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Egypt-Ethiopia: The Nile Water Crisis Resurfaces Again

The embattled Egyptian president AlSisi has resuscitated the Nile water crisis with Ethiopia. The differences over Ethiopia’s Great Renaissance Dam (GERD) that started in 2011, has sometimes bubbled and in other times erupted to the surface. When it did, it was often downplayed by occasional diplomatic niceties or escalated through media forays. But since the summer of 2018, it seemed as if it was contained.

However, in his September 24 speech at the UN General Assembly in New York, president AlSisi called on the international body to intervene in the GERD issue confirming the crisis between the two countries is far from over. He also warned the stalled negotiations could have negative repercussions on the national security and development of Egypt. GERD, or “Sed AlNahda” in Arabic, has become one of the main political rallying issues in Egypt.

After months of deadlocked negotiations between the two countries to resolve their differences, in June 2018 the Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed made a two-day visit to Egypt to conclude a resolution of the dispute. His visit followed the establishment of a joint Egyptian-Ethiopian scientific committee to handle the issue. Before concluding his visit, Abiy Ahmed had assured president AlSisi that the dam will not harm Egyptian interests.

At a press conference, AlSisi asked the visiting PM to swear in the name of God that Ethiopia will not decrease Egypt’s share of the Nile waters. Abiy Ahmed swore in Arabic repeating after AlSisi. “Wellahi, Wellahi … we will never harm Egypt and will work to increase the Egyptian Nile water quota.” As a bonus, Abiy Ahmed returned home with 30 Ethiopian prisoners who were languishing in Egyptian immigration jails.

The Egyptians seemed content with Abiy’s public promise until a few weeks ago when opposition to AlSisi gained steam, and finally led to popular demonstrations charging AlSisi’s government of corruptions and scandals.

Lately, in support of the anti-AlSisi demonstrations that started two-weeks ago, Egyptian comedians have picked Abiy’s pledge as a juicy material for their shows: “AlSisi is so-pious he handles foreign relations based on Welahi-welahi!”  On the opposite side, the battery of Muslim and Christian clergy has thrown its sermon power behind AlSisi and the state-owned media has been magnifying the clergy’s support statements.

On Friday, September 20, Egyptians took to the streets and demonstrated in a manner reminiscent of the 2011 demonstrations that ousted the 30-year old Mubarak regime. In relation to the GERD issue, the political class is “accusing AlSisi of succumbing to international pressures and giving in to the Ethiopian demands.” But now, AlSisi himself has adopted the same position regarding the GERD and is calling for the internationalizing the Nile Water crisis.

On Friday, September 27, AlSisi returned from New York to Cairo where many Egyptians were demonstrating to remove him from power. There was a heavy security force presence as thousands of plain clothed and armed officers fired tear-gas to disperse the demonstrators. And the streets  leading to the Al Tahreer Square, the main venue of the 2011 demonstrations, were closed off. Reports indicated the police have arrested thousands of people from all over Egypt.

The recent protests were called and inspired by Mohamed Ali, an Egyptian businessman who has become the fiercest critic of AlSisi’s government. He has been uploading daily video clips instructing and planning the demonstration from his hideout in Spain. Many other exiled Egyptians has also joined him with their own colorful and varied shows uploaded to the Internet daily.

AlSisi, came to power in 2013 after ousting Mohamed Mursi, the first ever democratically elected Egyptian President. Last June, Mursi who has been in jail since his ouster, collapsed and died in a courthouse.

From South of Lake Tana to the Mediterranean Sea

The Blue Nile, on which the Ethiopian GERD is built, flows from the south of Lake Tana in Ethiopia, and through the Sudan to Egypt and finally it drains into the Mediterranean Sea. Almost all of Egypt’s 100 million people are crammed along the Nile valley that snakes through the desert for about 900 miles before it reaches the Mediterranean Sea through the Nile Delta. From Sudan, the Nile flows into Egypt through the Aswan High Dam which holds 132 cubic kilometers of water.

The Nile finally spreads into the rich agricultural region of the Nile Delta and the Mediterranean coast that stretches for 250 kms from Alexandria in the west to Port Said in the east.  It’s Egypt’s only lifeline and provides 95% of its drinking and agriculture water needs. A 1929 and 1959 colonial agreement grants Egypt rights over 87% of the water and the final say on any Nile water related projects in the upstream countries.

The GERD negations between the two countries has started in 2012 right after Ethiopia decided to build the $4 billion dam. Negotiations are now stalled due to Egypt’s demand to make changes to the dam filling timetable, a decision that Ethiopia considers a potential violation of its sovereignty.

