Power Trials Commence at Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Despite Stalled Negotiations and Regional Tensions

By Steve Floyd
Thursday, May 19, 2022, 8:01 AM

On Feb. 20, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed visited the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) to celebrate initial power generation trials. Ethiopians rejoiced as their decades-old dream neared completion. For years, the previous government described the dam as a “weapon” in Ethiopia’s war on poverty, a critical step toward environmental justice and an opportunity to undo Egypt’s “hydro-hegemony.” With funding from civil servant donations, diaspora support and the sale of bonds to private citizens, the GERD has become a symbol of national pride. Hashtags like #ItsMyDam, #GERDisYourDam and #EthiopiaPrevails trended this winter, and people across Africa praised the milestone on social media. The trials will produce 700 megawatts (MW) of electricity, but the dam will generate 5,150 MW once filled to capacity. Such sustainable power will prove a boon for Ethiopia’s economy, bring U.N. Sustainable Development Goals within reach and benefit the broader region.

But enthusiasm for the project is far from universal. Negotiations with Sudan and Egypt remain at an impasse, and these two downstream states have condemned Ethiopia’s decision to begin filling the dam without a binding agreement on water sharing. In a region beset with political turmoil and armed conflict, stalled negotiations heighten instability and increase the potential for conflict. Saber rattling and bellicose statements often punctuated the 10-year negotiations, and multiple crises now exacerbate this rhetoric. The region may soon experience extreme hunger after three seasons of drought. Ethiopia’s Tigray conflict has created a humanitarian disaster. And the presence of 55,000 Ethiopian refugees compounds Sudan’s domestic challenges. Moreover, clashes between Ethiopian militias and Sudanese troops over the disputed al-Fashqa border region turned lethal in 2021, and there is speculation that Egypt could provide support to Tigrayan forces. Such dynamics imbue the region with exceptional volatility and complicate negotiations. As Ethiopia prepares for a third filling in summer 2022, the GERD dispute will further inflame these interlocking tensions. Absent a negotiated agreement, the potential for conflict looms.

Overview of the Dispute

Spanning more than 4,000 miles, the Nile River winds across nine borders before it empties into the Mediterranean Sea. Yet the Nile’s length belies its relatively small volume. Furthermore, 86 percent of its capacity originates in the “Blue Nile” of Ethiopia’s highlands. Waters flowing from the Blue Nile are critical for downstream economies, as they irrigate crops, support fisheries and attract tourists. In fact, for many rural communities downstream, the river constitutes the sole source of economic activity. But the Blue Nile also presents the potential for abundant hydroelectric power. And it is this prospect that has engendered protracted disputes between upstream and downstream states.

With a projected cost of $5 billion, the GERD will create a 74 billion cubic meters (bcm) reservoir 20 miles from the Sudanese border. Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation, which owns and operates the GERD, expects the dam to generate more than 5,000 MW of electricity once operational. When negotiations failed to produce an agreement on rights and usage, Ethiopia unilaterally began to fill the dam in July 2020. A second phase of filling occurred in July 2021, and the dam has now stored 13.5 bcm of water.

The significance of this project for Ethiopia’s economic growth and development is not easily overstated. In 2016, Ethiopia had approximately 2,300 MW of installed generation capacity, and, as of 2019, the World Bank estimates that half of its population lacks regular access to electricity. Such abundant power would help Ethiopia achieve the U.N. Sustainable Development Goal for affordable, accessible energy, and the dam could provide surplus electricity to the broader region.

But downstream states do not share this rosy assessment. Due to the Nile’s importance for the Sudanese and Egyptian economies, leaders in both countries grew concerned when Ethiopia initiated construction in 2011. For if Ethiopia fills the GERD to capacity, the stored water will equal 18 months’ worth of the Blue Nile’s flow. Egyptian and Sudanese citizens rely on the Nile for fresh water, and their agriculture depends on extensive irrigation networks. Both states fear that the dam could disrupt water flows, increase salinity levels and harm agricultural production. Indeed, the first GERD filling in July 2021 disrupted Khartoum’s water supply for three days, and irrigation pumping stations faced sudden shortages.

Moreover, both downstream states operate their own hydroelectric dams and require steady, consistent flows to meet their power needs. As Sudan is closer to the GERD, it is also concerned that increasing sediment levels or the rapid release of stored water could physically damage its smaller dams at Merowe and Roseires. For these reasons, Khartoum and Cairo expressed grave concern over Ethiopia’s decision to unilaterally fill the dam without an agreement. In April 2021, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi warned of “inconceivable instability in the region” if the GERD affected Egypt’s water supplies.

