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What is the Nile Dam Dispute?

6 min read

By Isabelle John


The dispute that arises over the allocation of the waters of the River Nile has remained existent for several years. The conflict, more specifically between the countries Egypt and Ethiopia was significantly intensified when Ethiopia began the construction of the dam on the Nile River in the year 2011.

The argument that Ethiopia provides is that their highlands are the supplier of more than 85% of the water that then flows into the River Nile and has asserted that they have the right to use their own natural resources in order to tackle the widespread poverty present and ameliorate the quality of life and living standards of their people.

Egypt, in opposition, believes that the dam will be a major threat to their water security as they depend almost solely on the river for their commercial and household uses. Ethiopia in response has proclaimed that the hydroelectric GERD will not affect the water flow significantly.

Egypt over the past years have used their comprehensive diplomatic connections and the 1929 and 1959 colonial era agreements to prohibit the construction of any of the projects on the tributaries of the river.

Hence, Ethiopia has not been able to successfully use the river’s waters for their own needs.[1]

Thus, this article discusses the dispute over Nile Dam.


Ethiopia is going against Egypt’s mandate that the dam cannot be filled without any legally binding agreement over the equitable allocations of the Nile’s waters.

Egypt has proceeded to address this and escalate the situation by involving international communities by calling for them to intervene.

In response to this the United States has already indicated that they will withhold any development aid they were providing to Ethiopia if the conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt are not resolved, and a suitable agreement is not reached between them.[2]

  • Is there legal framework for the water allocation?

Egypt has been consistently persistent claiming that the 1959 agreement present between Sudan and Egypt is the legal framework for the allocation of the waters of the Nile. Other upstream riparian states, including Ethiopia have blatantly rejected that claim.

The agreement in dispute had allocated all of the River Nile’s waters to Egypt and Sudan and left 10 billion cubic meters (b.c.m) for evaporation and seepage means. They presented none of the water to upstream riparian states including Ethiopia, who provide most of the sources of the water that then flows into the Nile River.

What was disappointing and potentially detrimental to these countries about this agreement is that this enabled Egypt to veto any future Nile River projects as they were awarded veto power.

What is the Nile River Issues of Today?

Officials in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa proclaim that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will not have any major effects on the water flow into the River Nile. They insist that the hydro powered dam will actually be beneficial for the neighboring countries as this would produce an affordable source of power too and contribute towards being a major mechanism for the management of the Nile.

This would include the alleviation of droughts as well as improving water salinity.

Egypt had originally planned on prohibiting the start of the GERD’s construction as they were scared that their access to the river’s waters would be disrupted. They have classed this filling of the dam as an existential threat and wholeheartedly believe that this dam will be detrimental to the country’s water supplies.

As the GERD is close to completion, Egypt has now shifted their strategies from prevention to trying to assure a political agreement for the filling of the GERD’s reservoir and the management of the GERD.

Sudan seems to be a bystander caught in the middle of both opposing countries. In the beginning they did seem to be on the opposing side of the construction for the GERD, however they seem to be for this dam as they see the potential benefits it brings for development.[3]

What does ‘Filling of the Dam’ Mean for Downstream Egypt?

As mentioned previously, the filling of the dam could reduce the water that is supplied to Egypt by about one-third! This water deficit of this significance could have the potential of destabilize quite a politically volatile part of the world by decreasing cultivable land in the country by up to 72%.

Water will continue to become scarce as the climate is constantly changing. Climate change affects developing countries at a larger scale as they experience rapid growth.[4]

Why does Ethiopia want to Build such a Large Dam?

Ethiopia is a country that has a slight shortage of electricity. Around 65 percent of their population is not connected to the grid. However, the dam, when completed, is presumed to have the capacity to generate a whopping 6000 megawatts of electricity.

This amount of energy generated would be able to have all of Ethiopia’s citizens connected to the grid as well as sell their surplus power to surrounding countries.

What did the talks chaired by President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa consist of?

The talks that occurred on behalf of the African Union resulted in several issues being solved however there was no agreement on the role that the dam would play coming across the issue of the droughts and strategies to mitigate it.

However, the three countries, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia have come to the agreement that “when the flow of Nile water to the dam falls below 35-40 b.c.m per year, that would constitute a drought” and then as per agreement of Sudan and Egypt, Ethiopia is under the obligation of releasing some of the dam’s water from the reservoir to mitigate the drought.

Ethiopia on the other hand is in a different mindset as they would prefer having versatility and full control on the decisions to be made regarding the droughts and the dam.[5]

Could this Disagreement Potentially end up in a War?

There have been rumors circulating and fears that the opposing countries could be drawn into conflict if the problem is not solved rapidly. The International Crisis Group has also sent out a warning saying that the countries “could be drawn into conflict” over the topic of the dam.

There were several reports detailing a secret recording that consisted of Egyptian politicians saying that they should conduct hostile acts to counter Ethiopia for the building of the dam.

Ethiopia on the other hand will not stop the construction. They are extremely determined to ensure this project is seen to completion. The Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed told MPs, in October last year that, “no force” could stop the country from building their dam.

When the United States intervenes, that is when the severity of the situation truly shines. The United States would not speak up or intervene if the situation was not as dire as it is in its current situation.

Both countries are allies of the United States and if there is conflict between the two and the United States is playing a role in this conflict, this could result in drawing global attention as it could potentially result in millions of civilians at risk.

What are the Further Steps? What Happens Now?

A deadline of 15th January was set in November as part of a timeline after a meeting occurred between Ethiopia, Egypt and the United States Treasury, Steven Mnunchin and the World Bank President, David Malpass. This deadline is for the countries’ foreign ministers along with the water ministers to come to an understanding.

These disputing parties who are at the epicenter of the conflict are to congregate once again in Washington later in the year.

Ethiopia’s minister has told the BBC that “These issues need an agreement of the three countries. Article 10 doesn’t say it will be based on the desire from one country.” The three countries being Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia.

There are two options presented to come up with a solution. The first is mediation and the second is an issue of facilitation.[6]


  1. John Mukum Mbaku, “The controversy over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam”, Brookings, August 5 2020, available at: (last visited on 14 July, 2021).
  2. Supra
  3. Supra
  4. Gary Polakovic, “Water dispute on the Nile River could destabilize the region”, USC News, July 13 2021, available at: (last visited on 14 July, 2021).
  5. Supra to note 1
  6. Basillioh Mutahi, “Egypt-Ethiopia row: The trouble over a giant Nile dam”, BBC, 13 January 2020, available at: (last visited on 14 July, 2021).