‘Water Wars’: strategic implications of the grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Ron Matthews & Vlado Vivoda

 Published online: 20 Sep 2023


The construction of Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam is a fait accompli. By 2022, around 90 per cent of its construction had been completed, but only two of the 13 turbines were producing electricity, and so uncertainty remains over the dam’s impact on the Nile’s downstream countries. After protracted negotiations between Ethiopia, where the waters originate, and Egypt and Sudan, the two states most heavily dependent on Nile waters, the result is diplomatic stalemate. The intractable problem is not so much the dam but rather the 1902 and 1929 treaties between Great Britain and its then Egyptian and Sudanese colonies over the utilisation of the Nile waters. While Ethiopia was not a British colony, it was a party to the 1902 Treaty, but has always interpreted the water-sharing arrangements as inequitable. The problem’s resolution is now fiendishly complex. Impoverished Ethiopia has unilaterally proceeded with a hugely expensive dam, and the contemporary danger is that with diplomatic efforts seemingly exhausted, the military option becomes a distinct possibility. The question is whether Egypt’s military posturing is real-politik or simply rhetoric.



The Nile is the world’s longest river. Since biblical times, it has acted as the umbilical cord connecting Africa’s upper riparian states. More than 300mn people rely on the Nile waters, and the push for economic growth and development means the river has never been so important as it is today.Footnote1 According to the Nile Basin Initiative (Citation2012):

‘the Nile is generally regarded as the longest river in the world. […] The river has two main tributaries: the White Nile and the Blue Nile (Abay). Both begin their journeys in relatively humid areas, with annual rainfall ranging from 1,200 to 2,000 mm, and meet at Khartoum. From this point onwards, the river flows northwards through the Sahara Desert, where precipitation is less than 100 mm per year. […] The Blue Nile (Abay) and the other rivers coming from the Ethiopian Highlands contribute between 80 and 90% of the Nile’s flow … ’.Footnote2

The Nile’s hydrology, en route, is characterised by Wheeler, Jeuland, Hall, Zagona and Whittington (Citation2020) as reflecting ‘high inter-annual rain variability, stark differences in geography and climate, and flows modified by natural features and water infrastructure’.Footnote3 The Nile fans out on reaching Cairo into a fertile delta that is suffering from climate-induced water shortages and demand pressures from an Egyptian population that has risen from 27mn in 1969 to around 100mn today.Footnote4 Water availability is becoming a critical issue for Egypt, not least because the river’s waters are essential for irrigating the country’s crops. The United Nations (UN) has officially classified Egypt as a water scarce country and by 2025 its position will worsen to become a country of ‘absolute water scarcity’.Footnote5 As the Nile is the source of 95 per cent of the country’s freshwater, it is self-evident why the river is treated with such reverence.Footnote6

The completion of Egypt’s High Dam in 1970 after two decades under construction, stoked up Addis Ababa’s fears that Egypt was strengthening its ‘hydro-hegemony’ and jeopardising Ethiopia’s access to the Nile waters.Footnote7 This led to efforts by the US Bureau of Reclamation to identify an optimal site for building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (also referred to as ‘the Renaissance Dam’ or ‘the dam’ throughout the paper) on the Blue Nile. A suitable site was eventually found across the years 1956 and 1964, during the reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, but the 1974 coup d’état and subsequent 17-year Ethiopian civil war delayed work on the project.Footnote8 Finally, in 2011, the plan for Ethiopia’s new dam was launched, representing a source of enormous and enduring controversy. The problems were compounded by Egypt’s decision to reactivate the ambitious and expensive Toshka canal. The project was originally launched by President Sadat in the 1970s, with the aim of irrigating the country’s western desert, but in the process around 10 per cent of Lake Nasser’s Nile waters needed to be drained.Footnote9 Numerous problems were encountered, including underground aquifers hindering irrigation, so the project was much delayed.Footnote10 President el-Sisi revived Toshka planning in 2014, but again only gradual progress was made. However, there was renewed interest following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 because the two countries supply 80 per cent of Egypt’s wheat needs and the war has seriously impacted shipments.Footnote11 Accordingly, Cairo now views the Toshka dam as essential for facilitating self-sufficiency in grain production, which, for Ethiopia, provides further evidence of Cairo’s hydro-hegemonic instincts, strengthening Addis Ababa’s stance on building the Renaissance Dam.Footnote12

Water is the economic life-blood of the 11 riparian states (Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda). Among these nations, the principal opponents of Ethiopia’s new dam are Egypt and Sudan (see Figure 1). Both countries are highly dependent on the Nile, with Cairo fearful that the new dam will negatively impact the flow of Nile waters, especially during prolonged periods of drought, while Khartoum’s concerns are driven more by the dam’s safety.Footnote13 Egypt is an industrialising state with a 2021 GDP of US$404bn and a GDP per capita of US$3,876, but, by contrast, Ethiopia has a GDP of US$111bn and a GDP per capita of just US$944; it is also the most populous landlocked country in the world, and one of the poorest, ranked 173 out of 189 states in the 2020 UNDP Human Development Index.Footnote14 Addis Ababa therefore views the Renaissance Dam as a catalyst for kick-starting self-sustaining economic growth through relieving the country’s acute energy shortage, affecting over 60 per cent of the population who are without access to electricity.Footnote15

Figure 1. Map of the Nile Basin. Source: Suter, Citation2016.

Display full size

The paradox is that while Ethiopia is a relatively poor developing state, where nearly 28 per cent of children are impoverished,Footnote16 it is in the process of building a mega dam, whose cost is estimated at around US$4.7bn, or some 7 per cent of GNP.Footnote17 To finance the dam’s construction, the government has resorted to ‘crowd-funding’ to sell bonds, refusing financial aid from Cairo to ensure 100 per cent ownership,Footnote18 but accepting substantial funding from China to cover investment into associated electricity generation equipment, such as power lines.Footnote19 The Renaissance Dam’s construction is now 90 per cent complete, though when 100 per cent operational capacity will be attained remains uncertain. The decision to proceed was taken unilaterally in the absence of any agreement with Egypt and Sudan.Footnote20 This has led to more than a decade of acrimonious negotiations which have failed to conclude a water-sharing agreement, and as a result, intra-African water security tensions have dramatically increased. Moreover, the dispute is set against the back-drop of geopolitical interests, particularly those of China and the US, but also Russia. Other stakeholders, such as the Gulf countries, are expressing concern, arguing that Egypt and Sudan’s water security is integral to ‘Arab National Security’.Footnote21 Global datasets demonstrate that access to water has led to seven minor skirmishes in the 20th century, but no wars.Footnote22 Will the Renaissance Dam be different? The issues are clearly complex, and resolving them at this very late stage represents one of the most serious diplomatic conundrums facing Africa, if not the World.Footnote23

The purpose of this paper, then, is to intellectually explore the Nile’s historical and contemporary politico-economic landscape in order to assess the plausibility of the world’s first water war at a time when Ethiopia is on the verge of pressing the switch to operate the dam. This comes after years of Egyptian bellicose rhetoric and ominous military posturing, but there is little evidence that military confrontation is a real possibility. The paper proceeds as follows. In the next section, the relevant literature focusing on the concept of water security, transboundary water disputes and water wars is briefly reviewed. This is followed by a discourse on Great Britain’s colonial heritage, specifically focused on Egyptian and Sudanese sovereignty of the Nile waters and the enforced exclusion of Ethiopia, providing the historical backdrop to the latter’s construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam. This is an enormously expensive undertaking for one of Africa’s poorest nations, and introduces a more contemporary geopolitical dimension into the debate through China’s financial contribution to the project. The paper then compares the national economic upsides of the dam with its potential environmental, engineering and regional economic costs. The dam has generated significant diplomatic friction between the two principal antagonists, Egypt and Ethiopia, leading to enduring rounds of negotiation and mediation. This process now appears exhausted, but while there are signs of emerging cooperation and compromise, the possibility of military confrontation remains. Egypt is a major military power in the Middle East, possessing capability far exceeding that of Ethiopia. It is also officially designated as a water-scarce country, with Cairo interpreting any diminution of its access to Nile waters as an existential threat. Against this background, the paper assesses Egypt’s military options, and concludes with an assessment of the strategic and political challenges that lie ahead.

Water Security, Transboundary Water disputes and Water Wars: a Brief literature Review

Human societies rely on freshwater resources for drinking, household usage, and industrial and agricultural production.Footnote24 The concept of water security emerged in the 1990s, in line with broadening of the scope of Security Studies beyond the traditional military and defence focus.Footnote25 Specifically, the Copenhagen School’s securitisation theory provided the foundation for contemporary Security Studies, which considers energy, food, water and the environment as (non-traditional) security issues.Footnote26 The use of the term, water security, has increased significantly over the past two decades, across multiple disciplines.Footnote27 It is beyond the scope of this paper to engage and explore its multiple conceptual definitions, but UN-Water defines water security as ‘a capacity of populations to safeguard sustainable access to adequate quantities of acceptable quality of water’ for people, the economy and nature.Footnote28 Conversely, water insecurity emerges in the absence of any of these conditions.

