Egypt and Ethiopia: a Warning about a Future of Water Wars

Daniel Judd, Jul 4, 2024


Since 2011, Ethiopia has built a dam creating a reservoir that will eventually hold almost double the water of Lake Tahoe [1]. Recently, Egypt and Ethiopia have been in heated debates regarding Ethiopia’s building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the upper Nile River. Fears have risen about an escalation of this conflict between the two nations which could turn bloody very quickly and could have significant effects on the livelihoods of millions. The GERD is a vivid example of resource wars, specifically water wars, that have been a rising concern in international relations, exacerbated by large population spikes and the increasing effects of climate change. As tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia rise, worries about a potential water resource war are growing. This issue has been heightened by the involvement of both Russia and China in the region–China has helped finance the dam through its Belt and Road Initiative, while Russia has acted as the major arms supplier to both nations [2]. The U.S. and the International Crisis Group have been trying to act as independent third-party counsel, aiming to bring all involved parties to an acceptable agreement to prevent the outbreak of a violent conflict that could have potentially deadly ramifications for millions of people who get water from the Nile and could act as one of the first major water wars of the twenty-first century. 



Both Ethiopia and Egypt get the majority of their fresh water supply from the Nile, the longest river in Africa, which has two major headwaters areas: the White Nile (comprised of the Great Lakes of Rwanda and Burundi) and the bigger headwaters in the northern part of Ethiopia, in the highlands called the Blue Nile.  The Blue Nile is where more than 80 percent of the Nile’s waters flow. As a north-flowing river, the Nile moves from Ethiopia through Sudan to Egypt and ends in the Mediterranean Sea. For centuries, Egypt had exclusive rights to the Nile River water, solidified in several treaties – the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1902 and 1929, created by the British colonists, and the bilateral treaty between Egypt and Sudan of 1959. The 1959 treaty ratified the earlier two treaties, giving Egypt the power to use almost all of the Nile’s water, without any concern for other countries’ water needs, while being able to veto all possible upstream projects that might interfere with water flow [3]. As Egypt has historically been the center of power for Northern Africa, it was uniquely positioned to negotiate with European powers regarding control of water rights and other matters important to the state. The strategic control over the Suez Canal further boosted Egypt's negotiating powers acting as a bargaining chip that other nations in the region did not have. Due to its location and lack of foreign influence,  Ethiopia had no say in the water rights negotiations in the abovementioned treaties. Despite this, Ethiopia has a higher population than Egypt with 123 million as opposed to Egypt’s 111 million [4]. This power imbalance has contributed to the desire of Ethiopia to build the GERD. 


Egypt has been aggressively guarding its exclusive water rights, abundantly using  Nile water for all human needs, religious ceremonies, and extensive land irrigation, especially for growing cotton. Most Egyptians consider the Nile water essential for national security, and therefore, view the new giant dam in Ethiopia as an existential threat [5]. The Nile has always been so important for Egypt’s self-identity and prosperity that it was considered worthy to fight for. In 1978, the Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat affirmed, “We depend upon the Nile 100 percent in our life, so if anyone, at any moment, thinks of depriving us of our life we shall never hesitate to go to war” [6].


Ethiopia and Sudan have also been relying on the Nile for their fresh water needs, and also consider the Nile essential for their economies. Ethiopia, one of the world's oldest and world’s poorest countries, is 76 percent rural, with small settlements scattered around, most of them without electricity [7]. With the population growth among the highest in the region, and agriculture being a crucial source of income, constituting more than half of the country’s GDP, Ethiopia had been planning the creation of a large dam over the Upper Nile to double its electricity production that would greatly boost all sectors of the economy, especially agriculture, and improve living standards of the population. Ethiopia started the mega-dam construction in 2011, during the time of the Arab Spring when Egypt was shaken by riots, strikes, and protests. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has been largely self-financed by Ethiopia through the sale of bonds to its citizens both domestically and abroad, however, there has also been significant involvement from China through the Belt and Road Initiative, which has resulted in Chinese contracted companies doing much of the work [8]. 


Economic Benefits

The GERD is designed to be 145 meters high and more than a mile long, twice the length of the U.S. Hoover Dam. Throughout the construction process, the cost of the dam has reached over four billion dollars [9]. Successful completion of this grand project would signify a giant step forward in modernizing Ethiopia and in demonstrating its regional leadership. The electricity generated through GERD will help alleviate the Ethiopian environmental crisis of deforestation because hydroelectric power would allow rural farms, small businesses, and households to stop relying on firewood as their main source of energy production. Most importantly, it would be life-changing for over 50 percent of the population living without electricity. The first 13 GERD turbines started operation in February 2022. At present, the monumental dam is in its final stages of construction. When finished, GERD is expected to generate more than five billion watts of electricity annually, which would boost Ethiopia’s economy by exporting electricity to the neighboring countries. For context, one Gigawatt is considered to have enough power to be able to fully support 750,000 U.S. homes [10]. In addition, GERD would significantly increase the irrigation potential of Ethiopia and Sudan, and provide reliable flooding control. 


Sudan will benefit from cheap electricity, better flood and silting control, and more irrigation for farming, but it is concerned about the increased water flow controlled by Ethiopia and the safety of the new dam. Sudan has been changing its reaction to GERD, from expressed support to hesitancy and opposition. Sudan’s Minister of Irrigation and Water Resources, Yasir Abbas, insists on the necessity to work on mutually acceptable, legally binding, agreements between Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia, regarding the GERD operation, warning that “the absence of specific and documented information about filling and operation of the dam will threaten the lives of half the population of Sudan” [11].


