Ethiopia’s struggle for equal share of the Nile

17 mins read
Muluken Bekele
Muluken Bekele

It’s no secret that Egypt has been against the construction of the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD) by asserting false ownership over the Nile. Despite all the negative external forces, Ethiopia is on the brink of completing the GERD. July 2020 marks the beginning of the reservoir’s filling, and the first stage of electric generation is expected to begin 2021. Ethiopia wants to complete the filling of the GERD reservoir in 4–7 years.

However, Egypt is pushing back insisting that Ethiopia extend the filling of the GERD reservoir to 12–20 years claiming that the Nile is a matter of life and death situation for Egypt but only a development goal for Ethiopia. The purpose of this article is to first and foremost present the facts and let the readers decide what the right course of action should be for both countries. Discussions on the construction of GERD have mainly demonised Ethiopia’s role in the international debacle. Still, after considering economic, social and political issues for both countries, one begins to realise that the GERD is, in fact, a matter of LIFE or DEATH for Ethiopia now.

1. Population size

Ethiopia: Today, the population of Ethiopia is +114 million, and it is expected to reach +129 million by 2025 and further +205 million in 2050.

Egypt: Today the population of Egypt is +102 million, with a projection of +111 million by 2025 and +159 million by 2050.

The Debate: Egypt claims that their population size is growing and they will need water, food and electricity for long term sustainability of their population. While this may be true for Egypt, Ethiopia’s massive population is already facing a lack of access to electricity and food security, and this will become a pressing issue given that Ethiopia’s population is growing twice as fast as Egypt’s.


2. The number of dams on the Nile, Treaty and Territory

Ethiopia: Ethiopia currently has no dams built on the Nile making GERD its first Nile project (figure 1.1).

Figure 1.1 GERD

Egypt: Egypt has already constructed two dams: the Aswan high dam and Aswan low dam (Figure 1.2 ).

Figure 1.2 Aswan high and low dam

The Debate: Egypt has made claims that Ethiopia’s construction of GERD is violating the terms of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1929 that was drawn out during the colonial era by Great Britain giving Egypt maximum control of the Nile Basin. In 1959, Egypt and an independent Sudan signed a bilateral agreement, which effectively reinforced the provisions of the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty enabling both countries to take advantage of the Nile solely. The agreement also prevents the upper stream Nile basin countries from constructing a hydroelectric dam or starting any projects on the Nile without approval from Egypt. The upstream Nile Basin countries are Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi and Ethiopia (figure 1.4).

Figure 1.3 The flow of the Nile from upper stream Nile basin countries to Sudan & Egypt

These upper stream Nile basin countries supply the water that flows into the Nile, and Ethiopia takes the lion share by providing over 80% of the water that flows into the Nile River.

Additionally, colonial treaties should be redundant in post-colonial eras, and British colonists signed the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty on behalf of several upstream Nile basin countries. Ethiopia has always been a sovereign nation (uncolonized) and took no part in it, and therefore Ethiopia has not violated any agreements by building the dam within its territory.

In fact, following Tanzania’s independence from Britain 1961, Nyerere recognized how the Nile agreements effectively gave Egypt too much control of Nile Basin countries’ development. He also rightly argued that the agreement was not representative of the newly independent nations.

Following this, surrounding Nile Basin members have called for a revisit of the Treaty in agreement with Nyerere’s demands. These mutual concerns for the validity of the Treaty in current times have brought support for GERD, evident in the CFA Treaty, from all upstream Nile basin members excluding Egypt and Sudan which were not willing to sign of course.

Source: CFA | Nile Basin Initiative (NBI)

3. Access to electricity

Ethiopia: World Bank Reports highlight that 44% of Ethiopians have access to electricity. While 55% of the population still rely on firewood as fuel for cooking.

Egypt: On the other end, 100% of Egypt’s population has access to electricity indicating how far behind Ethiopia is and how beneficial the Aswan dams were for their infrastructure.

The Debate: Electricity is vital for the development of all nations, and Egypt is no exception. The country, fortunately, can rely on the Aswan dam to fuel its agricultural, technological, manufacturing and tourism sectors. Ethiopia, on the other end of the Nile, faces major electricity problems as previously mentioned, 55% do not have access to electricity with the remaining population facing incessant load sharing with unreliable electricity. While the Ethiopian economy is growing at an accelerated rate, this growth is still stifled by an insufficient supply of electricity, particularly stunting the growth of the manufacturing and agricultural sectors. GERD provides the solution not only bringing light to Ethiopia but other nations as well. 70 million individuals stand to benefit from GERD internationally, particularly East African nations in Sudan, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania. GERD is not fueling a country; it is fueling the entire region. The same cannot be said for the Aswan Dam, unfortunately, as it only serves Egypt although the dam’s construction politically affected so many neighbouring nations.