Security challenges increasingly faced by societies cannot be understood in isolation from one another.Footnote29 There are often conflicting sectoral imperatives of large scale development investments concerned with water, food and energy security, referred to in the literature as the water-food-energy nexus.Footnote30 Developments in one sector are often associated with difficult trade-offs impacting on the other two sectors. For example, globally, food production accounts for more than 80 per cent of water use.Footnote31 In the Middle East, water desalination accounts for 5 per cent of total energy consumption.Footnote32 Indeed, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is a region of international concern and political unrest. It is also the most water-scarce region in the world. Home to 6.3 per cent of the world’s population, the region contains only 1.4 per cent of the world’s renewable fresh water.Footnote33 A significant share of the population in the MENA region suffers from water and food insecurity, and is exposed to frequent droughts. With several active transboundary water disputes, water is regarded as a security issue across the MENA region.Footnote34 Water security is critical to ‘the stability, continuity and sustainable development of the states located in the arid realm’.Footnote35 The scarcity of water in one of the world’s driest regions is a major determinant of the domestic and foreign policies across the region.Footnote36

Countries are increasingly responding to connected water, food and energy security challenges by building dams and reservoirs, and diverting water from one area to another. When the water belongs to an international river system, these measures can lead to an interstate riparian conflict. While water scarcity concerns can lead to interstate conflict, they can also play an important part in building cooperation.Footnote37 More than 3,600 treaties have been signed historically over different aspects of international waters.Footnote38 The decision to resolve water disputes through negotiation and/or cooperation or face them escalating into violent conflict is based on complex calculations.Footnote39 Indeed, the potential for conflict or increased cooperation over transboundary waters is a hotly debated issue in academic scholarship. Conflict and cooperation over water resources are not mutually exclusive but coexist in most contexts. Consequently, the international water academic and practitioner communities should consider conflict and cooperation as aspects of transboundary water interaction. This interaction is inherently political and is influenced by the broader political context. Examples of this complex interaction can be seen in the relations between states on the Jordan, Nile, and Ganges rivers.Footnote40

The concept of ‘water wars’ is a topic of linked significant interest. Competition for access to adequate water resources can cause severe international political tensions and outright conflict. Interstate conflict occurs between two or more neighbouring countries that share a transboundary water source. The effects of climate change and growing population on limited water resources exacerbates the potential for interstate conflict, which has seen a resurgence in recent years.Footnote41 A large and growing body of scholarly literature considers water as a potential cause of interstate conflict.Footnote42 Much of the literature focuses on several prominent river basins, specifically the Indus, Jordan, Mekong and Nile.Footnote43 The concept of water wars is a complex issue that involves political, socioeconomic, and environmental factors. The Nile River, as a crucial water source for several countries, is a potential flashpoint for such conflicts. Being the longest river in the world, the Nile has shaped the political and socioeconomic histories of the countries it traverses, especially those in the Nile Basin. The river is vital for the survival of these nations, providing water for agriculture and hydroelectric projects. In 1979, within days of signing the historic peace treaty with Israel, the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat declared that ‘The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water’.Footnote44 His threat was not directed at Israel, but Ethiopia, the upstream neighbour that controls most of the headwaters of Egypt’s lifeline, the Nile.Footnote45

As alluded to above, the Nile is one of the top studied international rivers that dominate the academic literature on transboundary water disputes. Indeed, the Nile has been described as ‘one of the most disputed international rivers in the world’.Footnote46 Scholars have suggested that future conflicts may arise over water resources due to their increasing scarcity and the effects of desertification in the Nile Basin countries.Footnote47 The Nile Basin transboundary dispute is as compelling as the level of water stress seems to be insurmountable in the context of challenges presented by food and energy insecurity, rapidly growing population, and climate change.Footnote48 Most of the literature that examines contemporary transboundary water disputes in the Nile Basin focuses on the impact of the Renaissance Dam on riparian countries, the dynamics between them, and the various compromise initiatives agreed since the 1990s.Footnote49 While the Renaissance Dam has recently been analysed from the novel nexus perspective of transboundary water management and hydropower, assessing interlinkages between water, energy, and other resources,Footnote50 there is a lacuna in the literature that explores the delicate balance between water-related conflict and cooperation in the Nile Basin.

As this section demonstrates, the historical and contemporary scholarship suggests that cooperation can exist even against the backdrop of potential conflict, as long as there is a mutual nuanced understanding of the interactions necessary for sustainable water management. Indeed, while the potential for Egyptian-led conflict over water resources in the Nile Basin continues to be a subject of academic discourse and political concern, it is important to note that a full-scale ‘water war’ has no historical precedent, at least not in modern times.Footnote51 It is also worth noting that while interstate water wars have not occurred, there have been instances of intrastate conflicts and violence over water, particularly in regions facing severe water scarcity. These conflicts often occur at the local level, between different user groups, communities, or regions within a country. For example, there have been tensions in the Middle East over the control and use of the waters of the Jordan, Tigris and Euphrates rivers. However, these conflicts have not escalated into full-scale wars solely over water. Instead, water issues are often one of many factors contributing to broader political, territorial, or ethnic disputes.Footnote52

The complexities of water management along the Nile coupled with interdependencies of the riparian countries have led to a situation where cooperation and negotiation, rather than outright conflict, have been the prevailing responses to water-related disputes. Despite the challenges posed by factors such as climate change, population growth, and large-scale projects like the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the countries of the Nile Basin have largely managed to navigate these issues without resorting to warfare. This underscores the potential for peaceful resolution of water disputes, even in a context of high stakes and significant geopolitical pressures.

Weighty Imperial Baggage

Egypt has historically been the ‘hydro-hegemon’ of the Nile.Footnote53 It has the largest population, wealthiest economy, strongest military forces, and closest ties with great powers like the UK (until the 1950s), the Soviet Union (until the 1970s), and the US (from the 1990s).Footnote54 Egypt’s dominance has been shaped by what are termed, the Nile Treaties, which have proved instrumental in determining ‘ownership’ of the waters. The first of these Treaties was signed in 1902, following negotiations between Great Britain and Egypt. According to Tekuya,Footnote55 the main purpose of the Treaty was to determine the boundary between Ethiopia and Sudan, and citing Ullendorff, the author highlights that Ethiopia undertook ‘not to construct or allow to be constructed, any work across the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, or the Sobat, which would arrest the flow of their waters into the Nile except in agreement with His Britannic Majesty’s Government of the Sudan’.Footnote56 The second Nile Treaty was signed in 1929, and was again the result of British-Egyptian negotiations, but this time Great Britain’s representation had expanded to include its other East African colonies of Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika (present-day Tanzania). Through the Treaty, Her Majesty’s Government recognised the ‘historical and natural rights of Egypt and gave [it] veto power over any construction projects along the Nile and its tributaries’.Footnote57 The third Nile Treaty was signed in 1959, and confirmed the specific apportioning of the Nile’s waters to Egypt. In precise detail, it was determined that Egypt would be allocated 55.5bn cubic metres (BCM), or 66 per cent of the river’s total flow of 84BCM, while Sudan would be allocated 18.5BCM, or 22 per cent, with the remainder of the Nile waters, 10BCM, or 12 per cent, accounted for by seepage and evaporation.Footnote58 The reality of the 1959 Treaty was that Egypt and Sudan had exclusive rights to the Nile waters.Footnote59

The imperial baggage of the first two of the Nile Treaties has proved a major influence on contemporary negotiations between the Tripartite antagonist states, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, with each consistently blocking any sustainable and equitable water-sharing resolution to the dispute as an infringement of their sovereignty. Indeed, Egypt and Sudan argue that the 1959 Treaty builds on what they call their historical ‘acquired rights’ of water use, leaving no water to the water source countries.Footnote60 Ethiopia argues that it does not recognise the earlier Treaties, principally because they fail to acknowledge that the principal source of the Nile’s waters comes from within Ethiopia’s borders.Footnote61 Protracted negotiating efforts have failed to find a resolution. Yet, the Nile Treaties have not acted as a deadweight on Egypt’s negotiating flexibility as Cairo has accepted the water rights of upstream nations,Footnote62 as evidenced by its signing of the 1999 Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in Tanzania. The NBI was signed by water ministers of nine riparian states, with observers from the World Bank and the UN in attendance. The purpose of the Initiative was to achieve a shared vision of ‘sustainable socio-economic development through equitable utilisation of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources’.Footnote63 Significantly, the signatories included the Tripartite states, providing confidence that a framework for future dialogue was in place to delineate the use and management of the Nile River.

