Ethiopia does not need permission to fill dam — envoy

Egypt fears the dam will reduce its supply from the Nile, but Ethiopia is pushing for its own water security

In Summary

• Egypt has hinted at use of military force to halt the dam’s construction, and Ethiopians are 'ready to sacrifice their lives' for it

• However, Ambassador Meles Alem is hopeful that a diplomatic solution can be found

First filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
First filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Water scarcity is increasingly a global problem. The causes of this inadequacy are related to quantity and quality.

They include limited availability, population pressure, mass consumption, misuse, environmental degradation, pollution and climate change.

This has resulted in what is now called water politics or hydropolitics.


The latest case involves the Nile waters and has caused a standoff among Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. Evidently, the fight over water resources is now the issue of an international affair.

World Bank vice president Ismail Serageldin predicted that, "Many of the wars of the 20th Century were about oil, but wars of the 21st Century will be over water, unless countries change the way water resources are managed.”

Some, however, argue that disputes over water usually are resolved through diplomacy and do not turn into wars.

Another school of thought has it that "perceived fears of losing control over shared water might contribute to a constant preparedness to go to war among riparian nations, just in case there is one".

The dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the $4.5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Africa's largest, with a reservoir about the size of London, has become a perfect example of this politics.

Many of the wars of the 20th Century were about oil, but wars of the 21st Century will be over water, unless countries change the way water resources are managed
World Bank VP Ismail Serageldin

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd), formerly known as the Millennium Dam, is a gravity dam on the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia, which has been under construction since 2011. It was renamed on April 15, 2011, by the Council of Ministers.

It is in the Benishangul-Gumuz region, about 15km east of the border with Sudan.


The primary purpose of the dam is to generate electricity, both to relieve Ethiopia’s domestic acute energy shortage and for export.

With a planned installed capacity of 6.45 gigawatts, the dam will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa and the seventh-largest in the world.

The filling of the reservoir began last month, and once completed, it will take between five and 15 years to fill, depending on hydrologic conditions during the filling period and agreements among Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.

The potential impacts of the dam have been the source of the regional controversy.

Egypt, located over 2,500km downstream of the site, opposes the dam, as it believes it will reduce the amount of water available from the Nile.

The precise impact of the dam on the downstream countries is not yet known.

Egypt, which relies heavily on the Nile, has demanded that Ethiopia ceases the construction on the dam as a precondition to negotiations. It has even sought regional support for its position, and some political leaders have discussed methods to sabotage it.

However, some states in the Nile Basin Initiative have expressed support for the dam, including Sudan, the only other nation downstream of the Blue Nile. Sudan has accused Egypt of inflaming the situation.

Ethiopia denies the dam will have a negative impact downstream and contends that the dam will, in fact, increase water flows to Egypt by reducing evaporation on Lake Nasser.

Ethiopia has accused Egypt of being unreasonable by demanding to increase its share of the Nile's water flow from the current 66 per cent to 90 per cent.


In an interview with the Star, Ethiopian Ambassador Meles Alem said the current hydrology in the region has made it conducive to fill the dam with 4.9 billion cubic meters of water from the Abay River.

Alem said the water volume retained during the first filling stage is a test that will make up only part of the dead storage at the dam.

Ethiopian Ambassador Meles Alem
Ethiopian Ambassador Meles Alem

“Although the first stage of first-year filling is successfully taking place, Ethiopia is fully committed to engaging in genuine dialogue to address all the remaining outstanding issues regarding the Gerd project, with a view to achieving a win-win outcome,” he said.

Addis Ababa plans to start the second phase of filling the dam in August 2021 with the start of the rainy season, to store 18.4 billion cubic meters of water.

The US Treasury warned that final testing and filling of the dam should not take place without an agreement.

However, Meles said the right to access and utilise the water resource of Abay is a matter of existential priority for Ethiopia to meet the energy, water and food security demands of its more than 110 million people and to lift its nationals out of extreme poverty.

“Gerd is a national project in which the dam owner prepares the guidelines and rules for filling and operation of such dams,” he said. “The three countries have no difference on the guidelines and rules that will be applied during first-stage filling that focuses on the amount of water to be retained (4.9 billion) and the duration of the filling.

 “It is also important to note that the Gerd is designed in a way that facilitates simultaneous administration of filling and construction. This is also recognised under Article 5(b) of the Declaration of Principles, DoP. Hence, it cannot be said that Ethiopia is filling the dam without agreement.”

Nile Basin map
Nile Basin map

Meles said Ethiopia’s commitment to agree on the guidelines and rules on the first filling and Gerd’s annual operation with the two downstream countries — Egypt and Sudan — is not a privilege given for them to decide on whether Ethiopia can fill the dam.

“Thus, Ethiopia does not need the permission of Egypt and Sudan to start filling the Gerd,” Meles said. 

He said his country took unprecedented action by initiating the establishment of the International Panel of Experts (IPoE), composed of 10 experts, two from each of the trio, and others from Germany, South Africa, France and Britain.

The IPoE was mandated to review the design documents of the dam and to solicit an understanding of the benefits and costs accrued to the three countries.

Accordingly, in May 2013, the IPoE adopted its final report by consensus and submitted it to the governments of the three countries, appreciating the regional benefits of the dam.

He says the IPoE concluded the design and construction of the dam is up to international standards.

In addition, the dam safety issue is also ascertained and recognised by Egypt and Sudan as provided under Principle 8 of the Declaration of Principles, signed by the leaders of the three countries.

