Opinion on Blue Dam and Cooperation Agreement Ethiopia’s Sovereign Right on Blue Nile River

15 mins read

By Tilahun Yimer

Nile is a trans-boundary river that has two major tributaries; White and Blue Nile, forming the proper Nile at Khartoum. Blue Nile originates from the Ethiopian highlands which accounts to about 86% of the Nile water while 14% originates from other neighboring African states.

Ethiopia and those countries, as sovereign states, have sovereign permanent right over their natural resources, including rivers, lakes, and inland waterways. They have complete ownership, use and control over these resources to develop in the interest of their respective countries. To this effect, Ethiopia has started building the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on its Blue Nile River.

Dream to Reality

The last Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie had long ago envisaged the Blue Nile dam and its realization came into effect with the determined effort and leadership of the late Prime Minister Melese Zenawi.

GERD’s main objective is to produce energy for the social & economic benefits of the Ethiopian people in fulfilling the energy requirements of the country.

At the moment, 70% of the civil work construction has been completed amidst the futile attempts made by the Egyptian government against the completion of the project with primary focus on the filling scheme, operations and administration of the dam. Despite the challenges ahead, however, under the leadership of the current Prime Minister, Dr.A biy Ahmed, the completion and efficacious operation of the GERD for the interest and pride of Ethiopia is assured.

Trilateral Ties and Cooperation Agreement

The river Nile binds Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan together; it has been the case for centuries and it will continue until the end of time. Thus, the havoc created by the Egyptian government stains and strains the longstanding relations of these countries.

The tripartite declaration of principles agreement was signed in Khartoum on 23rd March 2015 between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia on this trans-boundary river, assuring the two downstream riparian state that dam would be carried out without affecting their interest. This agreement was set much in favor of Egypt and Sudan and outweighing the interest of Ethiopia. However, Egypt and Sudan refused to abide by this agreement, deeming it invalid. If an agreement has to be done now or in future it should take into account a complete range of benefits that a trans-boundary cooperation agreement can provide to the contracting parties, considering the issues at hand.

In actual fact, trans-boundary water is not limited to the water body only but includes the catchment area of the water body of riparian states. However, the declaration of principles agreement does not mention about restriction or involvement of third parties or foreign interests and activities using this water and economic benefits that could be gained due to such activities. The downstream countries have been and are leasing lands to foreign large-scale commercial farming companies and countries which uses this trans-boundary river. Gulf Arab countries have taken millions of hectares of land in Egypt and Sudan for their agribusiness development projects. It is obvious that such foreign interest involvement in the huge agricultural projects using Nile water will be fallacy to the principle of “reasonable equitable share”.

It is imperative to note that most of the Arab countries have heavily invested in these two countries in the field of agriculture aiming to improve their food security and for commercial exports to the rest of world market using the resources of the Nile river water. Some of the Arab countries that had made huge investment in Egypt include Lebanon US$5billion, Saudi Arabia US$27billion, Qatar US$4billion, Bahrain US$3.2billion & Kuwait US$9billion while those invested in Sudan include Lebanon US$1billion, Saudi Arabia USD 13 billion, Bahrain US$4billion and Kuwait US$9billion. American direct investment in Egypt hiked by 2019, hitting $22.8 billion, about 1560 American companies operate in Egypt in various economic sectors, including oil and renewable energy, agriculture, foodstuffs, industry, telecommunications and information technology.

Considering how things have unraveled, Ethiopia should not sign any agreement with the downstream two riparian countries of Egypt and Sudan alone. It should in fact have a trans-boundary cooperation agreement that includes all the Nile basin riparian states. It should also include sharing the economic benefits gained as a result of foreign companies or governments engagement in irrigated commercial farming and industrial output using the Nile water. For this purpose a task force of experts needs to be established to review and assess these situations before going to cooperation agreement.

Furthermore, the Ethiopian government should at all times be informed, have a consent and agreement on future foreign commercial farming projects dams and hydro-power projects in the downstream riparian countries.

If they fail to agree, there will not be any compelling obligation aside from humanitarian and international law. The case of the Nile Dam shall be governed by the UN International Law in Intrastate Natural Resource Allocation which has addressed issues of land and natural resource allocation issue and global debates regarding ownership, use, control, development of land and natural resources.


Equitable Share and Diversion of Water

According to Helsinki Rules of 1966 on the ‘Uses of the Waters of International Rivers’, adopted by the International Law Association, insists that, “each basin state is entitled, within its territory, to a reasonable and equitable share in the beneficial uses of the waters of an international drainage basin”. However, the involvement of other third-party countries into commercial farming in Egypt and Sudan creates a great disparity to the principle of ‘reasonable equitable share’ of the trans-boundary river water. The reasonable and equitable share of the Nile water between riparian states without and with foreign interests involvement will not be the same. This is one of the many reasons that the sharing of economic benefits of such activities should be included in the cooperation agreement.