In parallel, preparatory work began in 1997 on the next phase of East African water diplomacy called the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA). Early optimism inspired by the NBI success did not translate into speedy and positive CFA outcomes, with negotiations lasting a decade.Footnote64 Article 14 of the CFA proved to be the major political and technical stumbling block on basin states achieving and sustaining water security, with Egypt and Sudan not content with the wording, seeking instead an additional clause that existing uses and rights would be fully protected under the CFA.Footnote65 To the frustration of the other Nile riparian states, the intransigence of Cairo and Khartoum led to the abandonment of discussions. Yet, notwithstanding this impasse, four of the participant states, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda, signed the CFA in 2010, Kenya’s signature quickly followed, and a year later, Burundi signed.Footnote66 However, given that six ratifications were required for the CPA to come into force, and only three had been secured, the CPA has never entered into force.Footnote67 Addis Ababa’s ratification of the CPA, was followed by its momentous 2011 decision to commence construction of the Renaissance Dam.Footnote68 Surprisingly, the decision did not elicit a major diplomatic rebuke from Cairo, which was sorely distracted by the domestic turbulence of the Arab Spring uprising. Moreover, Ethiopia’s hand was suddenly strengthened in May 2013, when Khartoum made a diplomatic ‘flip-flop’, declaring that the ‘Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam does not pose a threat to Sudan’.Footnote69 This isolated Cairo, which felt obliged to follow suit, preparing the way for the March 2015 signing of the Agreement on Declaration of Principles on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.Footnote70 The Declaration marked a pivotal moment in regional diplomatic history, with Egypt and Sudan acknowledging that the Nile represented the source of livelihood and resource development for riparian countries, including, significantly, Ethiopia,Footnote71 with all three countries recognising the foundational principles of international water law.Footnote72 The Declaration also formally recognised that the purpose of Ethiopia’s dam is for ‘power generation to contribute to economic development, promotion of transboundary cooperation and regional integration … ’Footnote73

Size does matter?

The site selected for the Renaissance Dam was on the Blue Nile in the state of Benishangul-Gumuz. The final design was finalised and submitted to the Ethiopian government by James Kelston in November 2010, under the planning label, Project X, later changed to the Millennium Dam, and finally, in 2011, becoming the ‘Renaissance’ Dam; the term symbolising the ‘rebirth’ of Ethiopia as a future African power.Footnote74 Given the regional animosity that the project had engendered, it was perhaps unsurprising that the Ethiopian government decided to keep the project’s design phase a secret until just a month prior to laying of the dam’s foundation stone.Footnote75 However, the extent of the secrecy meant that even donor governments, such as Norway, were blindsided. Separately, the Scandinavian country had been designing two Nile dams for the Ethiopian government, and the announcement to proceed with the Renaissance Dam immediately nullified this work , reportedly wasting about US$2-3mn in the process.Footnote76

On completion, the Renaissance Dam will be the World’s fifth biggest dam, and the largest on the African continent.Footnote77 It is a 1.1 mile colossus, with 13 turbines planned that will produce more than 5 gigawatts of electricity, 2.5 times more than the US Hoover dam.Footnote78 The Italian company, Salini Costruttori, possesses enormous dam-building expertise, and was awarded the US$3bn construction contract.Footnote79 Approximately half the construction work was completed by December 2014, but then the Swiss company, Alstom, signed a €250mn contract with Metals & Engineering Corporation (METEC), which became the source of major delays in the supply of turbines, generators and all electromechanical equipment for the dam’s hydropower plant.Footnote80 The dam has a planned generating capacity of 5,150 megawatts of electricity, with the main and saddle dams creating a reservoir of 74BCM, equivalent to the Nile waters of Egypt and Sudan combined, as determined by the 1959 Treaty.Footnote81 The lake created will be larger than the size of London, stretching back some 250 km (155 miles) upstream.Footnote82

The total cost of the dam was estimated in 2014 at close to US$5bn, about 60 per cent of the Ethiopia’s annual budget.Footnote83 In 2022, the reported budgeted cost appears to have remained unaltered.Footnote84 However, if this were the case, it would be remarkable. Nearly all major public infrastructure projects experience budget overruns, including large dams, which over the long-run, and on average, experience a 96 per cent cost overrun.Footnote85 In fact, an unofficial 2019 investigative report indicated that the Renaissance Dam project was three years behind schedule and the cost had escalated to almost $6bn.Footnote86 One Egyptian dam expert argues the cost could rise even higher to US$7bn.Footnote87 The fact is, there was no competitive bidding for the initial major construction contract, and this omission is important, because competition would have increased Ethiopia’s negotiating leverage to secure a discounted price.Footnote88 Also, the project’s controversial nature would likely have stoked fears of a possible water conflict in the region and dampened enthusiasm among bidders wary of protecting their international brands. As a result, Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world, decided to self-finance this audacious near-US$5bn project.

The plan to sell ‘dam bonds’, especially targeting the Ethiopian overseas diaspora, alongside the broader overseas investor community, proved more challenging than expected. Investor ‘risk perception’ was high, and promotion efforts across the important North American market were not helped by anti-dam protests (e.g. in San Diego and Canada).Footnote89 Marketing efforts in Ethiopia were more successful, however, with lowly paid public sector workers exhorted to buy the bonds as an act of patriotism.Footnote90 Reportedly, there were also other buyers, including private sector firms, the state-owned Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation, and even investors from other African states, such as Djibouti.Footnote91 The mass sale of bonds raised concerns that the associated high debt servicing costs might retard Ethiopia’s future economic growth, but the government countered by arguing that any increased costs would be offset by regional electricity sales.Footnote92 Advocates of the dam’s financing model tout it as innovative, enabling an initial US$450mn that was raised through a mix of local taxes, donations and government bonds to contribute to the ultimate aim of securing US$1bn.Footnote93 This is a substantial sum, but some distance from the dam’s approximate US$5bn overall cost. There is no evidence that China has played a role in financing the dam’s construction, but Beijing has contributed loans to fund related electricity generation investment.Footnote94

China’s involvement in the Renaissance Dam is contentious, not least because major infrastructural investment is a core component of China’s geoeconomic strategy aimed at binding borrowing states into Beijing’s sphere of influence. The vehicle for this process is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It commenced in 2013, and since then has spread its investment tentacles across every continent.Footnote95 In 2022, the BRI touched 147 countries,Footnote96 50 per cent of the world’s population and a quarter of global GDP, via multiple investments financed through long-term loans.Footnote97 Further, it is estimated that by 2027, BRI spending will have reached US$1.3 trillion, with more than 2,600 projects worldwide valued at US$3.7 trillion.Footnote98 The BRI especially targets developing countries, where there is an urgent need for infrastructural investment, but also where finances are tight.Footnote99 Thus, Beijing has resourced the building of roads, railways, ports and other strategic infrastructure. In Africa, the scale of investment is staggering. It has been estimated that more than 10,000 Chinese-owned companies are operating across the continent,Footnote100 where, reportedly, 46 African ports have Chinese financial, construction and operational involvement.Footnote101

Dams, in particular, have attracted Chinese BRI funding. China has extensive expertise in hydropower development. Since the 1950s nearly 22,000 large (15 metres or more) dams have been constructed in China, including the world’s largest, the Three Gorges Dam.Footnote102 This domestic capability provided the generating force for ‘dam diplomacy’. China’s entry into the global dam market occurred during the 1980s, when the World Bank ceased funding major hydroelectric projects across the developing world. The ensuing investment vacuum, vacated or neglected by US-dominated multilateral organisations, was filled by China, especially as it possessed proven technical expertise to undertake such ambitious ventures. By 2012, an international consultancy report highlighted that Chinese companies were engaged in 308 hydroelectric projects across 70 nations, with 28 per cent planned for Africa.Footnote103 By 2016, Africa’s share of Chinese dam-building had fallen to 26 per cent, but the number of Chinese-funded and -built overseas hydropower projects had increased to almost 350, suggesting that China was building around 90 African dams, listed as either completed, under construction, at the memorandum-of-understanding stage, or suspended.Footnote104

China’s intensive economic and trading courtship of Ethiopia, as an important hub for its activities in the East African region, represented the preamble for focused investment into the Renaissance Dam. The two countries’ relations have rapidly grown since formal diplomatic ties were established in 1970, and expanded still further in 2017 upon signing of a comprehensive strategic partnership. A rising proportion of Ethiopia’s imports, currently around 16 per cent of the total, are sourced from China.Footnote105 China also invests heavily in Ethiopia. By June 2020, Chinese companies had formulated plans to spend US$2.7bn in the country via about 1,500 initiatives.Footnote106 According to a 2020 UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Report, China represented the largest source of foreign direct investment in Ethiopia, accounting for almost 60 per cent of newly approved projects.Footnote107 There has also been substantial Chinese investment in projects linked to the Renaissance Dam, such as the 2013 US$1.2bn loan, providing the investment means to build turbine electrical equipment and power transmission lines between the dam and local towns and cities.Footnote108 Additionally, in 2019, China promised US$1.8bn to expand Ethiopia’s renewable energy sector.Footnote109 These loans formed part of Ethiopia’s substantial US$13.7bn debt to Beijing – the second biggest in Africa after Angola,Footnote110 with much of the funding targeting electricity supplies to Ethiopian cities and industrial parks. Ethiopian plans to build a network of 9,000 km of distribution lines and 19,600 km of power transmission lines, has become an urgent necessity as access to electricity is just 42.9 per cent.Footnote111 In addition to Chinese loans, the Ethiopian government contracted two Chinese companies in February 2019 to undertake the dam’s pre-commissioning activities as well as electrical, mechanical and civil/structural works to complete the generating station and spillways.Footnote112

