The dust of Egypt’s leadership transition has barely begun to settle, and already the new government is working to forestall any loss in supply or access to the Nile’s waters. Meanwhile, Ethiopia continues upstream with one of the largest hydropower projects in the world.
Nile River Blue Nile Falls Ethiopia waterfall Bahar Dam Lake Tana Ethiopian Highlands tourist attraction tourism hydroelectric hydropower
The Blue Nile Falls are located near the city of Bahar Dar, Ethiopia, and are fed by water from Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. One of Ethiopia’s foremost tourist attractions, the Blue Nile Falls demonstrates Ethiopia’s hydroelectric potential.Click image to enlarge.
By Joanne Yao
Circle of Blue
Despite ongoing violence with a casualty count in the hundreds, the Egyptian interim government continues to press Ethiopia to meet and discuss a controversial new dam that is under construction along the upper Nile River. Egypt sees the talks as an essential first step to prevent any loss to the river’s water, which Egyptians regard as their most precious natural resource. Successful talks with its neighbors, Egypt hopes, will also restore Egypt’s membership to the Africa Union and reestablish Egypt as a key player in African politics.
Events Along The Nile Since May 2013
Egypt protest president Mohamed Morsi Egyptian American Washington D.C. cool revolution
Egyptian Americans in Washington, D.C., lend support to protests against former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. Click image to enlarge.
  • May 28: Ethiopia begins a temporary diversion along the Blue Nile during construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
  • June 10: Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi gives a speech at a conference on the GERD and warns Ethiopia that “if our share of Nile water decreases, our blood will be the alternative.”
  • July 3: Dramatic street protests, supported by the military, oust Morsi and his government in Cairo, over 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) from the site of the GERD.
  • July 16: A military-backed interim government, headed by Hazem el-Beblawi, takes office in Cairo.
  • July 20: New Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy calls on Ethiopia to meet to discuss disagreements over the GERD. Ethiopia postpones the proposed date for a meeting.
  • August 4: Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia agree to meet after the Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim holiday on August 8; the meeting did not occur.
  • August 15: Intensifying violence in the streets of Cairo results in 638 dead and nearly 4,000 injured.
  • August 20: An unnamed Ethiopian foreign ministry official told, an independent news website based in Egypt, “We have been talked to over the past few days by top Egyptian officials who have urged us to stop the dam.”
  • August 24: According to Egypt’s State Information Service, Fahmy and his Ethiopian counterpart, Tedros Adhanom, spoke on the phone; the ministers agreed to meet in September to discuss common interests, with the Nile undoubtedly prominent on the agenda.
  • September 10: Egypt’s Al Monitor newspaper reports that Ethiopia and Sudan have once again postponed the meeting with Egypt to discuss the GERD.
“We will take action to guarantee the water security of Egypt and preserve our rights in the waters of the Nile,” said Egyptian foreign minister Nabil Fahmy at a press conference in Cairo on July 20, only four days after the military-backed interim government assumed office. “We call on the Ethiopian side to respond.”
The message to Ethiopia reflects just how concerned Egypt’s top leaders are about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), one of the largest hydropower projects in the world — and Egypt has been persistent with its urgent message. Egypt’s pleas, however, have received a lukewarm response. For the third time since June, Ethiopia and Sudan have postponed a meeting with Egypt to discuss the consequences of the GERD, despite a general agreement that a solution to satisfy all parties must be reached, reported Egypt’s Al-Monitornewspaper on September 10.
Ethiopia’s massive dam project — under construction since 2011 and slated for completion in 2017 — holds sway over the hydrological fortunes of three countries and more than 200 million people. A desert country, Egypt relies on the Nile for roughly 95 percent of its water supply and has always worried about the loss of even a fraction of the river’s flow. Egyptian authorities fear that the GERD will diminish the amount of water that flows into Egypt.
On the other hand, Ethiopia views the dam as essential to its political and economic development, comparing the GERD to the Hoover Dam, which helped to lead the United States out of the Great Depression of the 1930s and presented to the world a vision of America’s enormous possibilities. One of the great engineering achievements of the 20th century, over 29 million people today rely on the 2,080-megawatt concrete dam along the Colorado River in the American West. The generating capacity of the GERD, however, is almost three times larger than that of the Hoover Dam — a telling demonstration of the scale of modern hydropower construction in Africa, and globally, as well as the potential to dramatically alter river flows and diplomatic relationships.
