Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: The Geopolitics Of The River Nile Basin


When completed, the 4.8 billion USD Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will become Africa’s largest source of hydroelectric power, with the potential to generate 6450 MW. Despite the obvious benefits in providing electricity for Ethiopia, its construction has exposed fault lines in the rising power’s diplomatic relations with regional rival Egypt. The latter nation’s leadership has warned that the livelihoods of 100 million people may be disrupted by altering the Nile’s regular flow. As such, the two countries have been engaged in ongoing negotiations for over five years.

The dispute centres around who can claim legal right to the waters of the Nile. The debate is neatly summarized in John Waterbury’s The Nile Basin: National Determinants of Collective Action. The international norm of the master principle of appropriation determines that “whoever uses the water first thereby establishes a claim or right to it.” As the downstream country where the Nile meets the Mediterranean Sea, Egypt therefore has had an incentive to use as much of the river’s water as possible. This has established the nation’s legal right to high volumes of downstream flows, thus making it easier for them to demonstrate the “appreciable harm” that is likely to arise if upstream countries divert significant flows. For decades, they have been able to disregard the issue, knowing that Ethiopia and Sudan have been too preoccupied by domestic development concerns to properly pursue their shared interests in harnessing the Nile’s waters.

However, the tide may now be turning. While progress on the dam’s construction is estimated to be between 60-70%, Ethiopia is committed to damning the Nile and diverting more of its waters towards agricultural projects. Given the nation’s recent signalling towards political and economic liberalization, it is likely that their regional dominance is going to grow stronger. As such, some may find it puzzling why Cairo has been hesitant to agree a deal while the balance of power between the two is not overly skewed. Egypt’s domestic political considerations probably play a factor here. Their newly-re-elected President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi recognizes that his popularity will be undermined by signing away his country’s claims to the Nile River which has been the vital artery of Egyptian civilization for thousands of years.

On June 11th, following a meeting in Cairo with President Sisi, new Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that “my government and my people have no intention to harm the people of Egypt…We will work with the people of Egypt in any area.” In addition to the conciliatory rhetoric, the governments of Egypt and Ethiopia, in conjunction with Sudan, signed an agreement that attempts to resolve the dispute surrounding GERD. The three countries will set up a joint fund for investing in infrastructure using proceeds from the dam. Under the previous Ethiopian Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, the talks appeared to have reached a deadlock, but now it seems Abiy has reinvigorated the process.

Since assuming the position in April, Abiy has pushed to transform his state’s domestic political and economic processes, while also seeking to deepen trading relationships with the nation’s regional neighbours. The authorities has also recently released thousands of political prisoners and secured the release of Ethiopian detainees from Egyptian and Saudi prisons. Additionally, Ethiopia is expanding its naval forces to support emboldened maritime trading ambitions. All of this suggests that the country is on a rapid trajectory towards becoming East Africa’s premier geopolitical power.

After several years of rumours suggesting that the dispute would lead to military confrontation between Egypt and Ethiopia, the apparent de-escalation of tensions will likely come as a welcome relief for Egyptians. However, it remains to be seen whether Ethiopia will exploit this leverage in the future to distort the region’s balance of geopolitical power.