History of Negotiations

Trilateral talks, mediated by the U.S., opened soon after dam construction began,  and initial efforts proved promising. In 2011, representatives from each country formed an International Panel of Experts (IPOE). When the panel submitted its report two years later, it called for joint studies to further explore technical issues. The states then agreed to a Declaration of Principles in 2015. Reflecting the principles of the 1997 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses (U.N. Convention), the parties committed to the “equitable and reasonable utilization” of the river’s resources, acknowledged the “obligation not to cause significant harm,” and vowed to exchange data and information. Following the IPOE’s recommendation, the parties also agreed to establish a Tripartite National Committee (TNC) to conduct joint studies and solicit technical assessments from international consultants. Under the Declaration of Principles, the countries would provide the TNC with technical data needed to study water usage and establish safe operating parameters. Most importantly, all three states agreed to abide by the TNC and IPOE recommendations.

Unfortunately, despite the declaration’s aspirational language, subsequent negotiations bore little fruit. The TNC engaged international consultants to conduct technical assessments, but the parties could not agree on baseline terms of references for the analysis. In 2018, the three states  established a National Independent Scientific Research Group (NISRG) to assess the dam’s hydrological, environmental and social impacts, but consultations broke down a year later without consensus. 

Ultimately, Ethiopia walked away from the negotiations in February 2020. Abiy rejected a draft agreement prepared with the World Bank’s technical input, and Ethiopia unilaterally commenced filling the dam in July 2020. The African Union (AU) sponsored a new round of negotiations; however, these efforts ended in April 2021 without any breakthrough, and Sudan refused to sign the draft final communique. When Ethiopia conducted a second filling in July 2021, Egypt referred the matter to the U.N. Security Council over Ethiopia’s objections. In September 2021, the Security Council issued a statement in which it “encouraged” the states “to adhere to their obligations” under international law and reach a “binding agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD.” But little has changed on the ground, and fundamental disagreements remain. As Ethiopia intends to conduct a third filling in summer 2022, Egypt and Sudan fear they may soon face a fait accompli. Tensions remain high, and mutual recriminations continue.

Party Positions and Negotiating Hurdles

Regional leaders often speak of the Nile in poetic terms. Former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi once called the river “the umbilical cord that connects” the region. In an April 2021 letter to the U.N. Secretary Council, Sudan described the Blue Nile as “an inseparable part of the history, culture, economy, and conscious[ness]” of the region’s people. At times, the parties’ positions have matched this lofty rhetoric. Meles regularly extolled the GERD as a tool for regional economic growth, and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir recognized Ethiopia’s right to upstream development in 2012. But Sudan’s support soured when Prime Minister Abiy cast the dam in more nationalistic terms. The parties are now at odds, and each side assigns blame to the other. Five key issues currently impede a negotiated solution:

  • Binding commitments for droughts. Egypt and Sudan desire clear commitments to ensure sufficient water is released during droughts or periods of low rainfall—something Ethiopia is reluctant to do. The parties have agreed on what constitutes a drought, but Ethiopia will not commit to release specified amounts of water. More broadly, Egypt and Sudan demand that all negotiated commitments be binding, while Ethiopia will commit only to voluntary guidelines and a nonbinding dispute resolution mechanism.
  • Timeline for filling the GERD. A slower timeline will minimize the disruption for downstream users, but it would deprive Ethiopia of cheap, renewable energy for its people and economy. Although two fillings are complete, Ethiopia has previously expressed a willingness to fill the reservoir over a seven-year period and delay completion until 2027. Egypt, however, has argued that the reservoir be filled over an even longer period, possibly lasting 12 to 21 years. Analysts estimate that if the GERD remained offline for more than 12 years, Ethiopia would lose tens of billions of dollars in revenue.
  • Role of mediators. In 2020, Sudan requested that the EU, U.S. and U.N. mediate negotiations alongside the AU to “narrow the gap” among the parties. According to Sudan, such a quartet would add credibility to parties’ assurances and guarantees. Ethiopia, however, rejects third-party mediation as outside the scope of the 2015 Declaration of Principles. Moreover, U.S. and EU influence with Addis Ababa remains at a nadir due to criticism over the Tigray conflict.
  • Scientific and technical assessments. Under the 2015 declaration, the three nations pledged to provide data to the TNC. Such information would support studies to establish a technical baseline that addressed each parties’ concerns, like how filling will affect the accumulation of salts in agricultural lands. Egypt claims that Ethiopia failed to provide the necessary data, though Ethiopia dismisses these complaints. Furthermore, Ethiopia argues that the 2013 IPOE report already established that the GERD will not harm downstream states. But Egypt and Sudan note that the panel’s report was not conclusive, and it actually recommended a “comprehensive study” to model downstream effects. Although the NISRG sought such technical answers, it disbanded without forging a consensus on technical issues. 
  • Prior water-sharing agreements. Existing treaties and legacy colonial agreements also complicate negotiations. The Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1929, along with a 1959 bilateral treaty between Sudan and Egypt, effectively allocated all water rights to the two downstream states and granted Egypt a veto over upstream projects. While Egypt and Sudan expressly recognized Ethiopia’s right to exploit the Blue Nile in the 2015 declaration, both states still view these treaties as binding international agreements. Ethiopia, however, rejects any agreement that indirectly recognizes these treaties, as it was not a party to those negotiations. As a compromise, Sudan offered to include a clause stating that the agreement does not constitute recognition of any legacy treaties by any signatory. 