Heavy economic dependence on China has come with a cost. Ethiopia, reportedly, owes US$16bn to Chinese lenders, representing almost half of the East African country’s foreign debts.Footnote113 Such debt dependency is fraught with risk. Beijing willingly provides billions of dollars in loans, with no strings attached, but at market rates of interest, reflecting ruthless commercial exploitation rather than altruism. High value loans to distressed states carry the danger of debt servicing failure, resulting in Chinese ownership of the assets. These so-called debt-traps have become a troubling feature of China’s BRI. For example, in 2017, China took a 70 per cent controlling stake in Myanmar’s Kyaukpyu Port after the host country defaulted on its loan repayments.Footnote114 The result is that China has potentially gained a naval base on the Indian Ocean side of the Malacca Strait chokepoint, projecting power across the Bay of Bengal. Similarly, with Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port project. This attracted huge Chinese investment, but the toxic combination of weak revenue streams and high interest charges meant that Sri Lanka was forced in 2017 to default on a loan repayment, obliging Beijing to call in its US$1.4bn debt.Footnote115 The Sri Lankan government had little choice but to sign a debt servicing agreement that ceded 70 per cent control of the Port to China as well as a leasing arrangement over a 99-year period.Footnote116 The port has immense logistical and strategic value, enabling Chinese warships to refuel and replenish stores, and project blue water naval capability into the Indian Ocean.

‘Cracks’ in the Dam …

The construction of the Renaissance Dam is a monumental engineering feat, though in terms of outcomes the ledger features both positives and negatives. The dam’s principal driver is electricity generation. Ethiopia is one of the least economically developed countries in Africa, with more than half of its roughly 117mn people lacking access to electric power.Footnote117 Even when there is access to power, the service dependability is questionable, with frequent blackouts disrupting community life and economic activity, including transportation, commerce and production.Footnote118 The government argues that the dam will enable 100 per cent electrification by 2025,Footnote119 and generate exponential increases in electric power that will act to spur self-sustaining industrial development. Just as important, hydropower is viewed as the key for expanding electricity exports to the region, with Ethiopia planned to become the renewable energy ‘battery of East Africa’.Footnote120 As long ago as 2017–18, Ethiopian electricity sales to Sudan had reached US$47.5mn and to Djibouti US$34.1mn.Footnote121 It is expected that electricity export revenues will increase with the commissioning of substantial additional distribution and power transmission lines.Footnote122 Electricity exports are expected to generate similar dynamic benefits to the Nile Basin recipient economies as envisaged for Ethiopia. For example, a recent independent report argued that the dam will contribute enormously to Sudan’s prosperity. The results of econometric modelling suggest that Sudan’s GDP, accumulated over the period 2020–2060, would benefit through increased crop output and value added across the economy by between US$27.04bn and US$29.32bn, compared to a baseline without the Renaissance Dam going live.Footnote123 Moreover, as the dam would be capable of handling 19,370 cubic metres of water per second, this would generate several additional benefits for Sudan, including a reduction of alluvium by 100mn cubic metres, irrigation for around 500,000 ha of new agricultural lands and reductions of approximately 40 km in flooding.Footnote124 It is also held that the regulated flow of water from the dam will improve agriculture, with minimal water evaporation from the dam compared to that arising from the Aswan High Dam, helping water conservation.Footnote125

For the Tripartite states, the building of the Renaissance Dam raises four major issues. First, it is located where it can dam the Blue Nile just before it leaves Ethiopia, thereby allowing the latter’s infrastructural capability to control most of the Nile River freshwater that flows into Egypt and Sudan, with consequent political, economic and environmental impacts.Footnote126 Nevertheless, Sudan now supports the dam’s construction, indicating it would subscribe to a legally binding agreement on equitable and reasonable use of cross-border resources if no harm is inflicted on downstream states.Footnote127 Given this position, Sudan’s principal concerns concentrate on the dam’s safety and the regulation of water flows through its own dams and water stations.Footnote128 Ethiopia has opted for a ‘hydropower’ expansion strategy on the Blue Nile, and not an ‘irrigation strategy’; this is good news for Egypt and Sudan as hydropower means little actual water withdrawal, though it also entails potential negative effects on Egypt, if not carefully managed.Footnote129 Egypt harbours anxieties concerning the dam’s impact during periods of filling and prolonged drought.Footnote130 Egypt has a land mass comprising 96 per cent desertic area, and the Nile represents the only water source.Footnote131 Water is critical for irrigating agricultural land, which contributes 12 per cent of the country’s GDP and 20 per cent of its workforce.Footnote132 Yet, Egypt is presently suffering water shortages, and in 2015, banned the cultivation of water-intensive rice growing in Upper Egypt and the middle and south Delta regions.Footnote133 For Cairo, then, water has become a critical element of national security, defined to encompass not just the conventional military component but also a fundamental non-conventional element of what the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) describes as the ‘water-food-energy’ ecosystem security nexus.Footnote134

When Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam becomes fully operational, the Nile will have two of the world’s biggest dams, if Egypt’s High Aswan Dam is taken into account. The problem is that an agreement on how these dams will share the Nile’s scarce water resources remains elusive. There are fears that the Renaissance Dam’s vast capacity may act to reduce Egypt’s water share, which is additionally concerning, because of the knock-on impact of reducing electricity production from the country’s High Dam reservoir. Moreover, Ethiopia’s objective of maximising energy production will conflict with Egypt’s priority of water sufficiency, whose concerns will intensify during periods of drought.Footnote135 On present estimates, the water short-fall caused by the Renaissance Dam will lead to a predicted loss to the Egyptian economy of US$51bn along with the loss of 4.74mn jobs, such that by 2024, Egypt’s GDP per capita would be 6 per cent lower.Footnote136 A more upbeat assessment comes from the 2013 International Panel Report, which argues that the Renaissance Dam would create significant benefits for all three Basin countries, and the project will have no significant adverse impact on the two downstream countries.Footnote137 The diverse benefits include:

  • resolution of the problems of power reliability, availability and affordability in the region;
  • reduction in siltation in the dams in Sudan and Egypt, a problem costing millions of dollars in rectification annually;
  • more constant water flow, reducing frequent flooding to which Sudan has been prone;
  • reduction in evaporation loss, improvement in water management and enhancement in rural development in Sudan;
  • improvement in flood control and water flow to the Aswan Dam, reducing evaporation losses in Egypt by as much as 12 per cent; and
  • prolonging the Aswan Dam’s life by up to a hundred years through sharply cutting the sediment reaching it.Footnote138

Moreover, although future Nile flows are uncertain, a 2017 study argued that adverse impacts on Egypt will be diminished after the Renaissance Dam filling is completed.Footnote139

A second concern has regard to the uncertainty over whether the Renaissance Dam will play any role in mitigating the problems of drought. The inevitability of climate change means that the dam will likely affect future water availability. Yet, this scenario has not been factored into predictions on whether, and to what extent, water reductions will impact on downstream users, affecting their ability to adapt to a changing climate. Ethiopian droughts do happen, with the last major one occurring in the 1980s and lasting eight years.Footnote140 The Tripartite countries have agreed that ‘when the flow of Nile water to the dam falls below 35-40BCM per year, then that would constitute a drought’,Footnote141 and Egypt and Sudan would expect Ethiopia to release water from the dam’s reservoir to deal with the ensuing water scarcity. Ethiopia, however, prefers to have the flexibility to make independent decisions on how to deal with droughts.Footnote142 During the filling process, Egypt would be able to compensate for water loss by releasing more water from the High Aswan Dam. In years of normal, or above average, rainfall there is unlikely to be a problem, but Egypt is nervous of a prolonged drought, lasting several years. Under that scenario, if Ethiopia held back water then the levels in the High Aswan Dam would start to fall. In theory, the Renaissance Dam could help regulate the flow of the Blue Nile and certainly make Sudan less prone to floods. However, in Summer 2020, Ethiopia unilaterally decided to execute the first stage of the dam’s filling (4.9BCM), shutting down three of the four diversion outlets for the water.Footnote143 This reduced water levels downstream, disrupting Sudan’s pumping stations used for irrigation and municipal water supply.Footnote144 In July 2021, it happened again, with the second phase of filling affecting Khartoum’s water supply for three days. In May 2022, a project manager working on the Renaissance Dam admitted for the first time that Egypt and Sudan may have been affected by the filling of the dam.Footnote145