SourceWorld Bank

4. Famine and Dry season

Ethiopia: Famine in Ethiopia occurred periodically through the history of Ethiopia due to lack of rainfall, poverty and insect plagues. The infamous 1984–1985 famine in Ethiopia is one of the worst in recent history (figure 1.4 and 1.5) that happened due to mainly rainfall and insect plagues.

According to the UN, despite fast economic growth in recent years, Ethiopia has been experiencing a significant drought and famine since 2015 due to lack of rainfall and locust invasion requiring humanitarian aid as a result. According to WFP and, US-AID 8 million Ethiopians need food assistance this year in 2020.

Egypt: Egypt doesn’t suffer as much as other places during droughts because its water comes from the Nile and oases. The only drought that occurred in Egypt was 4,200 years ago known as Famine Stela. Famine Stela is a famine written in Egyptian hieroglyphs located on Sehel Island in the Nile near Aswan in Egypt, which tells of a seven-year period of drought and famine during the reign of pharaoh Djoser of the Third Dynasty.

Figure 1.5 Famine Stella hieroglyphic evidence

Three scientists from Rutgers conducted a study funded by NASA, and the University of Edinburgh shows that Famine Stela was caused by an Icelandic Volcano that killed 9,000 Icelanders and brought famine to Egypt reducing the population of the Nile valley by a sixth.

The Debate: Egypt has never needed any humanitarian aid for food security. The Aswan dams have provided Egypt with sufficient electricity and effective irrigation systems that have elevated their agricultural economy. However, Egypt believed that the filling of the GERD would minimize the water flow that Egypt uses for agriculture and threatens the country’s long term food security.

Ethiopia, on the other hand, has been facing and currently facing food insecurity due to poor rainfall. Ethiopia is not capable of addressing the current pressing issues of food security without completion of the GERD. Relying on humanitarian aid continues to be unsustainable and especially during the outbreak of the current COVID 19′ pandemic, food aid is already at risk. Thus the GERD is a project that starving Ethiopians are relying on to feed their communities as soon as possible making GERD a LIFE or DEATH situation.

The question is this: Is Ethiopia right to feed its people with the GERD while posing a threat to Egypt’s food security? I will tackle this in the paragraph below.

SourceIcelandic Volcano Caused Historic Famine In Egypt, Study ShowsWFPUSAID

5. Dam Water reservoir

Ethiopia: GERD reservoir-when it’s filled

  • Storage capacity (Volume): ~74 km3 (~18 cu mi)
  • Surface area (Area): 1,874 km2 (724 sq mi)
  • Maximum depth: 140 metres (460 ft)
  • Maximum length * width: 246 km (153 mi) * ~16 km (~10 mi)

Figure 1.6 illustration of the GERD reservoir


A. Aswan High dam reservoir (Lake Nasser)

  • Storage capacity (Volume):: 132 km3 (32 cu mi)
  • Surface area (Area): 5,250 km2 (2,030 sq mi)
  • Maximum depth: 130 metre (430 ft)
  • Maximum length * width: 550 km (340 mi) * 35 km (22 mi)

b. Aswan low dam (tailwater of lake Nasser)

  • Total capacity: 5,300×106 m3 (4,300,000 acre⋅ft)

Figure 1.7 Lake Nassir

The Debate: Is Ethiopia right to feed its people with the GERD while posing a threat to Egypt’s food security?

GERD will generate more electricity than Egypt’s Aswan Dam, but as the number shows us, Egypt’s Aswan Dam reservoirs (Lake Nassir) holds much more water than the GERD reservoir. Aswan Dam reservoirs (Lake Nassir) is massive and sufficient to provide enough water for electricity and agriculture until Ethiopia fills the GERD within 4–7 years.

Egypt argues that the filling of the dam within 4–7 years should be extended to 12–20 years, claiming that 4–7 years will minimize its water flow and the amount of water available for agriculture posing a threat to Egypt’s food security. Still, Harry Verhoeven Professor at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University Qatar, pushed back in a Round Table discussion by saying that “it’s a question of distribution” by questioning:

“Who uses most of the water in Egypt? Which farms and which industries? Who are the people systematically being deprived of water?

…That is a conversation that the Egyptian government has not been willing to entertain, and this is something that truly infuriates people in other parts of the Nile Basin because they understand very well that this kind of disproportionate allocation of water resources and good land to firms tied to the military-industrial establishment in Egypt…

Therefore it is unfair of Egypt to claim that the dam will affect their poor populations when in fact their military motivations stand to be affected.

Source: Roundtable discussion with Harry Verhoeven, John Mbaku, Adil Darwish, Abdul Rahman


Ethiopia built GERD to solve all the problems mentioned amongst other issues. The GERD, a $5 Billion project, faced a loan rejection from the IMF and the World Bank when it began. However, the poverty-stricken Ethiopians have provided all the money from their daily bread, and they are approaching the outcomes of their investment. The GERD project is a LIFE or DEATH situation for Ethiopia and should be treated as such.