Recently, the Egyptian minister of water resources handed his Ethiopian counterpart Egypt’s final proposal of seven years to fill the dam. However, Ethiopia wants to fill the dam in three years and  insists that the Egyptian vision would “prolong the filling of GERD indefinitely” while compensating for the Egyptian water deficit by using the Aswan High Dam as a second backup reservoir.  But Egypt fears its 55 billion cubic meter share of the Nile water would be affected depending on the time it takes to fill the dam. It proposes the dam should be able to release “40 billion cubic meters of Nile water annually to downstream countries.”

The recent crisis was triggered by Ethiopia’s rush to complete the construction and commission it by 2020, when, the GERD, according to the Ethiopian authorities, is expected to start generating power. However, the current Egyptian escalation became evident on the Sept. 14  annual National Youth Conference, where AlSisi said Egypt has been  paying a price “since 2011 for one mistake …  and will continue to pay”, blaming the Arab Spring demonstration that ousted President Hosni Mubarek and brought in President Mursi. He said, “Dams would not have been built on the River Nile … was it not for 2011,”

The GERD, located about 25 kms from the Sudanese border in Western Ethiopia, is 1,800 kms long and 155 meters high, with a water storage capacity of over 10 billion cubic meters. It will be the largest dam in Africa.

In July 2018, the body of Simegnew Bekele, 53, the chief project manager of GERD, was found shot in the head and a pistol was found beside his body, inside a car in a busy street in Addis Ababa.

In August 2018, the Ethiopian government fired METEC, an Ethiopian government concern (a GERD contractor), over corruption charges. Ethiopia replaced it with “Voith Hydro Shanghai”, a Chinese company, and signed a $113 million agreement with it to continue the “electrical, mechanical, and various civil and structural works required to finish the GERD”.

The Italian company, Salini Impreglio, is still the main contractor of the GERD construction.

Meanwhile, according to reports, Israel has denied it supplied Ethiopia with an air defense system to protect the GERD.

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  • bmi1
  • bardavidi

    Hi….all….Meles had already sealed the Fate of Egypt over the Blue Nile……….He dared boldly to Claim an Upper hand over the Resource that no one else in the History of Ethiopia had done ……………Also repeatedly dictated that, If push comes to shove ………..Ethiopia decisively has the advantage in Strategy and any Possible conflict that might arise………The Possibility of the Egyptian army venturing that Far would be suicidal……….He was right……..Aerial and Perimeter defenses are Tight and Extremely heavy……….As to Israel never admits its Covert work Officially………That is their official unofficial policy as it goes…………Selah

  • Chidi

    very intresting article every thing was well explain thanks for this amazing article thanks

  • Hello,
    In my view, the modus operandi of Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea is in play. That being, to divert people’s attention from asking for freedom. Engaging in some kind of war would be the way.

  • Brhan

    Hello Awate,

    Cici is testing Ethiopians who are now badly divided among themselves more than anytime.
    Egypt feared TPLF’s Meles Zenawi ( Abayn Ye Defere – Not King H.Selase or Mengistu Haile Mariam dared to do with regard to the Nile) more than it is fearing Abiy Ahmed who is busy reconciling the many fighting ethnic groups that came out from the can of worm.
    But there is other side of the coin. Cici by doing that , he may unite Ethiopians who will leave their ethnicity talk aside and go after him.

    • Selam Brhan,

      “……he may unite Ethiopians who will leave their ethnicity talk aside and go after him.” That is the point. No ruler is stronger than the people united, and the people united is the strength of any leader. Although ethiopians could be at each others throats at this moment mainly for the sake of power, but when their sovereignty and freedom is at stake they have shown on many occasions that they are united for the sake of ethiopia. What we see today is power struggle of the elites of different ethnic groups and not ethnic struggle as such, dreamers of the age of princes and warlords. Bekele d, daoud i, jawar and many others are opportunists intoxicated for power and they do not stand for the freedom of their people. It is always the same story of african leaders. They depose a dictator only that they end up being worse dictators than those before them. Look at any african leader, it is the same story – a worse dictator replacing the one before him, and the people are never in their equation. This is the first time it looks different in ethiopia – a leader aspiring to differ from other african leaders. Time will prove or disprove him. Unfortunately, he has an uphill fight to do. Therefore meles or abiy or anybody else up there, are not important, but the people of ethiopia.

