WATER SECURITYEthiopia's Dam Dispute Could Escalate

By Isaac Kaledzi

Published 25 October 2023

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam conflict has lasted for more than a decade without a resolution. Some experts warn that any further delays in settling the outstanding issues could have dire consequences.

The conflict over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, known as GERD, on the Blue Nile river has dragged on for 12 years.

Ethiopia has failed to find an amicable solution with the two neighboring downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan, who say the dam threatens to cut off their water supply.

But Ethiopia sees the dam as a boon for economic development in a country where half the 120 million citizens live without power.

There was a fresh outcry outcry by Egypt in mid-September after Ethiopia announced that it had finished the fourth and final phase of filling the GERD reservoir. 

How could the dam dispute escalate?

Ethiopia’s announcement came just a fortnight after the three countries resumed negotiations — after a lengthy break — on an agreement which takes into account the water needs of all three. 

Some experts stressed the importance of settling the dam dispute sooner rather than later, warning that a prolonged spat could pose serious threats to the wider region.

Fidel Amakye Owusu, an African conflict resolution expert, told DW that the disputing neighbors should work to resolve their differences as a matter of urgency to avoid an escalation to possible direct clashes between nations.   

But Dr. Yakob Arsano, a former negotiator and Nile basin analyst, told DW that Ethiopia expects to continue its activities on the dam without the conflict being resolved. 

As far as I understand, the water-filling process for the construction of the dam shows that the fourth round has been filled with water. The construction of the dam and its water filling capacity will continue,” he said.

Timeline of the conflict

Ethiopia in 2010 first announced plans to build a dam on the Blue Nile to supply Ethiopia and its neighbors with more than 5,000 megawatts of electricity.

Egypt raised concerns at the time — escalating it to the United Nations and the African Union (AU) for resolution. But Ethiopia said that the dam designs had already been completed.

In 2011, Ethiopia laid the cornerstone for the new dam to kick off construction work on the project, offering to share construction schemes with Egypt amid the conflict.

The first meeting of the tripartite technical committee including the water ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia took place same year.

When Ethiopia diverted the Nile to build the dam in 2013, Egypt decided to negotiate. Talks resumed between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan.

In 2014, the establishment of a committee of expert resulted in the so-called Malabo Declaration that guaranteed Ethiopia would develop the dam while reducing potential impact on Egypt.