Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: The Project Over the Nile That Makes Neighborhood Relations Turbid

Abstract: The works for the new dam over the Nile are 65% complete. In the end, this is going to change the geopolitical balance of the region. The project, strongly promoted by Ethiopia, is seen as a threat by Egypt, leaving the relations between the countries tensed.


The largest hydroelectric dam in Africa, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), is 65% complete and by the time it will be finished, it will change the geopolitical order of Northeastern Africa [1]. Situated on the Blue Nile river, in Ethiopia’s territory and close to Sudan’s border, GERD has been fomenting the intrinsic regional precarious instability since the opening of its construction site in 2011. Since than, the three governments involved – Khartoum, Addis Abeba and Cairo – have been committed to find a diplomatic solution over the project that made the relations between them even more turbid and restless [2].

Addis Abeba has a lot to benefit from this project: once finalized, Ethiopia will count on a modern and efficient infrastructure system that will allow the country to enlarge the access to hydropower to its citizens; to become the wholesaler of energy for the whole region and not only the neighboring countries; to appreciate itself even more as a central economic actor of Northeastern Africa and change Addis Abeba’s position within the main economic African organizations [3].

Dam_Nile_02On the other side of the border, Sudan also deems the GERD as a valuable opportunity to both strengthen its diplomatic relations with Ethiopia – a trusted and friendly partner which already shares many efforts in security, military and economic cooperation fields with Sudan – and to import its energy [4]. The two governments can rely on a strong and consolidated understanding in the matter of economic cooperation and see the project as a new step to further integrate the two markets. Furthermore, GERD is expected to boost Khartoum’s development of its irrigation system and pave the way to new projects and investments in the country [5].

Egypt has a diametrically opposite perception of the issue. In fact, in Cairo the Ethiopian Dam is not seen as a potential boost for the wealth of the region, but as an alarming direct threat to Egyptian water security. For a country that has traditionally based almost its entire economic activities on the exploitation of Nile’s waters, as in the case of Egypt, safeguarding the control of the river is of vital importance. In particular, the matter on how the system will affect the water flow is crucial as it could compromise, among others, Egyptian’s food security, agriculture and hydrologic production [6].

Many studies are still taking into consideration GERD’s impact on the water flow, on the environment and the economy of the region; nevertheless, it is another cause of friction between the three governments. Currently there is not a common consensus concerning the dam’s consequences once the system is going to be fully operative. Some studies foresee water shortcomings for Egyptians in case the Dam is filled in 3 years instead of 6: according to the experts, the latter is the time needed to bring the water at a level that should not harm Cairo’s interests [7]. The disagreement between the parties on the scientific committee is no negligible detail. In fact, many attempts have been made to set up an independent and impartial committee of experts to study the topic, initiatives that have produced see-sawing results so far. In May Cairo, Khartum, and Addis Abeba reached an agreement to study the consequences of GERD in the region by establishing a committee of independent experts, whose works might pave the way to a reconciliation deal, thus helping to ease the tensions between the three actors [8].

Diplomatic delegations are working to avoid the jeopardization of the triangular dispute. Not surprisingly, tensions among the three countries almost reached the breaking point many times during the dam’s project history. For example, in 2011, Egyptian politicians were planning to sabotage the dam; more recently, in 2017, Sudanese and Ethiopian forces were preparing to oppose an Egyptian offensive which had been perceived as possible scenario [9].

Today, a real threat to the precarious equilibrium is posed by the maneuvers of some neighboring countries. Sudan has recently decided to foster its security relations with Qatar, a political opponent of Egypt because of Doha’s support to Muslim Brotherhood. Furthermore, the unsolved dispute over the property of the Hala’ib Triangle, an area of about 20 thousands square kilometers situated at the Egyptian-Sudanese border, might represent another obstacle to the cooling down of the tensions between Cairo and Khartum, thus maintaining their relations nervous and unstable. Recently, Cairo decided to deploy troops to an United Arab Emirate base in Eritrea, making Sudan respond by sending troops at the border with the country, thus overheating a region whose peace lay on a fragile ground [10].



[1] More than 65% of GERD’s construction completed: Ethiopian Ambassador to Sudan, Egypt Independent,

[2] Keith Johnson, Egypt-Sudan Spat Muddies Prospects for Deal on Big Nile Dam, Foreign Policy,

[3] Agathe Maupin, Energy Dialogues in Africa? Is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Transforming Ethiopia’s Regional Role?, South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA),

[4] Sudan’s al-Bashir, Ethiopia’s Premier Discuss Bilateral Relations, Sudan Tribune,

[5] Fasica Berhane, Ethiopia: President Urges to Strengthen Ethio-Sudan Relationship, The Ethiopian Herald,

[6] Death of the Nile: Egypt Fears Ethiopian Dam Will Cut Into Its Water Supply, The Telegraph,

[7] The “Water War” Brewing Over the New River Nile Dam, BBC News,

[8] Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia Create a Scientific C’ttee on Mega-Dam Built on the Blue Nile, Africanews,

[9] Sudan and Ethiopia on Alert for Egyptian Military Strike, Middle East Monitor,

[10] Steven A. Cook, Is War About to Break Out in the Horn of Africa? Will the West Even Notice?, Council on Foreign Relations,




Elaborato revisionato dal Professor Alberto Tonini.


Damiano Messina




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