23 Sep 2021

Troubled Waters: Elusive Peace on The Blue Nile Dam and The Mediation of The Arab Gulf States

Leonardo Jacopo Maria Mazzucco
23 Sep 2021

Troubled Waters: Elusive Peace on The Blue Nile Dam and The Mediation of The Arab Gulf States

Leonardo Jacopo Maria Mazzucco

After another round of talks at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) failed to establish a minimum consensus among Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia on the thorny issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the file comes back to the African Union (AU). However, as mediation talks stall and the number of potential intermediaries dwindles, Arab Gulf states are increasingly seen as reliable power brokers capable of bridging the gap between the opposing camps. This paper explores the evolution of the GERD dispute in its historical and security dimensions. The following analysis starts from the “state of the art” of the current negotiations, then assesses the multiple security nuances of the dispute, and finally examines the role that the Arab Gulf states may play in de-escalating the conflict between the three riparian countries.

The GERD: a dead-end negotiation

On July 19, Addis Ababa announced the successful completion of the GERD second filling. [1] There were severe reactions against the statement from Cairo and Khartoum, which vehemently opposed the unilateral Ethiopian decision. Egypt and Sudan fear that their access to fresh water and agricultural productivity would be jeopardized without a regular exchange of information and coordinated management of the Nile River water flow. [2] Despite the condemnations voiced by the downstream states, this milestone was celebrated by the Ethiopian government, since it represents a critical step forward to achieving energy self-sufficiency. Indeed, after the dam’s reservoir capacity reached the target of 18.4 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water, Ethiopia expects to run two of the GERD thirteen turbines and inaugurate its hydropower production in a matter of months. [3] Once completed, the dam will produce about 6 gigawatts of clean energy as the largest hydroelectric power plant in the African continent. As a result, Ethiopia is expected to become the most important country in terms of electricity exports in Eastern Africa, with a potential market basin extending from Sudan to Tanzania. [4]

Since 2011, when the Ethiopian Prima Minister of the time, Males Zenawi, launched the project, [5] the GERD has been the source of a regional dispute, and its file has been the main object of several rounds of negotiations in many intergovernmental fora. However, despite a decade of attempted mediation efforts, negotiations have always fallen short in establishing both the consensus and trust necessary for the involved parties to broker a mutually beneficial agreement. [6]

In this regard, the failure of the latest talks held by the UN Security Council on July 8, 2021 illustrates the difficulties of mediation efforts. To prevent the GERD second filling, Tunisia presented to the UN a draft resolution urging the three disputing countries to reach a binding agreement in six months and refrain from unilateral actions and statements that may jeopardize the negotiation process [7]. On their side, Khartoum and Cairo hoped that the UNSC’s session would have been an opportunity to rally international support and put diplomatic pressure on Addis Ababa. However, this expectation did not last long, as the Security Council’s delegates released a final statement limited to calling the parties to abstain from the use of violence, engage in good faith negotiations, and arrive at a solution within an AU framework. [8]

As a result, the principle “African solution to African problem” appears to be the primary winner of the Security Council’s deliberation. As a result, the GERD file has been returned to the hands of AU President Felix-Antoine Tshisekedi, who has the difficult task of resuming negotiations from the impasse that led from the latest AU-led talks held in Kinshasa in April 2021. [9] Indeed, the chances of settling the dispute have become more remote, and the prolonged stalemate gives reason to believe that any further negotiation – despite the institutional nature of its sponsor – will be of little help if the contending parties continue to be immovable on their positions. Therefore, the longer the three Blue Nile basin countries struggle to broker a deal, the higher the risk that the dispute might become more belligerent. [10]

Changing power paradigm in the Blue Nile basin

Multiple factors may explain why hammering out a “win-win” solution is extremely complicated and why countries are at loggerheads on the GERD issue, though one explanatory point stands out: namely, the Ethiopian project represents a decisive breaking point in the Nile River basin’s status quo. [11]

For decades, thanks to their political clout and military prominence, Egypt and Sudan have held the key to the Nile River water’s allocation and precluded upstream countries from having a say on it. The two downstream countries resorted to international treaties to preserve their monopolistic position, as demonstrated by the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1929 and the Egyptian-Sudanese Bilateral Agreement of 1959. Indeed, the latter agreement between the two downstream countries laid the foundations of their current claims against the Ethiopian dam. The 1959 accord recognized that the annual Nile water flows – estimated at 84 bcm – should be fully allocated to Egypt and Sudan, according to a quota of 55.5 bcm and 18.5 bcm, respectively, with the last ten bcm accounting for seepage and evaporation. [12]