A third criticism of the Renaissance Dam is that it is ‘over-engineered’; that is, its excessive size will have a negative impact on efficiency and cost. One commentator argues that the dam is 300 per cent over-sized:

More than half of the turbines will rarely be used. [The dam’s] available power output, based on the average of river flow throughout the year and the dam’s height, is about 2,000 megawatts, not 6,000. There is little doubt that the system has been designed for a peak flow rate that only happens during the 2–3 months of the rainy season. Targeting near peak or peak flow rate makes no economic sense. [The] … issue is so highly politicized that it seems to suppress legitimate engineering inputs and environmental discussions.Footnote146

Fourth, the dam has been criticised on the basis of its diverse environmental impact. The latter problem may prove severe, as evidenced by the construction of China’s Three Gorges Dam, epitomising the worst of environmental degradation through biodiversity destruction, ecosystem disturbance and reservoir-induced seismicity.Footnote147 While the Renaissance Dam’s short-term economic benefits have included the creation of 12,000 jobs, this is dwarfed by the approximately 120,000 people who have been displaced by the dam’s construction.Footnote148 Aside from displacement and resettlement of local people, the local area may also suffer from the flooding of fertile land, leading to reductions in crop yields, and an increase in health risks due to increased parasitic disease as a result of ecological changes.Footnote149 There are also concerns over the dam’s adverse effects on ecosystems through inducing earthquakes, changing water quality in the reservoir area, blocking river fish channels, threatening fishery resources and interrupting downstream flows.Footnote150 As a counterbalance to such fears, an alternative agnostic judgement suggests that while the expected flooded area, location at low latitude in the tropics, and deep turbine intakes, could intensify greenhouse gas emissions, the dam’s high reservoir depth would abate these emissions.Footnote151 Moreover, based on precedents of the experiences of other dams, when the Renaissance Dam is completed, and seriously promoted through ecological restoration, it will have a positive impact on the surrounding vegetation, and will positively affect water quality, especially the decrease of suspended solids.Footnote152 Clearly, the dam will offer both costs and benefits, though at this stage it is difficult to judge eventual net impacts.

Negotiations exhausted, mediation stalls …

The ongoing friction between Egypt and Ethiopia over the filling and operation of the Renaissance Dam is driven by the former’s claim for historical rights over the Nile and the latter’s demand for equitable apportionment of its waters.Footnote153 Although not intractable, compromise between these two polarised positions has proved elusive. The 2015 Declaration of Principles offered optimism that a solution could be found, and, in fact, expert-level negotiations on the safety, filling and operation of the dam were undertaken by the Tripartite nations, but internal political upheavals in Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have delayed progress.Footnote154 These delays have led to a resurgence of tensions, prompting Egypt’s President el-Sisi to call for greater international pressure on Ethiopia when addressing the UN General Assembly in September 2019.Footnote155 A month later, Egypt declared that negotiations with Ethiopia had reached a dead-end and again requested international intervention.Footnote156 Russia quickly responded by facilitating meetings between Egyptian and Ethiopian leaders in Sochi, on the margins of the October 2019 Russia-Africa summit. The talks again failed, leading to rumours of a possible Egyptian military intervention, and obliging the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to declare that nothing would stop Ethiopia from building the dam, and millions would be mustered to defend it.Footnote157 Nevertheless, the leaders agreed to resume negotiations, and the two countries settled this time on US and World Bank mediation. From November 2019, five rounds of technical negotiations and over three rounds of ministerial-level meetings were convened, and eventually in February 2020, there was a breakthrough and a deal was agreed; however, at the 11th hour Ethiopia refused to sign and the impasse continued.Footnote158 President Trump was incandescent, and froze US$260mn of aid to Ethiopia,Footnote159 raging that ‘Egypt may blow up the dam’.Footnote160

External mediation continued to be sought in an attempt to break the deadlock. In 2020, the UN recognised the African Union’s (AU) responsibility for resolving the Nile waters dispute, and argued that ‘African problems call for African solutions’.Footnote161 The call for AU mediation was supported by China, which had consistently refused to take sides, pursuing a delicate balancing act to protect its substantial investments in both Egypt and Ethiopia. However, not even the AU, with China in tow, could get the two sides to compromise and the Tripartite talks again ended in failure. Ethiopia then requested South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, the AU Chair at the time, to mediate, but once again the negotiations proved barren.Footnote162 In the absence of any agreement, Addis Ababa signalled commencement of the first of the dam’s three fillings in July 2020. Further complicating matters, Ethiopia announced in February 2021 partial operation leading to limited electricity generation for the first time, in a move condemned by Egypt and Sudan. The two countries heavily criticised Ethiopia’s unilateral filling and operation of the dam, labelling the start of power generation a violation of the 2015 Declaration of Principles.Footnote163

Notwithstanding these protests, Ethiopia proceeded with the second filling, which was completed in July 2021.Footnote164 Egypt and Sudan again condemned the fillings, urging Ethiopia to suspend the process until an agreement was reached. Egypt’s Ministry of Irrigation voiced its ‘firm rejection of Ethiopia’s unilateral measure’, claiming that it violated international laws regulating shared bodies of water and infringed Egypt’s rights.Footnote165 In parallel with the fillings, a further unproductive Tripartite meeting was held under AU auspices in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Egypt also sought mediation from Turkey in 2021, but that got nowhere. In the summer of 2021, Cairo and Khartoum managed to include the Renaissance Dam issue on the UN Security Council (UNSC) agenda, despite Ethiopian disapproval.Footnote166 All these rounds of mediation have proved fruitless despite, as earlier mentioned, Egypt and Sudan’s recognition (through signing of the Declaration) of Ethiopia’s legal rights to the equitable and reasonable use of the [Nile] Waters.Footnote167

Although direct Tripartite negotiations have stalled, the UNSC continues to encourage the three states to resolve the dispute.Footnote168 For example, in an October 2021 summit in Jeddah between the state leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and the US, the participants expressed support for a diplomatic solution that achieves the interests of all parties impacted by the Renaissance Dam.Footnote169 The third dam filling occurred in July 2022, and was completed a month later, enabling activation of its turbines.Footnote170 The Renaissance Dam will continue to be filled until it reaches 74BCM.Footnote171 Thus, while completion of the filling process has some way to go, its eventual achievement is now a fait accompli. Future mediation efforts can only focus on operational and structural considerations, such as Egypt’s August 2022 letter to the UNSC warning of fissures in the concrete façade of the sub-dam linked to the main Renaissance Dam.Footnote172 However, it appears that patience over mediation efforts has begun to fray. For example, Qatar’s Autumn 2021 efforts to invoke Arab League intervention prompted Ethiopian government officials to state that negotiations are an ‘African’ issue, and any interference from external Arab states would be unacceptable.Footnote173 In response, an advisor to the President of the Sovereign Council in Sudan pointedly warned that there could be a ‘water war’ in the region.Footnote174

Thinking the unthinkable

Ethiopia’s near 150-year period of sovereign rule, save for Italian occupation during World War II, has not led to high levels of economic growth and development. It is in this context that the Ethiopian government views the Renaissance Dam, as a ‘weapon’ in the country’s fight against poverty, alongside the unwritten agenda of undermining Egypt’s hydro-hegemony.Footnote175 Sabre rattling rhetoric has continuously punctuated a decade of tortuous negotiations between the two principal protagonists, Egypt and Ethiopia.Footnote176 Indeed, the threat of military action has been a constant throughout the dam’s life. Reports have surfaced indicating that Egyptian forces were implicated in the mid-1970s’ destruction of equipment destined for an Ethiopian dam.Footnote177 Also, during the latter stages of Egyptian President Mubarak’s Presidency (1981–2011), it was disclosed that government officials had indicated in the event of a crisis between Egypt and Ethiopia, ‘there will be no war – we [would] send a plane to bombard the dam and [it would be] back in the same day, that simple’.Footnote178 Then, in 2012 WikiLeaks acquired documents from a US strategic intelligence company, Stratfor, revealing Egyptian and Sudanese plans to build an airstrip for ‘bombing a dam [without naming it] on the Nile in Ethiopia’.Footnote179 The following year, a meeting of Egyptian politicians, chaired by the then President Morsi, called the dam a ‘declaration of war’, and proposed military action to thwart the project.Footnote180 Notwithstanding these threats, the dam’s construction will inevitably be completed in the coming years.Footnote181 The end-game is thus imminent, but an agreement to share the Nile’s waters remains as elusive as ever. Ethiopia has been fortunate that the three filling phases have occurred during periods of abundant rains. The future climate may not be so kind, leading to water shortfalls in the downstream affected countries.