Furthermore, Egypt had planned to divert Nile water to the North Sinai desert, east of the Suez Canal, by means of tunnels underneath the Canal to Sinai, Israel and middle east countries to satisfy the water needs in those regions. While there is no objection on this concept, it has to be done in consultation, mutual consent and agreement of Ethiopia and other riparian countries in consideration of the reasonable & equitable share case and share of economic benefits gained in engaging in such activities. Furthermore, Egypt also has the Toshka project to create a second Nile Valley, redirecting 10% of the country’s allotment of water from the Nile via a massive irrigation aiming to develop and extend agricultural production which has to be taken into consideration as well as mentioned above.

Egypt and Sudan have also been involving in the internal affairs of Ethiopia by supporting Ethiopian government opposition forces to destabilize the country, disturbing via neighboring countries to disrupt the economic development and dam construction on the country’s rivers. Egypt has conspired against Ethiopia in its efforts of getting finance from international organizations and loans from bilateral and multilateral organizations to obstruct the dam-building in Ethiopia. Thus, the agreement should stipulate that such schemes will not be tolerated and failure to comply deems the agreement invalid thereby curbing any such efforts/activities.

If Egypt and Sudan do not honor this benevolence gesture and consideration of Ethiopia and opt to continue with their devious schemes in escalating the matter for foreign intervention, it may lead to undesirable consequences, adversely affecting its long-term interest of Egypt and Sudan. The principal solution lies with the government and people of Ethiopia, as the nation is the primary source if the Blue Nile which contributes to 86% of the water and is the sovereign owner of this natural resource and should not make any commitment with Egypt on releasing certain figure of water quantity supply at any period of time in drought shortage or abundance.


Key Summary Points,

  1. Ethiopia should continue filling the dam in the rainy season of June, July and August when there is oversupply and overflow of water with out affecting the water supply to downstream countries of Sudan and Egypt. No one has the right to dictate on this issue as Ethiopia’s sovereignty.


  1. Ethiopia should not sign a tripartite agreement exclusively with Egypt and Sudan alone; the agreement should be with all the Nile basin countries of Africa, otherwise the Nile case has to be governed by the UN International Law in Intrastate Natural Resource Allocation which has addressed issues of land and natural resource allocation issue and global debates regarding ownership, use, control, development of land and natural resources.


  1. If an agreement has to be signed, it should be holistic trans-boundary river cooperation agreement inclusive of economic benefit sharing gained from third party countries involvement in the downstream riparian countries of Egypt and Sudan in farming and other activities using the Nile water.


  1. Diversion of the Nile water from its natural course and commercial farming irrigation of third party countries engagement in Egypt and Sudan and that of Toshka projects has to be with prior consent and agreement of Ethiopia and other riparian countries of Nile basin to share economic benefits. These points have to be included if an agreement has to be signed on Nile.


  1. The destabilizing proxy activity of Egypt in the internal affair of Ethiopia will have to cease and this has to be explicitly mentioned in the agreement as part of the terms and conditions, failure to comply would deem the cooperation agreement nullified enabling Ethiopia to take any measures.


  1. Task Force Team of experts has to be established from the Nile basin countries to evaluate and assess the third-party countries engagement in farming activities of Egypt and Sudan for sharing the present as well as future economic benefits gained from third party countries activity in those countries.

If USA wishes to intervene and mediate the Nile issue, it should first accept and ratify the UNCLOS (UN Convention of the Law of the Sea) on the common natural resource, wealth of the world and heritage of mankind. Perhaps then, Ethiopia may consider signing the Nile cooperation agreement. UNCLOS is the convention on the Law of the Sea, negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations, which was signed in 1982 by 117 States and entered into force in 1994. At present 133 States have signed and ratified UNCLOS while USA, Canada, Israel, Turkey, and Venezuela are among the most prominent countries that have not ratified it.

While the Ethiopian government endeavors to maintain the stability and security of the region in reaching a fair and equitable settlement, it does so without compromising its underlying objective which is to fulfill its duty in serving its people through the use of the country’s resources for a sustainable development thereby improving their standard of living and creating a brighter future for generations to come. It strives to accomplish this without affecting the livelihood of the people in the downstream riparian states of Sudan and Egypt.


1st June 2020, Tilahun Yimer, Contact: tyimer@hotmail.com

1 Comment

  1. Facts based in-depth analysis like this one will go a long way to convince any open-minded reader. Thank you Mr Tilahun Yimer. Please keep on fighting for our motherland by spreading the truth to yours, academia and the diplomatic circles. I do my own small part by sending short emails highlighting the facts.

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