The contest between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile is one of a growing number of globally significant choke points that involve water resources that flow across national borders; the desire of developing countries to build dams that harness water for both power generation and agriculture; and changing climatic conditions that are altering stream flows and water supplies that feed the rivers of the developing world during an era of rapid population and economic growth. Similar choke points are emerging in the Tigris-Euphrates River System that flows through Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, for example, and the Indus River Basin that joins India and Pakistan.
infographic data graphic design Wealth of the Nile river basin egypt ethiopia gdp dam hydropower
Infographic © Codi Yeager-Kozacek / Circle of Blue
Infographic: Wealth of the Nile includes the per capita GDP of the 10 Nile River Basin countries, as well as the dams currently constructed along its length. Click image to enlarge.
Egypt’s goal in seeking negotiations is to work with Ethiopia to reach a feasible consensus on how to manage the changing hydrological balance. But in doing so, the two nations are also pursuing a diplomatic strategy, designed to manage disagreements and ease tensions, which could demonstrate how shared river resources have the potential to foster cooperation rather than confrontation.

Boon Or Burden?

Ancient Greek historian Herodotus mused that Egypt was a gift to the world from the Nile, its annual floods creating the vast agricultural bounty that has sustained one of the longest lasting civilizations in history. What was true in the time of Herodotus continues today: without the Nile, Egypt dies — 97 percent of Egypt’s 84 million people live on 3 percent of the country’s land, a thin strip of fertile oasis along the Nile.
“The GERD project started without an environmental and social assessment, without proper involvement of neighbors who share the river, without an understanding of the project’s economic costs and benefits.”
–Lori Pottinger, International Rivers
The construction site for the GERD is located on the Blue Nile, almost 3,200 kilometers (2,000 miles) upstream from Cairo. A major tributary of the Nile River, the Blue Nile starts in Lake Tana at an elevation of 1,800 meters (6,000 feet) in the Ethiopian highlands. Flowing south and then west, the deep-hued river meanders along rugged canyons until it reaches Ethiopia’s western border with Sudan.
The GERD is located just 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Ethiopia-Sudan border in East Africa’s Great Rift Valley, a verdant region where the oldest human ancestors originated more than 2 million years ago. Roughly 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) further downstream, the Blue Nile meets the White Nile at Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, and flows north through Egypt for 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) before draining into the Mediterranean Sea.
Nile River Cairo Egypt Norbert Schiller flood flooding Ancient Egyptian god Hapi agriculture Festival Wafaa el-Nil Aswan High dam hydroelectric hydropower
Photo © Norbert Schiller
The Nile River, shown here passing through Cairo, has flowed through the heart of Egyptian civilization for more than five centuries. The annual flooding of the Nile, represented by the Ancient Egyptian god Hapi, brought agricultural abundance to Egypt. With the construction of the Aswan High Dam, the Nile’s annual floods stopped, but Egyptians still celebrate the annual flooding of the Nile with a festival, Wafaa el-Nil, for two weeks each August. Click image to enlarge.
Since 2011, Ethiopia has been building the concrete GERD, which will have a generating capacity of 5,000 to 6,000 megawatts, almost double the capacity of the largest dam currently in operation along the Nile, Egypt’s Aswan High Dam. Moreover, once completed in 2017, the GERD will be the largest dam in Africa.
The dam’s six-year construction is estimated to cost between 79 and 94 billion Ethiopian Birr ($US 4.2 and $US 5 billion), or almost Ethiopia’s entire expected annual revenue for the 2012-2013 fiscal year. With the exception of 19 billion Ethiopian Birr ($US 1 billion) from China to install transmission lines from the hydropower plant to the capital, Ethiopia has not secured any international financing for its ambitious project. The political, economic, and environmental risks of the project are just too big.
International Agreements Over The Nile
Nile River Norbert Schiller Aswan High dam Egypt hydroelectric hydropower
Photo courtesy of Norbert Schiller
Water rushes downstream from Egypt’s Aswan High Dam. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Egyptian government constructed the Aswan High Dam 870 kilometers upstream from Cairo along the Nile River. The dam manages floods, allocates water for irrigation, and has a generating capacity of roughly 2,000 megawatts of electricity. Click image to enlarge.
