Tension escalates between Egypt and Ethiopia over water rights

GERD DamBy Nikki Pfadt, Senior Analyst, Subsaharan Africa Section
Analytical Question: State of democracy and human rights in Ethiopia | Date: 09 May 2020

In the latest development regarding the water rights debate between Egypt and Ethiopia centered around the Nile River and Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Ethiopia has announced the signing of a new contract to construct another dam in its northern Tigray region. This development is occurring simultaneously with Egypt’s launching of an international campaign of sorts to gain support in opposition of the GERD completion. We therefore assess with high confidence that this will continue to add to the volatile relations between the two countries.

Ethiopia and Egypt have been at odds over the GERD since construction began in 2011, during Egypt’s Arab Spring crisis. As the dam nears completion, Ethiopia, and two downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan, have been participating in talks to negotiate the filling and operating of the dam in order to preserve Egypt’s and Sudan’s Nile water rights, which were established by a treaty in 1959[i]. In December of 2019, Egypt called upon the United States and the World Bank to help mediate, but negotiations fell through when Ethiopia pulled out of any further correspondence in February of 2020. Since then, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has announced plans to fill the dam regardless of reaching an agreement or not, and now has announced another, separate dam project.

The Ethiopian Irrigation Development Commission finalized a contract on Tuesday, May 5, to begin construction of the Kaza dam in the northern Tigray region of Ethiopia[ii]. The dam is expected to cost $74 million and be completed by 2024. It is unclear when this information was made available to the public, but it will likely be an immediate concern to Egypt. On May 7, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry sent a letter to the United Nations Security Council, reportedly expressing Egypt’s willingness to negotiate with Ethiopia, and registering his dissatisfaction with the alleged the lack of seriousness on Ethiopia’s part[iii].

As Egypt continues to campaign in the Middle East and Africa against the GERD, as well as contacting international bodies, there is potential for more parties to get involved in the conflict. Once the dam is fully completed and Ethiopia moves to fill it as planned, there could be destabilizing effects in the already volatile region. Furthermore, this has potential to become a humanitarian crisis, as water access and rights are being challenged.

As this is an ongoing conflict taking place alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, the countries involved in the dam dispute have limited resources available to direct their full attention to the issue. However, it is very likely that this situation will not subside anytime soon, as Ethiopia has been adamant about its position on the necessity of the dam for economic development. With high confidence we can predict that Egypt and Ethiopia will continue to be at odds over the GERD, and caution that the tension could escalate into outright hostility.


[i] Mwangi S. Kimenyi and John Mukum Mbaku, “The Limits of the New ‘Nile Agreement,’” Brookings (blog), April 28, 2015.

[ii]Ethiopia Signs Deal to Build New Dam,” Middle East Monitor, May 9, 2020.

[iii] Hamza Hendawi, “Egypt Takes Dispute over Ethiopia’s Nile Dam to Security Council,” The National, May 7, 2020.