Such issues contributed to the breakdown of talks in April 2021, and changing domestic dynamics have complicated negotiations further. As Abiy confronts prolonged conflict and growing ethnic tensions at home, the GERD presents an opportunity to unify the state with nationalist rhetoric. But such language may have driven Sudan’s military leadership to align more closely with Egypt, adding to the general climate of mistrust.

The Potential for Conflict

Transboundary water disputes implicate core national interests: the use of natural resources, the potential for socioeconomic development and the fear of environmental degradation. In many cases, disputed waters are also powerful symbols that loom large in the national consciousness. For Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, the Nile carries this potent strategic and emotional mix. Such sentiments constrain policy options, calcify hardline positions and increase the chance of diplomatic failure. In these situations, armed conflict becomes a distinct possibility.

Each side has employed belligerent rhetoric in recent years. In April 2021, Sudan’s foreign minister feared that Ethiopia sought to “impose a fait accompli and put all the peoples of the region in grave danger.” Sudan’s irrigation minister then decried Ethiopia’s decision to unilaterally fill the dam a second time, warning that “Ethiopian intransigence would lead Sudan into all possible options to protect its security and its citizens.” Similarly, many observers have interpreted various Egyptian statements as veiled threats of war, especially as Cairo allegedly requested that Khartoum permit Egyptian commandos to conduct a strike from Sudanese territory should negotiations fail. In 2013, then-President Mohamed Morsi declared that “Egypt’s water supply cannot be violated at all” and warned that “all options are open.” Two months later, Egyptian ministers were unknowingly recorded on live television while discussing the situation. In the recording, ministers proposed that Egypt destabilize Ethiopia with military aid to the Oromo Liberation Front and spread rumors about bombing the dam. In March 2021, President al-Sisi declared the Nile’s water a “red line” and  “untouchable.” For its part, the chief of Ethiopia’s Air Force recently extolled Ethiopia’s military capabilities, threatening multiple plans “to counter an enemy who knowingly …  attempts to derail the [GERD] project.”

Such aggressive words can incite public passions and limit leaders’ policy choices when crises arise. Some rhetoric may be mere posturing, and President al-Sisi has downplayed talk of military options. But a region wrestling with political turmoil, civil conflict and famine can ill afford additional volatility. Furthermore, the climate of mistrust bleeds into other areas of tension, such as Ethiopia-Sudan border disputes and Addis Ababa’s fear of Egyptian support to Tigrayan separatists. The need for a diplomatic solution is pressing.

International Law and the Importance of Shared Facts

International law does provide guidance for transboundary water disputes. For instance, the 1997 U.N. Watercourse Convention requires states to ensure “equitable access” to transboundary waterways and avoid causing “substantial harm.” The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has reinforced these same principles. In Pulp Mills on the River Uruguay (Argentina v. Uruguay), the ICJ emphasized that parties must seek the “equitable utilization” of the river’s resources and respect other riparians’ “rights of economic development.” Similarly, in Gabčíkovo-Nagymaros Project (Hungary/Slovakia), the ICJ found that Czechoslovakia’s unilateral control of the Danube deprived Hungary of its “right to an equitable and reasonable share of … natural resources” and highlighted the ecological effects of diverting upstream waters. But equity and harm are meaningless concepts without a mutually accepted technical baseline.

