Nile Water Politics: Ethiopia says colonial agreements will not stop construction of Grand Renaissance Dam

Politics and Society

Nile Water Politics: Ethiopia says colonial agreements will not stop construction of Grand Renaissance Dam

Egypt and Ethiopia are at odds over the construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam, a US$4 billion hydroelectric project that may reduce the Nile water that feeds into Egyptian fields and reservoirs from Ethiopia’s highlands and via Sudan.



Ethiopia contributes 86% of the Nile River’s water but because of agreements signed between Egypt and Great Britain, Ethiopia cannot make use of the water as it deems fit. The Nile is an “international river” whose drainage basin covers 11 countries: Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Republic of the Sudan and Egypt.

Of these countries, Egypt and Sudan are the most dependent on the water of the Nile River. The two desert countries have built several dams and reservoirs, hoping to limit the ravages of drought and flood that have defined their histories. However, Ethiopia, which is the source of most of the Nile’s water and an upriver state, is staking its claim on the river by constructing what will be the largest dam in Africa.

Egypt is fighting against the dam, saying that it threatens the country’s very civilisation. Without the Nile water, they say, there would be a crippling food and water shortage while putting out the millions who earn their livelihood from the river.

Read: Cape Town’s precarious water supply


Hailemariam Desalegn, a former Ethiopian prime minister, has blamed the archaic colonial agreements over the use of the Nile waters for the prevailing stalemate that his country has reached with Egypt.

“There cannot be any resolution on the dam issue in five words. Many people don’t understand that Ethiopia contributes 86% of the Nile water and was told that they were not allowed to use a single drop. This was a policy developed by the colonial government,” said Desalegn. “I told Morsi not to politicise this issue; this is a technical issue. Ethiopia cannot be restricted by a colonial treaty because Ethiopia was never colonised.”

Ethiopia has signaled that it may start filling the Grand Renaissance Dam this year and, after failed talks between the two countries, safeguarding the scarce Nile water resources has become Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s top policy agenda.

Framework governing the use of Nile water

The 1929 Nile Waters Agreement – signed between Egypt and Great Britain on behalf of Uganda, Kenya, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and Sudan. It gave Cairo the right to veto projects higher up the Nile that would affect its water share.


The 1959 Agreement between Egypt and Sudan – supplemented the 1929 agreement, giving Egypt the right to 55,5 billion cubic meters of Nile water a year and Sudan 18,5 billion cubic meters per year.

The 1999 Nile Basin Initiative – brought together nine Nile Basin countries: Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, to develop the river in a cooperative manner, share substantial socioeconomic benefits and promote regional peace and security.

The 2010 Cooperation Framework Agreement, or the Entebbe Agreement – Nile Basin countries signed the Entebbe Agreement in order to replace the 1923 convention that awarded Egypt and Sudan shares of 55,5 billion and 18,5 billion cubic meters of water from the Nile per year respectively. The amendment was endorsed by six upstream countries: Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Burundi.

This led to Egypt freezing its membership of the Nile Basin Initiative in 2010 because of its objection to three articles in the agreement, especially in regard to the making of Nile Basin Initiative decisions by unanimity and not by majority, on the grounds that the upstream countries outnumber their downstream counterparts.

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The 2015 Declaration of Principles – to pave the way for further diplomatic cooperation and to ease tensions with leaders from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan signed a cooperation deal in 2015 over the Grand Renaissance Dam. The main principles of the agreement include giving priority to downstream countries for electricity generated by the dam, a mechanism for the resolution of conflict, and providing compensation for damages.


The overarching consequences of a dam this size hinge on the management of the Nile Rivers flow and how fast Ethiopia fills its reservoir, which can hold 74 billion cubic meters of water. If the country chooses to fill the reservoir faster’, this would use large volumes of water, whereas filling it slower would mean less reduction of water volume downstream.

Studies on what this would mean in the long run are conflicting. Some state that once the reservoir is full, the flow would in theory return to normal. Egypt, on the other hand, where agriculture employs a quarter of the workforce, is worried that the damage could be long-lasting.


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