However, Egypt still suggests Ethiopia use an alternative source of water and electricity instead of the GERD. Egypt does not know what is suitable and feasible for Ethiopia’s growth and solution to Ethiopia problem. It is not their place to suggest this.

Egypt has confidently announced future investment into luxurious projects like the USD 60 billion new city projects which already started (figure 1.8 and 1.9) while expressing concerns about food security. Alternatively, Egypt has the opportunity to re-invest in projects in response to the GERD like creating a dam to collect water exiting to the Mediterranean Sea. Egypt’s attempts to halt the GERD filling will not only seal the fate of the already millions of food-insecure Ethiopians in poverty but also prevent nearby East African nations from reaping the rewards from the Nile that they were never able to achieve under Egypt’s unfair control.

Conflict from the Nile is imminent and will continue to arise until the terms of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty is revised and all those who are occupants of the Nile Basin have a fair say in the outcomes of the Nile. The Nile does not belong to Egypt regardless of how reliant they are on its water sources, it belongs to many countries. This opinion was expressed by Abdula Rhaman Said, East African Analyst who stated:

For the sake of stability in the East African region and future conflicts that might occur between the upper steam Nile Basin countries and Egypt,. The Anglo Egyptian colonial treaty must be revised and a new treaty that benefit everyone equally must be established.”

Figure 1.9 Construction of Egypt’s new capital

SourceRoundtable discussion with Harry Verhoeven, John Mbaku, Adil Darwish, Abdul

Let me know in the comments below if you agree or disagree with Ethiopia’s approach decisions on its portion of Nile water and GERD.


  1. Excuse me…youbarebstating funny facts!! First funny fact is that Egypt relies on Aswan High dam for its 100% supply for electricity!! It only contributes to 10 to 20% of Egypt electricity supplies… So you know nothing, Second funny fact that you are suggesting Egypt to build another dam on the Nile River to prevent the water to be wasted in the mediaterian sea!! Nothing goes into the mediaterian sea on the contrary we use every drop and we need more…. Third fun fact that you are trying to give legitimate to the Gerd according to the international law for Rivers in all over the world Etipia cannot build and block water from running to Egypt and Sudan. Very funny ignorent article you are using Gerd for political reasons or to win elections.

  2. Ethiopia has the moral and constitutional right to use the Blue Nile water in any way she chooses until the living standards of its citizens are at par with Egypt. Ethiopians can’t be starving while Egyptians are leading lavish lives using our water which we couldn’t use until now because of their sabotages in collaboration with IMF and World Bank. That is common sense that can’t be refuted.
    It is nonsensical to ask the Nile basin upstream countries to honor The Nile Agreement that was signed by colonist Great Britain in 1929. How can a different government be held responsible for actions taken by an enemy? That is a spoiled child’s mentality.
    Ethiopia must soldier on completing the dam and letting water through that Egypt and Sudan use currently and nothing more.

  3. Yes, we Ethiopians have God given right to use our water. We will use our water resources, and there will be no power on earth which can stop us from using it. We will not die or keep begging for food rather we will use our water to feed our people. Let the Egyptians and all the world community know., that we can do what we want on our God given resources, respecting the right of others. We love all the people of the earth. let alone our African brothers. Hence, we will do our best to help our brothers.

    Dear Egyptian brothers and sisters, now It is better to start thinking out of the box and learn to adapt to the new dynamics. Learn to build cheap desalination plants, to use your underground water resources and water saving technologies. This is the path forward for Egypt and the rest of the world.

    The Egyptians should come to terms with Ethiopia and their African brothers. They should say no to the selfish and ignorant attitude of their leaders . You must come in terms with the reality and acknowledge the rights of 100 millions of Ethiopians. Remember a hungry fox is more dangerous

  4. Ahmed your comment is still biased and in favor of Egypt, maybe you belong to Egypt. Whether you get electricity from Aswan dam or not the fact is that Egypt pupil to Electricity is 100% whereas Ethiopia only 45%. Look for reality on World Bank report link:

    Muluken articulation is fine however even if you wrote about facts it should be substantiated with reliable source of your data so that your articles make rich.

    Anyway based on Muluken articles above Ethiopian people suffered from such famine & drought not only due to shortage of rainfall (as we don’t claim almighty God) instead it was by the recurring sabotage made by Egypt government for not using Nile basin to all neighboring countries, especially to Ethiopia and they involved many times on making government instability to our country.. It is the fact that for past many years Ethiopian proposal to use Nile water failed due to Egypt & their alliance sabotage.

    Even as a human being they were not emphasized for such severe drought & famine which lost many people. So enough is enough, those who are still in favor of Egypt shall regret now and support Ethiopian people for so called millennium development goals initiated by such giant organizations, WB, IMF, western countries. Otherwise such institutions are symbol of western countries & are fake because they don’t play their role on eradicating poverty & making poor people to get basic needs (even their policy states).

    Hence, this is a time for Ethiopian Renaissance & make ally with it to culminate development effort.

    Long live to Ethiopia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.