The history of agreements along the Nile is complex and controversial. International media reports often harken back to the 1929 Nile Agreement — an agreement between President Muhammed Mahmoud Pasha of the Egyptian Council of Ministers and British High Commissioner Lord Lloyd that recognized Egypt’s right to the Nile’s waters and gave Egypt veto power over any changes to the river’s hydrological balance.
Article 4 section ii states that “no irrigation works shall be undertaken nor electric generators installed along the Nile and its branches” to reduce or alter water flows to Egypt without the consent of the Egyptian government.
The agreement also appropriated 48 billion cubic meters (12.7 trillion gallons) of the Nile’s water each year to Egypt and 8 billion cubic meters (2.1 trillion gallons) to Sudan. Three decades later, a 1959 treaty between Egypt and a newly independent Sudan revised the allocations to 55.5 billion cubic meters (14.7 trillion gallons) for Egypt and 18.5 cubic meters (4.9 trillion gallons) for Sudan each year.
International agreement, however, only bind states who are a party to them — these often-cited agreements did not include Ethiopia.
Only one of the five other agreements concluded by the British between 1891 and 1959 involved Ethiopia. This infrequently mentioned 1902 Agreement between Ethiopia’s Emperor Menelik and British envoy Lieutenant Colonel John Lane Harrington states that Ethiopia will not “arrest the flow of their waters into the Nile,” except with the agreement to Britain and Sudan.
Debates rage about whether these colonial-era agreements and the obligations that they carry are still binding for post-independence Nile countries. Momentum to structure cooperation along the Nile around a modern-day legal framework did not gain traction until 40 years later.
In 1999, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) was established, with support from the World Bank, in order to address past imbalances along the river.
In addition, since 1997, Nile states have been negotiating the Cooperative Framework Agreementof the Nile Basin to create a new and more equitable international structure for working out water issues along the Nile.
Egypt and Sudan have not agreed to the new framework due to reservations on one article,Article 14b, the phrasing of which they believe does not explicitly protect their current water use rights.
“Most international donors have standards for development projects that greatly exceed Ethiopia’s,” Lori Pottinger told Circle of Blue. Pottinger works in the Africa program for International Rivers, a nonprofit advocacy organization located in Berkeley, California, that is known for their campaigns against large dams around the world. “The GERD project started without an environmental and social assessment, without proper involvement of neighbors who share the river, without an understanding of the project’s economic costs and benefits.”
Still, Ethiopian authorities contend that the GERD will have little effect on the amount of water reaching Egypt and Sudan, assuring downstream countries that water in the dam’s reservoir will not be used for irrigation. Ethiopian scholars at a June 29 symposiumalso said that the dam will reduce sedimentation along the Blue Nile, saving its neighbor Sudan $US 20 million a year in cleanup costs. In addition, Ethiopia emphasizes that the dam will generate enough electricity to export to its neighbors.
Despite Ethiopia’s insistence that the dam will be a boon to the entire region, Egypt remains unconvinced that such ambitious plans will not change or alter the Nile’s flow.
The dam’s reservoir is expected to hold 62 billion to 74 billion cubic meters (16.4 trillion to 19 trillion gallons) of water. The regulated release of water from the reservoir will then drive the dam’s turbines to generate electricity. Egypt’s scientists maintain that the Nile’s flow will necessarily diminish in order to fill the reservoir in the years following the dam’s completion. In addition, evaporation from the reservoir could reduce the river’s water supply by as much as 3 billion cubic meters (792 billion gallons) each year.
To put the numbers in perspective, however, the reservoir behind Egypt’s Aswan High Dam holds 168.9 billion cubic meters (44.6 trillion gallons), more than twice the GERD’s proposed reservoir, and has an estimatedannual evaporation loss of 12 billion cubic meters (3.2 trillion gallons) each year.

Potential For Water Conflict

With the exception of the Nile, water is scarce in arid North Africa. Since 1997, the 10 countries of the Nile River Basin have been negotiating a workable framework to share in the use of the Nile’s waters. In 2010, upstream countries Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda signed the Cooperative Framework Agreement of the Nile Basin, known as the “Entebbe Agreement.” Burundi signed a year later, and the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan — which became a nation in 2011 — recently expressed their intention to sign, as well.