In the Blue Nile Basin, equity requires an understanding of water flows during periods of drought and the potential impact of climate change. Similarly, any appreciation of harm must assess preexisting sediment levels and consider how decreased water flow can affect downstream salinity. Such analysis is critical for settling transboundary water disputes. Indeed, the ICJ conducted its first fact-finding mission in 50 years for the Hungary/Slovakia case. And in Argentina v. Uruguay, the court deemed environmental impact assessments a requirement under international law. But such findings are even more vital in a region acutely vulnerable to climate change. To establish a scientific baseline will require time, expertise and cooperation, and it is imperative that the parties reengage on these technical issues.

Agreement on technical terms of reference could jump-start negotiations, while additional data on water flows, sedimentation, salinity levels and projected power output could help parties quantify the benefits of cooperation and allay public fears. For instance, in a 2021 study, environmental scientists at the University of Virginia, Chapman University and Egypt’s Alexandria University used commercial satellite imagery to study the effects of rainfall and runoff on the broader Blue Nile basin. After tracking water levels during GERD filling, their analysis suggested that the GERD could exacerbate drought during periods of low rainfall. This is precisely the type of data the parties agreed to research and share under the 2015 Declaration of Principles. The AU, EU and U.S. should pressure each state to follow through on this commitment and support technical exchanges that build on objective, third-party analyses.

The Road Ahead

The benefits of an agreement could not be greater. Successful negotiations would defray tensions in an increasingly volatile region. But it could also promote resilience for cyclical droughts and provide sustainable power for an energy-starved region. Addisu Lashitew, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Haim Kassa, a professor at Miami University, have noted that power interruptions decrease Ethiopian, Egyptian and Sudanese business revenue by, respectively, 6.9 percent, 6 percent and 1.2 percent annually. More consistent power would bolster economic performance, create jobs and reduce poverty for all three states. Such shared benefits could enable leaders to garner public support for compromise and dial down the bellicose rhetoric. Despite these possibilities, negotiations remain at an impasse, and a third unilateral filling is scheduled for summer 2022.

The international community has not remained silent. When Ethiopia walked away from the U.S.-led negotiations in 2020, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, who hosted the talks, urged Ethiopia not to fill the GERD unilaterally. Once Ethiopia chose to proceed, the Trump administration paused $100 million in aid. More recently, President Biden has acknowledged Egypt’s concerns and reiterated the U.S. interest “in a diplomatic resolution that meets the legitimate needs” of all three states. Similarly, the EU has urged all parties to establish a clear road map for renewed negotiations, emphasized the importance of an agreement for foreign investment and extolled the potential benefits for the basin’s 250 million people. And after the second filling in 2021, the U.N. Security Council explicitly called on all parties to resume negotiations. But such calls are unlikely to change the parties’ hardened positions, and a negotiated solution may ultimately prove elusive.

Continued international pressure remains critical. On Jan. 25, David Satterfield, the U.S. special envoy for the Horn of Africa, met with the Egyptian foreign minister and discussed the stalled negotiations. On March 21, he then traveled to Ethiopia for consultations about the Tigray conflict with U.N., AU and Ethiopian officials. Unfortunately, tension over Sudan’s military coup and Ethiopia’s operations in Tigray may limit U.S. leverage with Khartoum and Addis on other issues. Moreover, Satterfield has announced that he will step down in May after only four months on the job, creating a diplomatic gap that could impede U.S. engagement. Nevertheless, Ethiopia appointed Seleshi Bekele as ambassador to the United States in March. As Seleshi previously served as Ethiopia’s minister of water, irrigation and energy and as the chief negotiator for the GERD, his selection may indicate a renewed willingness to engage on the GERD and curry U.S. support. That said, where Brussels and Washington lack influence, they should work through the other regional actors to incentivize cooperation. Pressure from other upstream states and influential Arab League members like the United Arab Emirates could encourage the parties to establish technical terms of reference, facilitate scientific exchange and reengage in good-faith negotiations. Such steps would provide confidence-building measures and jump-start the stalled negotiations.

Ultimately, the GERD dispute remains inextricably linked to broader regional concerns and should not be ignored. As a critical component of long-term regional stability, a negotiated agreement would assuage trilateral tensions, foster growth for the entire Nile basin and provide a diplomatic success for the African Union. Failure, however, raises the specter of protracted instability and renders each party more vulnerable to climate change. A binding trilateral solution, grounded in the principle of equitable use, must be found.