Egypt’s President el-Sisi owes his position to the military.Footnote182 In a speech on 26 April 2020, to celebrate the anniversary of the return of Sinai to Egypt, he declared ‘The Supreme goal of the state is to preserve its survival … and maximising the state’s comprehensive powers comes at the top of the Egyptian State’s priorities’. Such ideas make a military build-up inevitable. The Armed Forces permeate every aspect of Egypt, including the economy, which is described as a ‘military economy’.Footnote183 Weapons modernisation is an obvious way of keeping the military content. Even though Egypt has no obvious enemies, between 2015 and 2019, it became the third largest arms importer in the world and the second in the MENA region after Saudi Arabia.Footnote184 In terms of comparative military capability between Egypt and Ethiopia, the former’s superiority is incontestable: in 2021, Egypt spent US$5.2bn on defence in support of 836,000 Armed Forces compared to Ethiopia’s US$448mn and 138,000 forces.Footnote185 Yet, notwithstanding Egypt’s vastly superior military capability, it would still need to carefully weigh the strategic implications of a pre-emptive military assault on Ethiopia’s dam. Such action would likely lead to the imposition of international sanctions and negative politico-diplomatic consequences, especially with respect to Western aid, relations with the Nile Basin countries, and more generally across Africa. Egypt will also be aware that the dam has acted as a catalyst for cultivating strategic allies. Since Israel’s rapprochement with Ethiopia during the reign of Haile Selassie, it has had experts working in different capacities, including in the country’s Ministry of Water and Electricity, directly on the dam’s construction and also on the construction of three other dams on the Blue Nile.Footnote186 There is speculation that the award of contracts to Israel for the construction of these dams was a quid pro quo for an Israeli military presence on the islands of Dahlk and Fatima.Footnote187

Aside from ‘grey’ operations designed to influence Ethiopia’s political decision-making, and special clandestine operations in Sudan to support the various nationalist groups in Tigray and elsewhere in Ethiopia aimed at undermining the dam’s progress,Footnote188 military action ‘might’ be feasible on three fronts. The first would be a precision air strike. While Ethiopia’s government claims its air force, reputed to be the first in Africa,Footnote189 is in a position to defend the dam, the relative capability of Egyptian and Ethiopian military inventories suggests otherwise.Footnote190 Ethiopia’s air force comprises mostly Soviet-era aircraft, supplemented with Russian and Ukrainian second-hand versions. By contrast, Egypt enjoys quantitative and qualitative combat aircraft superiority over Ethiopia, possessing nine times as many military aircraft, including US F-16 fighters and the recently procured advanced ‘deep strike’ French Rafale combat jets and US$2bn worth of Russian SU-35 fighters, albeit none of these aircraft have flight capability from Egypt’s airfields to reach Ethiopian air space.Footnote191 An air strike would be exceedingly risky, with uncertain outcomes, not least because Ethiopia has ring-fenced the dam with proven Israeli and Russian Air Defence Systems. Additionally, if aerial bombing was successful, there is the risk of massive flooding downstream in Sudan.

The second recourse to military action might be via a land-based assault. Egypt has an army 2.5 times the size of Ethiopia’s, but Cairo would be challenged to deploy these forces, including its nearly 16,000 main battle tanks (MBTs) and armoured vehicles as forward bases are non-existent.Footnote192 The third option would be deployment of the Sudanese army, possibly incorporating Egyptian special forces. However, the Ethiopian Army would undoubtedly have ‘war-gamed’ these military options, and would be expected to have prepared for such an assault, given that the dam’s geographical proximity to Sudan’s border is just 28 miles, easing its army’s operational and logistical requirements. Moreover, the Ethiopian military is not inexperienced in border conflict. In December 2020, it was obliged to respond to Sudan’s deployment of 6,000 forces using heavy artillery in the disputed Al-Fasaga region.Footnote193 Khartoum’s action was likely timed to exploit Ethiopia’s preoccupation with fighting rebels in the enduring Tigray conflict to the north, but Addis Ababa vowed that this ‘perfidious act [would] not pass’.Footnote194

Of course, Egypt might consider undertaking a combined arms operation, both air and land, in concert with its Sudanese allies. In fact, the two countries have recently been collaborating to strengthen mutual military capability. In November 2020 and April 2021, they conducted joint air exercises called ‘Nile Eagles’, followed up in May 2021 by joint military ground and air exercises, dubbed ‘Homat El-Nile’ (Guardians of the Nile).Footnote195 In parallel, in early 2021, a joint military agreement was signed in Khartoum, covering mutual training activities. A senior Egyptian General described the level of military cooperation between the two states as ‘unprecedented’, arguing that they ‘faced common national security threats, and Cairo stood ready to meet all of Sudan’s military-related requests’.Footnote196 Military collaboration between states of the wider Nile Basin also exists, reinforced by Cairo’s signing of an intelligence-sharing agreement with Uganda in early 2021.Footnote197 In the same year, Cairo additionally signed a series of joint military, security, economic and intelligence agreements with Kenya, Burundi, Rwanda and Djibouti.Footnote198

Yet, there are several factors which militate against conflict. First, there is the self-evident illogicality of breaching the dam that would cause massive flooding of Sudan’s Blue Nile River and surrounding areas.Footnote199 Second, there is no evidence to support the argument that black Africa will act militarily or diplomatically to support an Egyptian attack against the Renaissance Dam. Indeed, other Nile Basin countries such as Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi are CFA signatories, suggesting an African-Arab divide in the politics of the region.Footnote200 Third, from a geopolitical perspective, the Autumn 2022 AU-led Peace Accord signed in Pretoria to end the Tigray war in Ethiopia acted to end actual or potential Egyptian military involvement in the region.Footnote201 Finally, the Spring 2023 outbreak of major internal conflict in Sudan represents a major distraction to Khartoum from any preoccupations with strategic issues surrounding the Renaissance Dam.Footnote202


The purpose of this paper has been to critically evaluate the historical antecedents and contemporary developments influencing the politico-economic-strategic context behind Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam, including recent diplomatic initiatives. The dam’s completion is not in doubt, and in the absence of a Nile water-sharing agreement, there is great uncertainty as to how downstream nations, and particularly Egypt, the principal protagonist, will respond. Ethiopia appears to view itself as the injured party following generations of diplomatic disagreement over the sovereignty of the waters. The Nile Treaties ignored the fact that 90 per cent of the waters originate in Ethiopia. The Egyptian perspective lies at the other end of the spectrum, where anything less than unrestricted access to the Nile’s waters is viewed as an existential threat to national security. Through international treaties, Cairo has been granted a high degree of sovereignty over the Nile river, and this ‘ownership’ aspect has become increasingly important as, pari passu, Egypt’s dependency on its waters have grown through population and economic pressures. Yet, mature statecraft needs to balance historical diplomatic difficulties with the reality of contemporary international relations. There is no doubt that international mediation still has a role to play, but it might be easier if the diplomatic affiliations of upstream and downstream countries did not fall on different sides of the geostrategic divide: Egypt and Sudan are entwined with the Gulf states, which in turn are closely aligned with the West, while Ethiopia is increasingly a client state of Russia, Israel and China. The problem is that discourse between Egypt and Ethiopia appears to have ended, and great power relations are also at an historical low, following the Russia-Ukraine debacle and China-Taiwan frictions. Yet, if compromise is not achieved, and future rains fail, or climate change irreparably reduces the water flow calculus, then the fear is that military action will become Egypt’s only option.

Amid the West’s preoccupation with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the potential for conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia remains a possibility. While the potential for a ‘water war’ in the Nile Basin has not materialised into actual conflict, it is crucial to distinguish between rhetoric and realpolitik in this context. The rhetoric from key players, particularly Egypt and Sudan, has indeed become more bellicose in recent years. For instance, Egypt’s media is ramping up the pressure on Cairo to act, with headlines that ‘Ethiopia’s dam threatens the lives of 150mn Sudanese and Egyptian citizens’.Footnote203 Egyptian President el-Sisi’s 2020 statement that the water issue represents an ‘existential threat’ and his subsequent warning in 2021 that the Nile waters represent a ‘red line’ illustrate the escalating tensions.Footnote204 In 2022, Egypt’s Foreign Minister further escalated the rhetoric by stating that Egypt reserves the right, as guaranteed in the UN Charter, to ‘take all necessary measures to protect its national security’.Footnote205 These statements, while not yet leading to physical conflict, are troubling and raise the spectre of a potential attack on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The situation is somewhat reminiscent of the unexpected Russian invasion of Ukraine, where rhetoric and posturing eventually led to actual conflict. It underscores the importance of careful diplomacy, negotiation, and conflict resolution in managing transboundary water disputes. However, it is also important to note that rhetoric, particularly in international politics, can often serve other purposes. It can be a tool for rallying domestic support, signalling intentions to other international actors, or exerting pressure in negotiations. While the rhetoric surrounding the Nile waters is undoubtedly concerning, it does not necessarily mean that a physical conflict is inevitable. The practical considerations and potential costs of such a conflict – may serve as a deterrent against escalation to actual warfare. Nonetheless, the situation calls for continued vigilance, diplomatic engagement, and efforts towards sustainable and equitable water management in the Nile Basin.


