Nile’s water without the consent of Egypt.

Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam, on the river Nile in Guba Woreda, Benishangul Gumuz Region, under construction in September 2019.

The third treaty was the 1959 Nile Waters Treaty between Egypt and Sudan. This allocated the entire flow of the Nile between the two downstream states without considering the interests of upstream states, which vehemently rejected it. Instead they called for an equitable allocation of the Nile waters based on a basin-wide treaty.

In 2010, all the basin countries negotiated and came up with the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement. But Egypt and Sudan rejected the deal because it did not recognize their “historic right” and “veto power” over upstream projects.

In my view, this legacy meant that Ethiopia was left no option but to start constructing the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam by itself. The dam has the potential to change the status quo established in those treaties. At the same time, any agreement also has the potential to maintain the status quo.

So, behind the ongoing talks is the struggle between changing or maintaining colonial legacies.

The views of Sudan and Egypt

Generally, the dam confers enormous benefits to Egypt and Sudan. These include ensuring a regular flow of water, preventing siltation, reducing evaporation, and providing cheaper electricity. Sudan has supported the project since 2012 because of these benefits. But Egypt maintains that any upstream dam on the Nile would threaten the river’s flow. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s reservoir can hold 74 billion cubic meters of water. Egypt initially rejected the project entirely and later demanded a reduction in the size of the dam.

The dam is being built by Ethiopians and is being financed solely by Ethiopia. Aimed primarily at generating power, it will also provide water for irrigation and flood protection for downstream countries.

The three countries signed the Declaration of Principles in 2015. This provides the framework for the talks about the reservoir’s first filling, which began this year, and the dam’s annual operation. But Egypt’s concerns seem to have changed towards ensuring it gets its “historic water share” as stated under the 1959 treaty. That would be 55.5 billion cubic meters, 66% of the river’s total flow.

The treaty also gave Sudan 22% and left the rest (12%) for evaporation. It did not recognize the rights of the nine upstream countries, including Ethiopia, whose territory contributes more than 85% of the Nile’s water.

Egypt needs a guarantee that the filling and operation of the Renaissance Dam will not affect this arrangement and what it calls “existing use and rights.” In other words, Egypt needs a guarantee that Ethiopia will not use the Nile waters for consumption purposes, including irrigation, in the future.

Cairo wants an agreement that the dam’s reservoirs be filled over a long period, lasting about 20 years. And it also wants veto power.

Sudan supports the project, apart from some safety-related concerns.

The chances of an agreement

Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt have been negotiating for five years over the filling and annual operation of the dam. They have not been able to strike a deal. In addition to the water-allocation issue, they have yet to resolve issues on drought mitigation and mechanisms for resolving future disputes.

Three drought-mitigation mechanisms have been spelled out. These cover drought, prolonged drought, and prolonged dry years. But the proposal initially made by the U.S. could make the dam nonfunctional and deny Ethiopia the right to consume Nile water.

Given Ethiopia’s objection to that proposal, it is unlikely that the three countries will agree on how to mitigate future droughts.

As for dispute resolution, Egypt needs the forthcoming Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Treaty to give a third party the power to make binding decisions on the dam.

In the past, Egypt and Sudan constructed several dams and reservoirs without consulting Ethiopia – and even over its objections.

Since these projects are not subject to compulsory dispute resolution, and since there is no mechanism in place governing the use and activities of downstream states (Egypt can export water to another country, Ethiopia can’t do anything about it), Ethiopia will not agree to subject the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam to compulsory dispute resolution.

Besides, the Declaration of Principles requires the three countries to resolve future disputes only through negotiation, conciliation, and mediation.

It’s therefore unlikely that the three countries will easily resolve this outstanding issue.

But there are two slim possibilities for how an agreement can be struck.

The first option is for the three countries to reach an interim agreement governing the first filling (over the next two years) of the dam’s reservoir. This piecemeal approach would give the three the time to build trust and confidence and to work out the details on drought mitigation and dispute resolution. The first filling is not among the sticking points. An interim agreement would be in the interest of Egypt and Sudan, to avoid Ethiopia filling the dam unilaterally.

The one snag in this option is that Ethiopia appears to be determined to fill the dam – with or without an agreement.

The other option is to restrict the forthcoming treaty to the filling and annual operation of the dam. The three countries can and should address the problems associated with the colonial and 1959 treaties by explicitly stating that Ethiopia can equitably use the Nile waters upstream of the dam.

The allocation of waters among the three countries, drought mitigation, and dispute resolution should be left to the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework. The framework has already established an organization that can take drought-mitigation measures, and it has compulsory dispute resolution-mechanisms.

At least for the coming two years, filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam without an agreement will not have any effect on the two downstream countries. There is more than enough water in the system to compensate for the amount Ethiopia plans to hold back.

Given the three countries’ historical relations and their dependency on the Nile, it is unlikely that they will go to the extreme – war. Egypt would not use military force against Ethiopia, which contributes 86% of the Nile’s water, Ethiopia. But because Egypt and Sudan do not want Ethiopia to fill the dam without an agreement, it is likely there will be more diplomatic spats – and verbal confrontation.

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