      Not a single ethiopian will want to be under egyptian boots, nor will they allow their wealth to be plundered by any enemy. Be sure, these are not the worst of times for ethiopian unity. The problem with ethiopia and other african countries is not the people but their elites. The people of ethiopia are united when it is about their homeland, and that is the problem for all egyptian leaders through out the ages. Ethiopia is not anglo-egyptian sudan, and she can never be.

      The truth is that the problem lies within egypt itself, a country ruled by one of the worst dictators and a country equally divided. Sisi wants to use ethiopia as a release valve for the pressure developing against him within his country, but it will not work. His time has come, unless he does what he knows best – mass murder.

  • Kokhob Selam

    Dear all,

    This Water subject is very sensitive..The Egyptian dictator is politically exploiting the case as we are experienced with all dictators do ..


    • Kokhob Selam

      Dear all,

      This was my correct post…Although, from I am not against Ethiopia at all, but on this Nile case The danger is for both Sudan and Egypt..Most probably for Egypt which will be the case of war …


      • Teodros Alem

        selam kokhob s
        the nile basin countries(spacially ethiopia, egypt and sudan) r naturally born to live together, they r intertwined by nature.
        In this world when u weak, every body wants to take advantage on u, that is exactly what is happening on the nile basin people’s. but when u have equal power, u respect eachother and u will resolve disputes respectfully and for the best of everybody so if ethiopia ( along somalia and djibouti) get stronger, egypt will be strongest ally of ethiopia, not the other way round. even they might request a federation kind of things.
        unless one wipe out the other completely, this kind of God creation(nile) will not be resolved by war.

        • Kokhob Selam

          Dear Teodros Alem.

          “for the future egypt will be the strongest ally of Ethiopia, and for the next generation they might be one country because they born to live together.”

          You might be correct in the long run of those future generations..But at this stage I don’t think this will be materialized because.

          See, I remember in my childhood years that source of Nile was no advantage for the people of Bahir Dar and Ethiopia at all it was simply useless water..I was one of the the boys who was preparing a show against the government of those year of not taking action…Now I am witnessing the other way round..I should say all that I feel and witness..Now the legality of the case totally controlled by Ethiopians..the job is going on which is supposed to be stopped..


          • Teodros Alem

            selam kokhob s
            I said when u weak people will take advantage on u, meaning ethiopia is/was weak and that was why egypt idon’t respect her, and that was why egypt is greedy. when ethiopia get stronger egypt will not have a power to disrespect ethiopia and egypt will not have a power to be greedy on powerful ethiopia and egypt and ethiopia will become Like a family as God wants them to be.

          • Kokhob Selam

            Dear Teodros A.

            “In order ethiopia to be strong, she has to resolve her weakness first.she has to get rid of her problem first.”

            It sounds revenge.

            I am not sure how you people think..But for me this choice is dangerous and may result bloody war may come soon..


          • Teodros Alem

            selam kokhob s
            how is trying to heal from disease is a revenge?

          • Kokhob Selam

            Dear Teodros Alem,

            Egypt and the people of Egypt will never Allow Ethiopians to complete –(the job in such way to see Egypt desert it) and it needs some compromise ..I think..Now it is impossible to cover all the 3000 years back history to recover it in short time,,it is impossible to complete the job as targeted by Ethiopian government..

            Slow and study should be done and stop the work now as soon as possible.. that is the only solution..I think ..It is very dangerous …


  • Selam All,

    How should ethiopia respond when egyptian politicians demand 45 billion cubic meters of water annually from ethiopia and they want to administer a dam built with $5bn ethiopian tax payers’ money, thus violating ethiopia’s sovereignty? Don’t you think that it is audacity and arrogance, if not outright an insult to ethiopia and the ethiopian people? Ethiopia does not control the floodgates of the clouds in the sky to open them for the sake of egypt or go thirsty during droughts, because egypt wants its lion’s share of the nile waters, which she decided upon by herself for herself.

    Al sisi is scared of facing the known fate of a dictator, to be ousted by people’s power. Cornered as he is, he wants to externalize his internal problems by making outrageous demands from ethiopia. I do not think that egyptians will miss their target, which is none other than dictator al sisi.

    What egypt is fighting for is mainly to guarantee its lion’s share of the waters of the nile, remain master of the nile, and to implement the illegal agreements it made with britain and sudan, which of course, did not involve ethiopia in any way, the main stakeholder, as a country that is the source of the river, to which egypt contributes almost nothing. Scientific usage of water resources, water economy with climate change in mind, desalination, tapping water from under the sahara and finding a solution for the 10 billion or so cubic meters of water lost due to evaporation at the aswan dam, are out of egypt’s agenda. On the contrary, it builds new cities and farmlands in the desert, which many scientists say are non viable, that will finally end up as ghost cities and failed agricultural lands, due to salinization of the land.