Appreciation is expressed to two anonymous reviewers for their invaluable and insightful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

Disclosure Statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Ron Matthews

Ron Matthews currently holds the Chair in Defence and Security Capability at Rabdan Academy, Abu Dhabi. He is also a Visiting Professor in Defence Economics at Cranfield University at the UK Defence Academy, and was formerly Professor of Defence Economics at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Vlado Vivoda

Vlado Vivoda is Associate Professor/Associate Researcher at Rabdan Academy, Abu Dhabi. He is also an Honorary Fellow at the University of Queensland’s Sustainable Minerals Institute. He was formerly Senior Lecturer in Strategic Studies at Deakin University, and Academic Advisor, Defence and Strategic Studies Course, at the Australian War College, Canberra, Australia.


1. Paisley, ‘Why the 11 Countries’.

2. Nile Basin Initiative, State of the River Nile, 226.

3. Cited by Wheeler et al., ‘Understanding and Managing New Risks’. See also Abu‐Zeid and Biswas, ‘Some Major Implications’.

4. Reguly, ‘Fear Along the Nile’.

5. Ezz and Arafat, ‘We Woke up in a Desert’.

6. Reguly, ‘Fear Along the Nile’.

7. Mbaku, ‘The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’.

8. Aljazeera, ‘Ethiopia’s Blue Nile Mega-Dam Explained’.

9. Carlson, ‘Who Owns the Nile?’.

10. Fecteau, ‘On Toshka New Valley’s Mega-Failure’.

11. Egypt Today, ‘Toshka Agricultural Project Revived’.

12. Ibid.

13. Mohyeldeen, ‘The Dam that Broke Open’.

14. World Bank data; UNDP, ‘The Next Frontier’.

15. Mbaku, ‘Nile Basin at Turning Point’.

16. Dangeot, et al., Faces of Poverty.

17. Abtew and Dessu, The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

18. Maasho, ‘Ethiopia’s New Dam’.

19. Millar, ‘Selling Egypt Down the River?’.

20. Mbaku, ‘Nile Basin at Turning Point’; Holleis, ‘Ethiopia’s GERD Dam’.

21. Aldardari, ‘Water Politics and the Gulf States’.

22. Wolf, ‘Conflict and Cooperation along International Waterways’.

23. Kamat, ‘How US Retreat’.

24. D’Odorico et al., ‘The Global Food‐Energy‐Water Nexus’.

25. Kılıç, ‘Water Security Concept’.

26. Buzan et al., Security.

27. Cook and Bakker, ‘Water Security’; Bakker, ‘Water Security’; and Lankford et al., Water Security.

28. UN-Water, ‘Water Security’.

29. Staupe-Delgado, ‘The Water – Energy–Food – Environmental Security Nexus’.

30. Smajgl et al., ‘The Water – Food–Energy Nexus’; and Allan et al., ‘The Water – Food–Energy Nexus’.

31. Zeitoun, ‘The Global Web of National Water Security’; and D’Odorico et al., ‘The Global Food‐Energy‐Water Nexus’.

32. Walton, ‘Desalinated Water Affects’.

33. Roudi-Fahimi et al., ‘Finding the Balance’.

34. Kehl, ‘Water Security in Transboundary Systems’.

35. Al-Otaibi and Abdel-Jawad, ‘Water Security for Kuwait’.

36. Naff, Water in the Middle East; Swain, Managing Water Conflict; and King, Water and Conflict in the Middle East.

37. Wolf, ‘“Water Wars” and Water Reality’; Swain, ‘The Nile River Basin Initiative’; Peichert, ‘The Nile Basin Initiative’; Teshome, ‘Transboundary Water Cooperation in Africa’; and Metawie, ‘History of Co-operation’.

38. Wolf, ‘“Water Wars” and Water Reality’.

39. Kehl, ‘Water Security in Transboundary Systems’.

40. Zeitoun, Mark, and Naho Mirumachi, ‘Transboundary water interaction I: Reconsidering conflict and cooperation’, 297–316.

41. Petersen-Perlman et al., ‘International Water Conflict and Cooperation’; Tir and Stinnett, ‘Weathering Climate Change’; and Hanjra and Qureshi, ‘Global Water Crisis’.

42. Gleick, ‘Water and Conflict’; Toset et al., ‘Shared Rivers and Interstate Conflict’; Klare, ‘Climate Change, Water Scarcity’; and Wolf, ‘“Water Wars” and Water Reality’.

43. Alam, ‘Questioning the Water Wars Rationale’; Kirmani, ’Water, Peace and Conflict Management’. Mustafa, ‘Social Construction of Hydropolitics’; Burgess et al., ‘Human Securitization of Water?’; Kalair et al., ‘Water, Energy and Food Nexus’; Wolf, Hydropolitics Along the Jordan River; Haddadin, ‘Negotiated Resolution’; Weinthal et al., ‘Securitizing Water’; Pearse‐Smith, ‘“Water War” in the Mekong Basin?’; Kittikhoun and Staubli, ‘Water Diplomacy and Conflict Management’; Sneddon and Fox, ‘Rethinking Transboundary Waters’; El‐Fadel et al., ‘The Nile River Basin’; Lawson, ‘Egypt versus Ethiopia’; Milas, Sharing the Nile; Azarva, ‘Conflict on the Nile’; and Mbaku, ‘The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’.

44. Anwar Sadat cited in Starr, ‘Water Wars’.

45. Starr, ‘Water Wars’.

46. Sutcliffe, ‘The Hydrology of the Nile Basin’.

47. Deng, ‘Cooperation between Egypt and Sudan’.

48. Kehl, ‘Water Security in Transboundary Systems’.

49. Yihdego et al., The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam; Abdelhady et al., ‘The Nile and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’; Nasr and Neef, ‘Ethiopia’s Challenge to Egyptian Hegemony’; Pemunta et al., ‘The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’; Negm and Sommer, Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam; Abtew and Dessu, The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam; and Mbaku, ‘The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’.

50. Bleischwitz et al., ‘Implications of the Resource Nexus on International Relations’.

51. Wolf, ‘Conflict and Cooperation’.

52. Gleditsch, ‘Armed Conflict and the Environment’.

53. Tekuya, ‘The Egyptian Hydro-Hegemony’.

54. Klaassen, ‘Everywhere and Nowhere to be Seen”.

55. Tekuya, ‘Colonial-era treaties’.

56. Ullendorff, ‘The Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty’.

57. Abdulrahman, ‘Agreements that Favour Egypt’s Rights’; and Tekuya, ‘Colonial-Era Treaties’.

58. Kimenyi and Mbaku, ‘The Limits of the New “Nile Agreement”’.

59. Ibid.

60. Deribe, ‘The 1959 Agreement’; and Kimenyi and Mbaku, ‘The Limits of the “New Nile Agreement’”.

61. Tekuya, ‘Colonial-Era Treaties’.

62. See International Waters Governance, ‘Nile River Basin Initiative’.

63. Tekuya, ‘Colonial-Era Treaties’; and Salman, “The Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement’.

64. Nile Basin Initiative, ‘Agreement on the Nile River Basin Cooperative Framework’.

65. Salman, ‘The Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement’.

66. Ibid.

67. Ibid.

68. Al-Anani, ‘The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’.

69. Sudan Tribune, ‘Sudan Downplays Negative Impact’.

70. Aman, ‘Egypt Warily Signs Preliminary Nile Agreement’.

71. Salman, ‘The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’, 521.

72. MENA and Ahram Online, ‘Full Text of Declaration of Principles’.

73. Salman, The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’, 521.

74. Wuilbercq, ‘Ethiopia’s Nile Dam Project’.

75. The Sun, ‘Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan and the Renaissance Dam’.

76. International Rivers, ‘The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Fact Sheet’.

77. Wheeler et al., ‘Understanding and Managing New Risks’.

78. Bearak and Raghavan, ‘Africa’s Largest Dam Powers Dreams of Prosperity in Ethiopia’.

79. Mazel, ‘Looking for Compromise on Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam’.

80. Water Technology, ‘Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project’.

81. Tekuya, ‘Sink or Swim’. Also see: Alarabiya News, ‘Ethiopia Starts Generating Power’; and Saied, ‘Sisi Lauds Egyptian Water Conservation Programs’.

82. German Institute of Development and Sustainability, ‘Filling and Operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’.

83. International Rivers, ‘The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Fact Sheet’.

84. Indeed, the 2022 cost appears to have declined, with one report published in February 2022 stating that in the absence of accurate accounting, experts have estimated the total cost of the Dam to be US$4.4bn. See Afrique, ‘Ethiopia’.

85. Asiedu and Adaku, ‘Cost Overruns of Public Sector Construction Projects’; and Guerreiro, ‘What Chinese Dams in Laos Tell Us’.

