Ethiopia Begins Disputed Filling Of Dam Amid Tensions

On Monday 5 June, Egypt was notified that Ethiopia resumed filling the GERD (Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam) along the Nile River’s main tributary. The unilateral move to once again begin filling the dam comes after years of alternating negotiations and tensions between Ethiopia and a group of affected countries, most notably Egypt and Sudan. According to The Associated Press, the dam is 80% complete and when at full capacity, this mega project will be the largest plant in Africa, and the seventh largest in the world.

In a statement, Egypt’s Irrigation Ministry rejected the move and called it a “clear and grave violation” of a 2015 agreement theoretically bounding Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan, preventing unilateral actions. The United Nations Security Council was scheduled to discuss the dispute last Thursday- a step Ethiopia has rejected on grounds that it has simply executed a plan known to Sudan and Egypt, and is not an issue of peace or security. On the other hand, Egypt and Sudan have framed filling the dam as an existential threat.

Thus far, diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict have stalled at different venues along various contentious points of difference between parties. These diplomatic ventures have continued over the last decade since Ethiopia announced construction of the GERD in April of 2011. They include the now-defunct Tripartite National Committee, an International Panel of Experts, and a Declaration of Principles on the GERD. While committing Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan to resolving the conflict, such ventures failed to create a solution. But as construction of the dam approached and the filling of the reservoir became imminent, dialogue has become more direct and prescient. November 2019 saw the beginning of talks between the three countries, followed by two failed resolutions in early 2020.

According to the International Crisis Group, Ethiopia rejected the first draft agreement signed by Egypt for being too favorable towards them. Additionally, Sudan and Egypt refused to sign a resolution Ethiopia put forward for the first two years of filling the dam. In June 2020, multiple multi-lateral efforts brought the bodies together to hammer out a resolution, but again brought about no agreement. Recently, the dispute took on a regional character as Sudan and Egypt received support from the Arab League in a unified statement, following a meeting in Qatar. Egypt has also taken striking steps of its own in the last few months leading to Ethiopia’s announcement.

Al-Monitor reported that Egypt has signed four defense or intelligence sharing agreements with countries surrounding Ethiopia in recent months, including Sudan, Uganda, Burundi, and Kenya. Analyst Mohammed Soliman argues that this diplomatic spree comes with the aim of aligning the whole region around its position vis-à-vis the Nile Basin, as well as becoming a regional driver of development. Egypt has consistently tried to frame disagreement over the GERD as solvable through diplomatic means. However, these recent military alliances, as well as Sisi’s reiteration that taking a “single drop” of Egyptian water as a red line bely a more hostile approach.

The United States made its own minor diplomatic move in September 2020, temporarily suspending part of its aid to Ethiopia over the latter’s insistence on filling the GERD before a comprehensive plan was established. However, no significant interventions have been made on either side, as the primary international actors continue to urge discussion and negotiations, rather than taking sides. The possibility of conflict over water in North Eastern Africa highlights a growing source of instability in the modern world order, particularly the era of climate change. In the adjacent Middle East, conflict and disagreement over water and the construction of dams show the need for stronger multi-lateral mechanisms to manage water resources going into the future. The effects of climate change are beginning to have significant material consequences.

Similar to the GERD diplomatic standoff, Turkey’s Southeastern Anatolia Project also sparked a dispute between them and Iraq. They built multiple dams along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers throughout the latter half of the last decade. According to Marine Executive, Turkey’s damming projects are estimated to have cut the flow of water downstream to Iraq by 80% since 1975, and by 40% to Syria. The decline of river water has reduced the amount of arable land in Iraq by 25,000 hectares per year and threatens unique ecosystems downstream like the marshlands in southern Iraq.

Both situations on the Nile and the Tigres and Euphrates demonstrate the failings of international diplomatic and political systems to create consensus for a greater sense of common good between countries. Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to fill the GERD crudely demonstrates the power of largely arbitrary structural leverage. Despite more than a decade of negotiation and discussion, ultimately Ethiopia could use discretion for making the decision, to advance its own interests. This would be a severe detriment to over a hundred million people simply because the GERD is positioned upstream.

Structural conditions like geography will always dictate leverage and the accumulation of resources and power. Nevertheless, rarely has one party held the unilateral power to deprive an entire country of a significant amount of its primary water source, and shape regional living conditions through one infrastructure project. This problem necessitates reimagining how resources are controlled and distributed on an international scale, given the near certainty that conflicts like these will only increase with the growing threat of climate change. Without clear plans for managing critical resources like water, environmental crises will grow to become not only internal issues of displacement, hunger, and draught but also international conflict. As incentives for peaceful order lessen, the need to secure precious resources increases.

The time for creating international mechanisms for equitable managing resources has past, as the conflicts over essential resources has clearly arrived. Countries like Ethiopia, which hold significant structural leverage, may need to be compensated with other investments and preferential treatment, to bring them into the fold and sacrifice or downsize projects like the GERD. But since these advantages are often unrelated to geo-strategic or economic power, rewarding advantaged countries may be more feasible than expected.

This approach also has the potential to prevent crises like the GERD from devolving into ethnic or religious conflict, as seen with the Arab League’s backing of Egypt and Sudan as a uniquely Arab issue. On the other hand, Egypt’s more pragmatic alliances with non-Arab countries in recent months also highlights that unnatural alliances may emerge around similar interests regarding strategic resources. Major international bodies and organizations must create out of the box initiatives and incentives for countries like Ethiopia to act in the regional greater good, instead of a national “renaissance.”


Leave a Reply