Though the hydroelectric dam will not reduce the amount of water in the river,  it will allow the owners of the dam to control water flow by accumulating or releasing water in its reservoir. The total capacity of GERD’s reservoir is very large–74 billion cubic meters, about 1.6 years flow of the Blue Nile [12].  Ethiopia announced that it had finished filling the reservoir in September 2023. In his congratulatory speech, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed spoke about the success story of the dam claiming that the nation preserved against “all odds”  [13]. It took 12 years from the beginning of GERD construction to completely fill the reservoir. Initially, Ethiopia planned to do it in 3-6 years, but it slowed down the rate of speed of diverting Nile flow into the dam. This was done as an act of goodwill towards Egypt which had wanted to see a much slower progress, preferring to have the filling done only during abundant rain seasons over the course of 12 or more years. 


Steps to Mitigate the Conflict

Droughts and the periods after are of special concern for all countries. It would be helpful if legally binding agreements were established to address water management during these critical times. An independent organization, the International Crisis Group, has been involved in resolving the Nile water-sharing issues. It issued the recommendation that “the three countries should adopt a new, transboundary framework for resource sharing to avert future conflicts” [14]. In 2019, this international organization warned that armed conflict was possible, and suggested taking “confidence-building measures”, like organizing an official visit to the dam by delegations from Egypt and Sudan.  Also, it advised to start a series of joint meetings to promote goodwill and discuss specific measures to minimize disruption of water flow, even during the drought years. One of the options is to attract potential guarantors, like the European Investment Bank, to provide funding, conditional on countries' cooperation with each other, and to offer loans to support agriculture during the drought periods [15].


An important additional factor is the increasing tensions within North Africa between Arab and African nationalism. These competing nationalisms and identities between Egypt and Ethiopia have exacerbated the conflict and made the issue much more severe and personal for both leaders and the general populace alike. Egyptians view Ethiopians as water thieves while Ethiopians accuse Egypt of being a neocolonial power infringing on national sovereignty [16]. Many Ethiopians have not forgotten the historical power and regional hegemony of Egypt, specifically in the case of virtually unchecked control over the Nile River. The memory of the Egyptian-Ethiopian War of 1876 plays an important factor in some level of distrust and distance between the peoples of the two states. In 1876, a war broke out between the two nations over very similar reasons–control of the upper Nile Delta coupled with a desire for Egypt to expand its sphere of influence throughout Africa to rival the European Empires. Although this desire for an African Empire under Egypt’s command did not end up being fulfilled, the divide between the predominantly Islamic, Arab Egyptians and the majority Orthodox Christian, African Ethiopians has only intensified with rising secularization in the region [17]. Such rising divides between the two states have contributed to the animosity between leaders and have added an extra level of complexity to the already difficult question of dividing scarce natural resources.


Going forward, conflicts over fresh drinking water and other natural resources will become more frequent and serious. In the future, grappling with sharing vital resources, exacerbated by climate change, it will be essential to find common ground and reasonable compromise. Already now, other resource conflicts are heating up in locations such as Kashmere and the Mekong River Basin. For many of these confrontations, a move towards the negotiating table, facilitated by nongovernmental organizations such as the International Crisis Group or UN will be integral in preventing bloody wars from breaking out. By working within the confines of international law and UN agreements, such countries will have a legal framework to work through their grievances without having to resort to more costly warfare. Such negotiations will be a key factor in avoiding bloodshed and reducing human costs while arriving at legally binding, mutually acceptable solutions to difficult situations.


[1] “Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Closer to Completion - Prensa Latina.” Prensa Latina - Latin American News Agency, March 6th, 2024.

[2] Danssaert, Peter. “Arms Trade Bulletin November - December 2020.” IPIS, January 15th, 2021.

[3] Walsh, Declan, et al. “For Thousands of Years, Egypt Controlled the Nile. A New Dam Threatens That.” The New York Times, The New York Times, February 9th, 2020.

[4] “Country Comparison: Egypt / Ethiopia.” Worlddata.Info.

[5] Egypt’s Dar Al Iftaa | Dar al-Iftaa | Dar al-Iftaa al-Misriyyah. “Fatwas of Egypt’s Dar Al Iftaa.” Ifta,

[6] Wiebe, Kristin. “The Nile River: Potential for Conflict and Cooperation in the Face of Water Degradation.” Natural Resources Journal 41, no. 3 (2001): 731–54.

[7] “Settlement Patterns.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc.,

[8] Piliero, Raphael J. “Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam: Assessing China’s Role.” U.S.-China Perception Monitor, June 5th, 2021.

[9] Mairura, Joel. “The Construction of Africa’s Largest Hydroelectric Dam Enters Its Final Phase of Completion: Expected to Generate over 5GW of Electricity Annually.” Constructionreview, June 4th, 2024.

[10] Hull, Dana. “California Hits Renewable Energy Milestone: 1 Gigawatt of Solar Power Installed to Date.” The Mercury News, The Mercury News, November 8th, 2011.

[11] Sudan: Minister - Agreement on Gerd Essential to Safety of Sudan Population - Allafrica.Com,

[12] “The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Is Designed to Trap 100 Years of Sediment Inflowethiopia - Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd).” The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Is Designed to Trap 100 Years of Sediment inflowEthiopia - Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

[13] Endeshaw, Dawit. “Ethiopia Says It Has Completed Filling of Disputed Dam Project’s Reservoir | Reuters.” Reuters.

[14] “Bridging the Gap in the Nile Waters Dispute.” Crisis Group, April 29th, 2020.

[15]“Bridging the Gap in the Nile Waters Dispute.” Crisis Group, April 29th, 2020.

[16] “The Bitter Dispute over Africa’s Largest Dam.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper.

[17] Jesman, Czeslaw. “Egyptian Invasion of Ethiopia.” African Affairs 58, no. 230 (1959): 75–81.