    “We will never harm Egypt….”, in my opinion does not mean, we will respect everything unfair and outrageous egyptian demand, by respecting the illegal share of the waters of the nile, by denying ethiopia her rights or ethiopia will never use the river for development. Rather it means, egypt should get its fair share from the nile and not the lion’s share she is used to, depending on the climate, rainfall and other factors. It does not mean that ethiopia will sacrifice herself for the sake of egypt. That is utter naivety.

    “Dams would not have been built on the River Nile … was it not for 2011,” is the most foolish way of telling the egyptian people, as if they are naive, not to bother his dictatorship and not to depose him. Egypt has no way to block ethiopia from using the nile ad infinitum.

    Finally, the gerd is going to be 1800 meters long, 155 meters high, and it is going to have a storage capacity of about 74 billion cubic meters of water. It will play a major role in ethiopia’s economy, it will increase electricity connection from around 40% of households today, the country could gain billions from power export, etc.


    • Saleh Johar

      Though I agree dictators seek crisis to divert the attention of their opposition, and Egyptian leaders do that like any other. However, the amount of water planned to be released is a technical issue and if they are both willing, I am sure, the technical people should be able to find a solution. The worst thing in such instances is that vital issues like water, lifelines, are turned into populist agitational slogans. Such topics should be handled responsibly and away from sloganeering. But I have no doubt making the old agreement that gave Egypt full control of the Nile Water null and void is the right thing. However, the water should not be used as a tool a wedge issue. Instead, there should be cooperation and only sane, competent people only should handle it. At the end, it is about 200 million people, both Egyptians and Ethiopians, whose like is at stake. Diplomatic acumen is badly needed.

      • Selam SGJ,

        The issue of sharing the waters of the nile in a way amounts to what M. Gandhi had once said, that “there is enough wealth in the world for everybody’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.” The three countries, ethiopia, egypt and sudan, could work together in good faith for the benefit of all, because what matters most is to use the river rationally and effectively and they should not think about the geopolitical consequences of a poor nation like ethiopia extricating itself out of poverty by using the river. The fear of ethiopia becoming a regional power is one of the reasons egypt has a negative stand against the use of the nile by ethiopia. Therefore, egypt’s attitude towards the other african countries that share the nile with it should change. Its belligerent way will take it nowhere.

        • Saleh Johar

          I really miss Amde and his insightful and cool character. Do you know where he disappeared or he is in the negotiations team 🙂

          Amde, if you see this you have overstayed to leave 🙂

          • Selam SGJ,

            Sorry, i have no idea. We all miss amde and many others from both sides. I hope they will all come back to, because it is one of the best places to be when one is on the web. If he reads your message, i am sure he will show up.

          • Kokhob Selam

            Dear all,

            I think no one has missed amde like I do..what as wonderful soul was that?

            “Your language is very mystical, definitely gives a very good insight into where your poetry comes from.

            You don’t have to answer, but it is interesting to me when you say “there are creatures who can see us but we can’t see them” are you using symbolic language and speaking from faith, or are you one of those rare gifted people who can see what is not so evident to vast majority of us? You don’t have to answer if you are not comfortable. I really appreciate your insight though.” Attractive isn’t it?


          • saay7

            Hi Kokhob, SGJ and Horizon:

            Amde has asked for politics asylum as Twitter.

            I will remind him to return to the base but I have to say something that he will find interesting. For example here is one: with every delay on GERD it becomes a less and less viable for what it was designed: source of energy. Because with every passing year solar energy becomes cheaper and cheaper to the point that it will be much cheaper the hydro electric energy.


          • Ismail AA

            Halla saay7,

            In that case things will reverse. The source of volumes of water will give way to source of megawatts of electricity because the sun will shine warmer and longer in the areas of Nile estuary than the regions of its source. The quid pro quo will then be water for energy. At that point, diplomacy may get its new heyday. And, I hope your call will reach the ears of the great Amde and will show up.

          • Selam saay,

            Until Amde comes with a better opinion, let me say this. As much as the gerd is concerned, as we know, its history has been that of ups and downs for the known reasons. Nevertheless, let’s wait until mid 2020 when it is said that it will start to produce some electricity. Amde will give us an extended version of the fate of the gerd, which i think is far from being a hopeless undertaking. Indeed sudan will benefit a lot from the gerd. Hence, it supports its construction, to the disappointment of egypt.