Egypt and Sudan have stated that they will not sign the agreement without modifications to a key article in the agreement. However, both countries participate in the Nile Basin Initiative, a platform to discuss cooperation along the Nile that was established in 1999. Still, disagreements over water rights continue along the Nile.
For instance, when there was a temporary diversion in June for the construction of the dam, then-president Mohamed Morsi felt so strongly as to imply that Egyptians were ready to fight, if necessary, for their right to water. Borrowing from an old Egyptian song, Morsi said that if Nile water “diminishes by one drop, then our blood is the alternative.”
Upstream countries, however, maintain that the Nile’s waters are their birthright too.
Nile River delta satellite image NASA Egypt agriculture Mediterranean Sea fertile land
A 2003 NASA satellite image from space shows the Nile’s importance to Egypt. A thin strip of fertile land marks the river’s passage through the otherwise dry country. The Nile fans out into the Nile Delta — a productive agricultural region that is home to half of Egypt’s population — about 160 kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea. Click image to enlarge.
In a June press conference, Sudanese government spokesmen Ahmed Bilal Osman stressed that Sudan supports the GERD project and downplayed the dam’s potential negative effects. This came after Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir had declared his support of the project in March 2012.
“No African wants to hurt Egypt. However, Egypt cannot continue to hurt black Africa and the countries of the tropics of Africa,” said Uganda President Yoweri Museveni in response to Morsi’s provocative statement Museveni also voiced his support for the GERD project.

Potential For Water Cooperation

Information on Nile flows and historical agreements is rife with misinterpretations and misunderstandings — information which is commonly misreported in the media, according to David Grey, professor at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment. Incorrect numbers and historical facts can fan the flames of dispute.
“The lack of shared knowledge undoubtedly creates misunderstandings, which creates mistrust and fear — and fear creates unstable political relationship.”
–David Grey, professor at Oxford University
School of Geography & the Environment
“The lack of shared knowledge undoubtedly creates misunderstandings, which creates mistrust and fear — and fear creates unstable political relationships,” Grey told Circle of Blue. Rather, Grey suggests, if the countries work together to identify development opportunities, including agreeing on operating rules for filling and managing the new GERD and any other future dams, this would minimize the harm and maximize the benefits for all.
That approach, it turns out, has led to successful water-sharing compacts and treaties for centuries. Aaron Wolf, a geographer and transboundary water expert at Oregon State University’s Institute for Water and Watersheds, has analyzed the history of international water negotiations. In a 2001 article, Wolf stressed that there have been 3,600 treaties of cooperation since 805 CE. For modern times, Wolf found that, of the 1,831 reported water-related international incidents, confrontations, and encounters that had occurred between 1950 and 2000, two-thirds had reached cooperative conclusions.
“When you look back at history, you see that people have always talked about a fear of water causing war. But in the end, it leads to very little violence at the international scale,” Wolf said in a July interview with the Intelligent Optimist.
Financing the Largest Dam in Africa
Esna Barrage Nile River Norbert Schiller Aswan High Dam Egypt hydroelectric hydropower
Photo courtesy of Norbert Schiller
Engineers divert the Nile during the construction of locks at the Esna Barrage, roughly 170 kilometers downstream from the Aswan High Dam. The barrage, one of seven downstream from Aswan, was built to control the river’s flow and stabilize water levels upstream. Click image to enlarge.
The GERD’s construction is expected to cost 79 billion to 94 billion Ethiopian Birr ($US 4.2 billion to $US 5 billion). To finance the project, the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCO) is issuing corporate bondsthrough the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian government has told private banks to buy bonds and has instructed government employees to donate one month’s salary to the project. The government expects Ethiopians, and particularly the diaspora, to step up and shoulder the financial burden.
Ethiopia has organized fundraising campaigns around the world to sell GERD bonds. In a YouTube video, the now 15-year-old Ethiopian-Canadian Hannah Godefa, who was recently appointed a UNICEF goodwill ambassador for human rights in Ethiopia, speaks at a fundraising event with Ethiopian-Canadian businessmen. Wearing her hair in the traditional Ethiopian style, she implores the suits before her to invest in Ethiopia’s future.
“With the success of the dam, many local and international investors will also come. Just imagine, with the building of the dam will come roads, railroads, homes, and more industries… Ethiopia has a chance to prove to the world that they can rise in challenging times. The next generation and I are asking you to bring a better Ethiopia into our hands.”