Moreover, to secure their future access to the Nile water, Egypt and Sudan reserved to themselves veto powers on all infrastructural projects that may alter the regular flow of the Nile and its tributary rivers. In this way, with the complicity of British colonial policy in the African Great Lakes region, Egypt and Sudan successfully established and ran for decades a quotas system that neglected the upstream countries’ aspirations regarding the Nile. As a result, if the former perceived their access to the Nile as legitimate and acquired rights, the latter conceived it as a discriminatory imposition and a legacy of the colonial era. [13]

More precisely, the feeling of being unfairly ignored was particularly felt by Ethiopia, which was – thanks to the specific climatic and hydrologic characteristics of its Highlands –and still is the major contributor to the Blue Nile basin in that the country is the source of more than 85 per cent of its water. [14]

The Egyptian-Sudanese dominance over the Nile as a resource has been increasingly challenged due to mounting demographic pressure and the development needs of the upstream riparian states seeking to claim for a more equitable and fair allocation of the river’s water. [15] On this basis, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda inaugurated the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in 1999. The NBI represented an unprecedented breakthrough in the regional institutional framework, since it established an intergovernmental partnership “to achieve sustainable socio-economic development through equitable utilization of, and benefit from the shared Nile Basin water resources”. [16]

However, despite the high expectations and appealing rhetoric that accompanied the event, enhancing mutual trust and dialogue was not easy for the newborn organization. Indeed, roughly a decade later, in May 2010, six riparian states proceeded with the signature of the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), also known as the Entebbe Agreement. However, so far, the treaty has been ratified only by Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda, while Kenya and Burundi remain signatory countries. [17].

The CFA has been of extreme importance because, for the first time, a treaty on the Nile River recognized the concepts of “equitable water allocation” [18] and “water security” [19]. For their part, upstream riparian countries welcomed the CFA, which was seen as a precious opportunity to rebuild from scratch the Nile River water allocation and finally overcome the Egyptian-Sudanese hegemony. [20] On the contrary, Egypt and Sudan refused to attend at the signing ceremony because, according to them, the treaty offered no guarantees to their “current uses and rights”. [21]

The tension between downstream and upstream countries intensified when Ethiopia unilaterally announced in 2011 its intention to build a dam on the Blue Nile River. Since then, only a few positive results – such as the Declaration of Principles on Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in 2015 [22] – have been achieved. As a result, prolonged stalemates and mutual distrust gradually led to the creation of two opposing camps.

On the one hand, once they realized that the Ethiopian government was determined to see through the GERD project, Egypt and Sudan were forced to change their position towards the dam from staunch opposition to a reluctant recognition of the fait accompli. [23] Nevertheless, Cairo and Khartoum directed their energies towards persuading Addis Ababa of the need for a binding agreement brokered through the help of an international mediator, along with the establishment of a dispute resolution mechanism to settle potential conflicts in times of prolonged droughts and water shortages. [24]

On the other hand, Ethiopia has proved its resilience in resisting external pressure. Indeed, the more Cairo and Khartoum called for the crisis’s internationalization, the stronger was Addis Ababa’s resolve to keep the dispute within the AU. [25] Ultimately, the GERD has become a manifesto of Ethiopian sovereignty and a symbol of its refusal to be bound by external limitations on issues of national strategic interest.

Beyond the dam: the water-food-energy nexus

According to the water-food-energy nexus theory, water security is a threat far more complex than the mere concept of water scarcity. Indeed, this approach suggests that water, energy, and food systems are all deeply intertwined dimensions, and insecurity in one of these three resources is likely to spill over in the others. This interpretive paradigm is of great help in understanding why the dispute over the Blue Nile dam goes beyond the concept of water management in that it also involves food and energy security. [26]

Since the GERD project’s inauguration, the Ethiopian leadership defended the dam from its detractors, who were accused of being accomplices in keeping the African continent underdeveloped and poor. [27] Indeed, in the eyes of Addis Ababa, the dam was conceived as the main driver of the Ethiopian race to development and the engine that would literarily fuel the renaissance of Ethiopia as a regional power.

Until now, this path has been prevented by the structural energy deficit suffered by the country, which has a low electricity access rate of 45 percent. [28] Undoubtedly, the lack of energy access has been an obstacle to the country’s growth prospects for a long time. Indeed, not only did it negatively reflect on the population’s access to public services such as education and health care, but also discouraged the rise of private business initiatives and the inflow of foreign investments. [29] As a result, according to the Ethiopian political leadership, the extension of electricity access represents a massive alleviation effort capable of breaking the vicious circle of underdevelopment and poverty.