            Morocco has constructed a solar power farm in the desert that covers the needs of, i think, about a million people, and its main aim is to export electricity to europe. Many european countries have constructed wind power farms, and fossil and nuclear energy for the production of electricity have become things to be avoided, at least on a theoretical level for the time being. Ethiopia has two or more wind farms. Unfortunately, unlike artificial lakes that are created by dams, wind turbines and solar panels in their hundreds of thousands, are grotesque constructions that destroy the beauty of the landscape.

            Some countries like ethiopia have rivers that fall hundreds of meters over a short distance on their course, and it is only logical that hydroelectric dams will continue to be constructed. Solar, wind and water energy as clean energy will be the main means of power production. Industrialized nations like china and the usa still exploit hydroelectric power.

          • saay7

            Selamat Horizon:

            Meh, Sir Amde has got nothing on you so don’t worry: you are doing just fine.

            To use technological metaphor, my sense is that Ethiopia spent a lot of money developing a pager and we are at the cusp of cheap smart phones which make pagers obsolete. What makes sub-Saharan Africa very different from China and the West is that because of the weather (sunny the entire year) its possible to have sustainable solar energy all year round. Now of course there are other values to hydroelectric power: the Hoover Dam is smack in the middle of a desert and in theory could be replaced by solar emerges but because of the sunk cost (and because it is a major tourist attraction) that’s not bound to happen.

            So in the end, GERD like Hoover Dam may be a better tourist attraction that a means for Ethiopia to sell energy to the rest of East Africa (which is how it was advertised.) Of course part of what will make it a huge tourist attraction is the long tales the tour guide will tell about what it had to overcome to be built.


          • Selam saay,

            As the largest dam in africa, with an artificial lake that is going to extend for over 150km, indeed, it can be a tourist attraction on top of producing much needed electricity for Ethiopia’s development and for export purposes to regional countries. The ethio-kenya electrical grid has been completed just recently, sudan and djibouti are already importing electricity, although ethiopia is facing shortages. One can say that the gerd could play a role in the economic integration of the regional countries, and it can solve the problem of electricity outages in addis and other places.

            I do not know what happens during the night when electricity production from solar energy stops, and if solar energy storage in batteries is efficient and economic, and finally, if it is possible to power heavy industries with solar energy only.

          • Saleh Johar

            Did Amde swim through the Nile to reach Twitter-land?
            You say Solar, but they will find a way to fight over the source of the sun–are the rays coming through a friendly country or not? East and West will have a different meaning

          • መሃንድስ-ምዕባለ

            Hi Saleh,
            How about adding what the intensity of the sun ray and also its angle?
            Hopefully, we are not entering into our dictator’s kind of questioning style 🙂
            Remember that “Bishigleta” joke about him?

          • saay7

            Abu Salah:

            Haha! Amde, like most Habesha, doesn’t know how to swim. But like most habesha, he knows how to run. Look at Kenenisa: at the very old age of 37 breaking his personal record by almost 2 minutes.

            He also travels a lot on business (like our Fantiness) and he will respond to this post 3 weeks later.

            On the other hand, Eyob doesn’t travel but will only respond if you say “on balance, you know, Egypt is right and Ethiopia is wrong.” Guaranteed response if you say, “the Arabs are right and Ethiopia is dead wrong on this.” Rapid speed response if you say “maybe Isaias was right when he called GERD a white elephant..”


          • Kokhob Selam

            Dear saay7,

            I am in doubt ,,are you in contact with amde? Clear it man!! If so that will be even nice,,,


          • saay7

            Hi Kokhob:

            Yes I am in contact with Amde on twitter. He is the same Amde: fast as lightening and extremely well informed.

            How is your recovery going Kokhob?


          • Kokhob Selam

            Yes saay7,

            What a nice news..amde is in contact with you !!!

            I am recovering very fast now..I am doing fine..Thank you saay7..
            Let us go active like before..


    • Teodros Alem

      selam horizon
      2 things.
      1, i think u r extremely confused , u need to know the real meaning of audacity, arrogance and an insult. ur group r the one outright insulting ethiopia’s sovereignty for 27 years. reread ur own constitution what it say about sovereignty, this is the mother of all outright insult on sovereignty.
      what egyptinan saying is “ke mogn dejaf mar yekuretal” . since ethiopia poltics run by pathetic confused group, it is not unexpected for egyption to act the way they r acting.
      2, i think once “gerd” completed it will be used by all ethiopians including ethiopia’s enemy within ethiopia such as tplf group, i bet most ethippians will prefer egypt than the enemy of ethiopia within “ethiopia”.