New reports from Ethiopia’s state Radio and Television Agency have been optimistic. Last year, an annual event for Ethiopians in the Canadian cities of Kitchener, Waterloo, and Guelph reportedly raised $US 85,000, and GERD bonds that were sold in the United Kingdom reportedly raised £574,000 ($US 875,900).
However, bond purchases will likely not be enough.
According to a July 2013 African Energy Intelligence report, the bond’s low-interest yields have inspired little overall investment from the diaspora and have only raised a few hundred thousand dollars — far short of the billions needed to finance the dam.
The government will likely have to invest large sums to make up the difference.
Even in hotly contested watersheds, where water scarcity pushes parties towards conflict, cooperation remains a real possibility. Ethiopia’s Ambassador to Egypt, Mahmoud Drir, told the Xinhua News Agency in July that the concern over GERD can be resolved.
“Mutual interests between the two states connect their future, and the minor issues that rise sometimes cannot affect their relations,” he said. “The dam could be a win-win solution. The future and destiny of both Ethiopia and Egypt are intertwined by strong, inseparable, historical bonds.”

Can Water Wealth End Poverty?

In recent decades, Ethiopians suffered unspeakable famine and war. As of 2012, 5 million people in Ethiopia suffer from chronic food insecurityCivil war raged inside Ethiopia for almost two decades, from 1974 to 1991, and the two-year Eritrean-Ethiopian War in the late 1990s caused up to 70,000 deaths. One of the poorest nations in Africa, Ethiopia has a gross per capita income of $US 410, according to2012 World Bank figures. Moreover, theUnited Nations’ Human Development Indexranks Ethiopia 173rd out of 187 countries.
This history helps explain why Ethiopia views the Nile’s falling waters — a readily visible and plentiful energy resource — and the GERD as essential to its national development in the coming decades.
Ethiopia is known as the water tower of Africa, with rainfall accumulating in the Ethiopian highlands at more than 4,000 meters (13,120 feet) above sea level and then flowing down to the plains. The Ethiopian government aims to turn this storage of waterborne energy into electricity through a host of hydropower projects — more than 15 completed or planned projects across the country and four otherson the Blue Nile, in addition to the GERD.
“Social development is strictly tied to energy and electricity supply,” Asfaw Beyene told Circle of Blue. Beyene is a professor of mechanical engineering at San Diego State University and has written extensively on the GERD. “The alternative would be a more expensive, dirtier fossil fuel plant. Or a much more risky nuclear energy [plant].”
But the path from natural potential to economic prosperity is not smooth, and there are big reasons for those at the local and international levels to be concerned. Droughts and climate change could lessen the Nile’s flow or alter its course. Earthquakes are common in the seismically active Great Rift Valley and could damage the structure. These physical forces — in addition to regional political frictions over the Nile — could threaten how much electricity the GERD will be able to generate.
Q&A: Photographer Norbert Schiller
Photographer Norbert Schiller on the Nile River Basin
Photo courtesy of Norbert Schiller
Norbert Schiller is a journalist and photographer with more than 25 years of experience covering the Middle East and Africa. He is currently a columnist for Mint Press NewsClick here to read Circle of Blue’s interview with Schiller about the Nile.
And even if Ethiopia’s GERD project is successful, experts argue, economic prosperity does not necessarily follow.
“Dams are a means to an end, not an end in themselves,” noted a November 2000 report from the World Commission on Dams. In other words, to end poverty and advance economic development, Ethiopia may need to make other policy choices and invest in good governance, education, and public health.
“In the global south, where nearly all new dams are being built, large dams are usually put forth as being something of a silver bullet for solving a host of poverty-related problems,” International Rivers’ Pottinger said. “In reality, most of the world’s billion people without electricity will never be the beneficiaries of large dams. Smaller, more decentralized systems — designed with the needs of the rural poor in mind — would be a better fit in much of Ethiopia.”
Joanne (Yuan) Yao, a PhD student in International Relations at the London School of Economics (LSE), is currently reporting for the Circle of Blue news desk. She holds degrees from the University of Chicago and Johns Hopkins SAIS. Her dissertation focuses on cooperative institutions that govern transboundary rivers. Infographic by Codi Yeager-Kozacek, Circle of Blue’s Hawaii-based reporter. Norbert Schiller contributed photographs.