Meles argued the project is also being built by internationally renowned dam construction companies, which have admirable reputation due to their successful work globally.

The material used for construction, the structure and design apply state-of-the-art-technology, the envoy said.

“Agricultural inputs used to grow seeds and crops, including cotton and rice, are the major problems behind the pollution on the Nile. Extensive urbanisation and settlement patterns are also factors that affect the river,” he said.

“Therefore, the problem related to siltation mainly requires the downstream countries to improve their agricultural practices in the areas of utilisation of fertilisers and other agricultural inputs,” he said.


Denying claims Ethiopia is opposed to a legally binding agreement, Meles said Egypt and Sudan requested to adjourn mediation talks to consider the guidelines and rules on the filling of the dam that Ethiopia had communicated.

“Ethiopia will not consider any binding agreement that compromises the needs of the future generation. Ethiopia is ready to reach an agreement that protects the rights of the downstream countries and respects the sovereign right of Ethiopia to use the Nile for the current and future generation,” he said.

This position has been reiterated by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who said Ethiopia will continue building the dam and will not succumb to pressure. He said the dam is now 88 per cent complete.

The Renaissance Dam
The Renaissance Dam

Abiy said the dam is a symbol of freedom and independence, whose completion Ethiopian people are ready to sacrifice their lives for.

In a previous interview, the PM said construction would continue regardless of changes to the government because the country needs it.

He, however, said his country believes the resolution of the matter through negotiations will be a milestone and the beginning of a bright future for all the countries in the Nile Basin.

But Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has hinted at his country using military force to halt the dam’s construction. 


Ethiopia accused US President Donald Trump’s administration of meddling in the mediation, terming it a biased mediator.

Ethiopia said it is Egypt that has unilaterally requested the US to get involved in the ongoing tripartite talks.

Meles said Ethiopia, in good faith and to show flexibility, accommodated the persistent demands of Egypt and agreed to have the US and the World Bank as observers.

“However, the US and the World Bank-facilitated negotiation went beyond its mandate by drafting the legal text on guidelines and rules on the first filling and annual operation of the Gerd,” he said.

“The draft text on the guidelines and rules proposed a water allocation agreement over the Nile waters, ignoring the rights of other Nile riparian countries with a combined population of over 250 million.”

In the resulting impasse, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo approved a plan to halt US foreign assistance to Ethiopia amid attempts to mediate the dispute.

The decision arrived at last month could affect up to nearly $130 million (Sh13 billion) in US foreign assistance to Ethiopia and fuel new tensions in the relationship between Washington and Addis Ababa as it carries out plans to fill the dam.

Security assistance, counter-terrorism, military education and training, anti-human trafficking programmes and broader development assistance funding are among the areas on the chopping board.

Secretary of State Pompeo when he met with Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew
Secretary of State Pompeo when he met with Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew

This move, Trump’s administration said, is meant to address the standoff.

In 2015, the countries involved seemed ready to make peace, but the deal crumbled when the involved parties failed to agree on the technicalities.

The Bureau of the AU Assembly, in its second extraordinary meeting on July 21, gave guidance to continue in the technical negotiation to conclude the guidelines and rules on the first filling of the dam.

The Bureau reached an understanding to proceed with a comprehensive agreement.

The AU indicated that it had advised the parties to have discussions on the technicalities of filling the dam.

The tripartite negotiation is focused on the guideline and rules of the first filling and annual operation of Gerd.

Matters still under discussion include how long it will take to fill the dam and how much volume of water the dam will retain each year, what kind of drought mitigation measures are in place, and the peaceful dispute resolution mechanisms.


Ethiopia has maintained the impact of the Gerd Guidelines and Rules on the permanent right to use the waters of the Abay River is one of the most important outstanding issues.

In this regard, Meles said Ethiopia is doing everything possible to make progress in the tripartite negotiation, but the other party is not committed to engaging in genuine discussion to reach a win-win outcome.

“Ethiopia strongly believes this kind of attitude does not help to build the mutual trust and confidence necessary for creating conditions favourable for making progress in the discussion,” he said.

An insider who has been part of the negotiations said Ethiopia is a state party to the agreement on the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework (CFA), an outcome of a 13-year negotiation that involved Egypt. Six riparian countries, including Ethiopia, signed it.

The CFA is a multilaterally negotiated deal on the Nile Basin, enshrining the cardinal principles for utilisation of the Nile River and establishing the Nile River Basin Commission.

File photo of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
File photo of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

“Ethiopia has made an extraordinary effort to accommodate Egypt’s demands and ways. The only exception is the unjustified and absolutely unacceptable proposition of historical right and existing uses advanced by Egypt, which attempts to monopolise the river,” the source said.

Fasil Legesse, editor-in-chief of Israeli-Ethiopian TV, in an opinion piece said genuine dialogue is the best option that the three countries have and thus, they should be unequivocally committed to meaningful talks, respecting Ethiopia’s rights to use the Nile water.

According to the editor, unfortunately, it is Egypt that acts and behaves as if the Nile water belongs only to one country.

“Egypt and Sudan have a water-sharing agreement that denied Ethiopia its right to equitable share. Egypt wants to maintain its monopoly,” Legesse said.

“That mentality does not help and in fact, is an obstacle to win-win solutions — solutions that could come out only through constructive dialogue that unambiguously accepts the right of all riparian states to benefit from their shared resources.”

He said the main challenge in the negotiations is the demand to perpetuate the status quo, which is unfair.

Edited by T Jalio

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