86. Endale, ‘A Peek to Ethiopia’s Landmark Project’.

87. International Rivers, ‘The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Fact Sheet’.

88. Endale, ‘A Peek to Ethiopia’s Landmark Project’.

89. International Rivers, ‘The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Fact Sheet’.

90. Mbaku, ‘The Controversy Over the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam’.

91. Ighobor, ‘Financing Africa’s Massive Projects’.

92. Maasho, ‘Paying for Giant Nile Dam Itself’.

93. Ighobor, ‘Financing Africa’s Massive Projects’.

94. Millar, ‘Selling Egypt Down the River?’.

95. Beeson, ‘Geoeconomics with Chinese Characteristics’.

96. Wang, ‘Brief’.

97. Kuo and Kommenda, ‘What is China’s Belt and Road Initiative?’.

98. Umbach, ‘How China’s Belt and Road Initiative is Faring’.

99. Beeson and Crawford. ‘Putting the BRI in Perspective’.

100. Umbach, ‘How China’s Belt and Road Initiative is Faring’.

101. Devermont et al., Assessing the Risks of Chinese Investments’.

102. Guerreiro, ‘What Chinese Dams in Laos Tell Us’.

103. Hance, ‘China Plans over 300 Dam Projects Worldwide’.

104. Urban et al., ‘China’s Dam Builders’.

105. Kinfegabriel, ‘Ethiopia, China Trade Insight’.

106. Emam, ‘Egypt Hopes China can Break Deadlock’.

107. Ibid.

108. Millar, ‘Selling Egypt Down the River?’.

109. Economist Intelligence, ‘Ethiopia: China Invests in Power Grid’.

110. Sany and Sheehy, ‘Despite High Stakes in Ethiopia, China Sits on the Sidelines’.

111. Ngounou, ‘Ethiopia: State Will Invest $1.8 billion in Renewable Energy Transmission’.

112. Africanews, ‘Ethiopia Contracts Chinese Companies’.

113. Magistad, ‘As Ethiopia’s Civil Conflict Intensifies’.

114. Lee and Aung, ‘China to Take 70 per cent Stake in Strategic Port in Myanmar’.

115. Pasricha, ‘As Crisis-Hit Sri Lanka Counts Cost of Chinese Projects’.

116. Lu, ‘Sri Lanka Hands Over Port to China’.

117. Al-Anari, ‘The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’.

118. Kiruga, ‘Growth Prospects Hurt as Ethiopia Struggles’.

119. Al-Anari, ‘The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’.

120. Woldegebriel, ‘How Ethiopia Plans to Become a Clean Energy Exporter’.

121. Ngounou, ‘Ethiopia: State Will Invest $1.8 billion in Renewable Energy Transmission’.

122. Ibid.

123. Siddig et al., ‘Long-Term Economy-Wide Impacts’.

124. Yihdego and Salem, ‘Nile River’s Basin Dispute’.

125. Ibid.

126. Kandeel, ‘Nile Basin’s GERD Dispute’. Acknowledgement is expressed to an anonymous reviewer for insightful comments.

127. United Nations Security Council, ‘Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan’.

128. Gobran, ‘Egypt Highlights Dangers’.

129. Climate Diplomacy, ‘Disputes Over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)’.

130. Egypt Today, ‘Egypt Affirms Adherence to Rules’.

131. Mazel, ‘Looking for Compromise on Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam’.

132. Ibid.

133. Rabie, ‘Egypt’.

134. UNECE, ‘Water-Food-Energy-Ecosystem Nexus’.

135. Abboud, ‘Impact of Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on Egypt’s National Security’.

136. Wheeler et al., ‘Comment on Egypt’s Water Budget Deficit’.

137. International Panel of Experts on Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project. ‘Final Report’.

138. Ibid.

139. Boehlert et al., ‘Analysing the Economy-Wide Impacts’.

140. Reguly, ‘Fear Along the Nile’.

141. Roussi, ‘Row Over Giant Nile Dam Could Escalate’.

142. Mbaku, ‘The Controversy Over the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam’.

143. Wheeler et al., ‘Understanding and Managing New Risks’.

144. Egypt Independent, ‘Sudan Announces Sudden Decline of Nile Waters’.

145. Saied, ‘Sisi Lauds Egyptian Water Conversation Programs’.

146. International Rivers, ‘The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Fact Sheet’.

147. Hvistendahl, ‘China’s Three Gorges Dam’.

148. Water Technology, ‘Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project’.

149. Dixon et al., ‘Dams and the Environment’.

150. Chen et al., ‘Impacts of Ethiopia Dam on Vegetation and Water and Ecological Countermeasures’.

151. Elagib and Basheer, ‘Would Africa’s Largest Hydropower Dam’.

152. Chen et al., ‘Impacts of Ethiopia Dam on Vegetation and Water and Ecological Countermeasures’.

153. Dahan, ‘Egypt Says Historic Nile Rights Not Negotiable’; see also: Mekonnen, ‘The Quest for Equitable Resolution’.

154. International Crisis Group, ‘Bridging the Gap in the Nile Waters Dispute’.

155. State Information Service, ‘President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s Statement’.

156. Dessu et al., ‘Why Has the AU Been Silent on the Ethiopian Dam Dispute?’.

157. Mazel, ‘Looking for Compromise on Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam’.

158. Widakuswara, ‘No Deal from US-Brokered Nile Talks’.

159. Caslin and Rabie, ‘Is a War between Egypt and Ethiopia Brewing on the Nile?’.

160. Malley and Davison, ‘GERD’.

161. United Nations, ‘Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan Should Negotiate Mutually Beneficial Agreement’.

162. Louw-Vaudran, ‘As AU Chair, South Africa’s Leadership Fell Short in Key Areas’.

163. El Tawil, ‘Egypt Describes Ethiopia’s Unilateral Operation’.

164. Endeshaw, ‘Ethiopia Says Second Filling of Giant Dam on Blue Nile Complete’.

165. Aamari, ‘Tensions Rise as Ethiopia Keeps Filling its Nile Dam Reservoir’.

166. Saied, ‘Ethiopia Tries to Divide’.

167. Security Council Report, ‘Security Council Presidential Statement’.

168. Alarabiya News, ‘UN Encourages New Negotiations’.

169. Arab News, ‘Arab Leaders, President Biden’.

170. Magdi, ‘Third Filling of Nile Dam Heightens Ethiopia-Egypt Crisis’.

171. Daily Sabah, ‘Ethiopia to Initiate Generating Power’.

172. Gobran, ‘Egypt Warns of Cracks in Ethiopian Dam’.

173. Maher, ‘Navigating the Ongoing Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Negotiations’.

174. Ibid.

175. Floyd, ‘Power Trials Commence at Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’.

176. Ibid.

177. Maher, ‘Navigating the Ongoing Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Negotiations’.

178. Ibid.

179. Carlson, ‘Who Owns the Nile’.

180. Dunne, ‘The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and Egypt’s Military Options’.

181. Kahsay, ‘Ethiopia: GERD to See Completion by 2023’.

182. Ottaway, ‘Egypt and the Allure of Military Power’.

183. Ibid.

184. Ibid.

185. SIPRI, ‘SIPRI Military Expenditure Database’; World Bank, ‘World Bank Open Data’.

186. Abboud, ‘Impact of Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’.

187. Ibid.

188. Tekle, ‘Ethiopia Vows to Defend its Airspace’.

189. Ibid.

190. Saied, ‘Egypt Deepens Military Ties with Sudan’.

191. Pangea-Risk, ‘Special Report: Egypt-Ethiopia War Scenarios’.

192. Ibid.

193. Ayeni, ‘Sudan Killings Risk Rekindling Border Conflict with Ethiopia’.

194. Africanews, ‘Sudan Recalls its Ambassador to Ethiopia’.

195. Saied, ‘Egypt Deepens Military Ties with Sudan’.

196. Egypt Independent, ‘Egypt, Sudan Sign Military Cooperation Agreement’.

197. Mikhail, ‘Egypt, Uganda Agree to Share Military Intelligence’.

198. Magdi, ‘Egypt Signs Military Deal with Kenya’.

199. Holleis, ‘Ethiopia’s GERD Dam’.

200. Kimenyi and Mbaku, ‘The Limits of the New “Nile Agreement’”.

201. Al Jazeera, ‘Ethiopia: Government, Tigrayan Forces’.

202. Gornall, ‘How the Sudan Crisis Complicates’. Moreover, Cairo’s efforts to achieve a common approach to the GERD dispute is undermined by its sole focus on developing relations with General Burhan, Commander of the Sudan Armed Forces. See Economist Intelligence, ‘Sudan Crisis‘.

203. Al-Shamaa, ‘Ethiopia’s Plan to Fill Reservoir Opposed’.

204. Al-Monitor, ‘Egypt to Security Council’; and Floyd, ‘Power Trials Commence at Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’.

205. Hegasi, ‘Egypt Categorically Rejects Ethiopia’s Unilateral Filling’.



Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

On Key

Related Posts

VK Russian online social media and social networking service

© 2022 Esleman Abay. All rights reserved.

Follow Us