Thanks to its 6 gigawatts, the GERD is expected to double the Ethiopian electricity generation capacity. Consequently, Ethiopia will be able to both satisfy its annual electricity needs and play a leading role in the energy export market of Eastern Africa. [30] However, to meet this challenge and achieve universal domestic energy access by 2025, Addis Ababa is expected to build up an extensive and cutting-edge electric grid capable of distributing hydropower-produced energy to both its rural regions and neighboring countries. [31]

In this regard, the realization of power connecting infrastructures will entail a high capital-intensive effort that Ethiopia might have difficulty realizing if it can only rely exclusively on its financial resources, though the country did successfully self-finance the $4.6 billion costs of the GERD. [32] Therefore, Addis Ababa will probably search outside its borders for investors eager to finance these projects. [33]

Egypt’s concern for its water predates the construction of the GERD, [34] and it has revolved around three main points. Firstly, Egypt is a water-poor country. Indeed, its annual share of water at 560 cubic meters per person [35] is barely enough to overcome the UN threshold for “absolute water scarcity”, which is less than 500 cubic meters of water per person per year. [36] Secondly, the country has a a significant water deficit. With its total annual need for water standing at 114 bcm, Egypt is unable to recover enough water domestically due to limited groundwater, scarce rainfall, and modest desalinization plants. Consequently, Egypt resorts to “virtual water” by importing 54 percent of its annual water need. [37] Finally, the lack of diversified domestic water resources adds further pressure on an already burdened system. Indeed, over 93 percent of the country’s renewable water resources derive from the Nile River. [38] As a result, any variation in the Nile’s water flow will severely impact the living standards of the Egyptian population.

In this regard, a recently published study presents the risks for Egypt deriving from a three-year filling of the GERD. Without proper mitigation measures, up to 72 percent of the presently cultivated area in Egypt will be destroyed, with a total loss of the agricultural GDP amounting $51 billion during the three-year filling period. This will represent a decline in the country’s total national GDP per capita by around 8 percent and cause a jump of 11 percent in the current unemployment rates. [39]

Moreover, this potentially dire situation could further deteriorate because of the impact of climate change. In this context, the country is expected to become more vulnerable to extreme weather phenomena such as saltwater intrusion, sea-level rise, sporadic rainfall, and hotter temperature. [40] This represents a threatening mix that is bound to dramatically harm the country’s quality of life and agricultural productivity.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Nile Delta region in Egypt faces a high risk of saltwater intrusion, soil deterioration, and depletion of potable water. [41] Indeed, a study found that in the Nile Delta, “an area of about 4675 km2 will experience seawater intrusion when the groundwater table depletes 5 m below sea level”. [42] Such a scenario is cause for great concern, since around 50 percent of the Egyptian population is concentrated in the Delta region. [43]

Constrained by a population rapidly expanding at a pace of almost 2 percent annually and with climate change threatening the already limited availability of renewable freshwater, the country will struggle to meet its annual water needs. Indeed, according to a 2021 MIT study, Egypt is projected to “import 61.5 km3/year of virtual water during this decade of the 2020s. At that point Egypt will be importing more virtual water from abroad than they have been withdrawing from the Nile internally on average for the past 30 years.” [44]

The growing awareness about the country’s water vulnerability has forced the Egyptian leadership to implement strict measures such as deterring the cultivation of water-intensive crops, enhancing the modernization of irrigation techniques, and boosting projects for desalinization and wastewater treatment plants. [45] However, regardless of the scale of the reforms, these efforts may be of little help without coordinated management of the Nile River waters between upstream and downstream countries.

For its part, thanks to its remarkable quantity of groundwater reservoirs [46] and many minor rivers not connected to the Nile River system [47], Khartoum is less vulnerable than Cairo to water shortages. However, Ethiopia’s prolonged unilateral handling of the GERD is a source of serious concern to Sudan given its fast-growing population and agricultural sector.

Indeed, as the population of Sudan is projected to increase to 56 million people over the next ten years, [48] the daily demand of water consumption for households is expected to increase significantly, forcing the country to rely more on the Nile River’s water. Besides, according to a study that assesses the likely negative impact of climate change on agricultural productivity, Sudan may face a cumulative loss of US$ 105.5 billion in GDP between 2018 and 2050. [49]

To help counter this threat, a programmed and controlled release of the Nile River water through the GERD could allow Sudan to better cope with its food production needs, energy demand, and management of climate change-related extreme weather events such as the sudden floods in September 2020 that affected 830,000 people and claimed over 120 victims. [50]

What space is left for the Arab Gulf states’ mediation?

Undoubtedly, the impasses at the UN and AU tables symbolize the diplomatic vacuum on the GERD file that has made mediation talks even more elusive. Besides, the chance of breaking this prolonged deadlock further diminishes as superpowers are unlikely to take the lead in future negotiations.

On the one hand, the US-led talks inaugurated under the Trump presidency, after recording an initial success, were soon derailed when Ethiopia started to perceive the US as a biased mediator favoring the Egyptian claims. [51] After that, the decision of Washington to freeze nearly $130 million of US aid to Ethiopia was seen by Addis Ababa as a retaliation measure. [52] On the other hand, Russia [53] and China [54] refrained from exerting economic and diplomatic pressure on Ethiopia and preferred to abide by a non-interference policy by limiting their action to calls to a peaceful resolution of the dispute.

Therefore, as the line of potential mediators shortens, the Arab Gulf states have emerged as reliable power brokers. Indeed, thanks to their proven diplomatic skills, consolidated political relations, and deep economic ties with the contending parties, the Arab Gulf states are well-equipped to play a constructive role in narrowing the distance between the two camps. [55]

Undoubtedly, the Arab Gulf states have a remarkable track record of successfully mediated conflicts in Eastern Africa. In this regard, Emirati and Saudi diplomatic officials especially enjoy a good reputation in Addis Ababa thanks to their pivotal role in brokering the “Jeddah Agreement” in 2018, the peace deal that ended the decades-long conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea. [56] Moreover, thanks to its solid diplomatic credentials, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) received the approval of Khartoum to test the waters for negotiations on the GERD file and the Al Fashaga border dispute with Ethiopia. [57]

In addition, the warm commercial relations developed between the Arab Gulf countries and Ethiopia over recent decades has offered a solid starting point to extend talks on the Nile River management. More precisely, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh financed 104 and 233 investment projects in the country, the majority of which were focused on the agricultural sector, between 2000 and 2017. [58]

For its part, the UAE has also made significant humanitarian aid donations to Ethiopia. In 2018, Abu Dhabi pledged $2 billion to Addis Ababa to finance tourism, renewable energy, and agriculture initiatives. [59] Besides, 15 tons of medical supplies were flown from the UAE to Ethiopia to help fight the health crisis during the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic. [60] Finally, the UAE donated 200 tons of vital food supplies to support the humanitarian effort in the Tigray region last April. [61]

However, despite the good relations established through aid and commercial exchanges, overcoming the intransigent Ethiopian attitude is not easy. Indeed, Ethiopia has loudly ruled out any non-African mediation in the past. Therefore, unrequested statements from the Arab League and an excessively demanding posture of the Arab Gulf states run the risk of being perceived as an “unwelcome meddling” in Addis Ababa’s domestic affairs. [62]

Consequently, in order not to suffer the fate of previous talks, Arab Gulf states could refrain from exerting direct pressure on Ethiopia and focus instead on strengthening their credentials on facilitators. In this regard, confidence-building measures are the key tool that would favor the positive atmosphere needed to de-escalate tension and build mutual trust. It is in this direction that a Gulf-led mediation effort should look. Indeed, as the distance between the two camps narrows, Arab Gulf states may offer technical advice and economic incentives – such as investments to develop the Ethiopian electrical grid and humanitarian aid – to persuade countries to strike a fair balance between national interests and mutual benefits.


Given rising global temperatures and soaring energy demands, water is expected to be a growing cause of future conflicts. Besides, the regions where competition over scarce resources is already causing tensions – such as the Nile River basin – are particularly vulnerable to escalation. Therefore, to avoid the risk of direct armed confrontations, there is a growing need to establish concerted regional approaches to water management. Undoubtedly, long-lasting stability and security in Eastern Africa can never be achieved if the debate over Nile River water allocation remains framed within the realist self-help narrative.

Indeed, governments will find it increasingly difficult to preserve national security and achieve domestic ambitions without defining a shared vision of managing collective transboundary concerns such as prolonged droughts and declining rainfall. For this reason, Nile River riparian states should adopt a comprehensive and inclusive framework where all participants’ voices can be heard and security dilemmas resolved. To this end, Arab Gulf states are well-positioned to play a pivotal role in mending fences between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia through confidence-building measures. Indeed, by avoiding pressure-based strategies, a Gulf-led mediation effort could rely on the positive track record Arabian Gulf states in regional negotiations and providing financial incentives to motivate conflicting parties to broker a mutually beneficial agreement.


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