The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and the Water Diplomacy of the European Union

8 August, 2020

In 2007 Ethiopia launched the “Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam” [GERD], a $4.5 billion project. Once completed, the project is supposed to be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa and the seventh largest in the world. With construction work almost completed, on 07th July 2020, the water reservoir was scheduled to start. Filling the reservoir is an operation that is supposed to last between 5 years and, according to some forecasts, 15 years. This dynamic triggered the so-called geopolitics of water. Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia have been discussing and negotiating for a decade about the management of those water resources. For those countries, water is life, and the Nile’s water is a main water source for 84 million people. Access to it is becoming one of the main geopolitical issue of our decade. The European Union and, specifically, Josep Borrell, Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Vice-President of the European Commission are undertaking an active external role over the current negotiations. 

The GERD project and its dispute

The 6,600-kilometer-long Nile is supplying both water and, consequently, electricity to the ten countries in its crossing. The rich resource has been contented from many countries throughout centuries. Upstream on the Nile, Ethiopia is building a new dam: the largest dam in all of the continent, and also the most powerful power plant. International discussions led to negotiations on the amount of water that Sudan and Egypt, downstream countries on the Nile, would still be able to access during the period when the water reservoir would fill. Therefore, the dispute revolved around the amount of water discharged downstream daily. The dam’s construction started in 2011 and it is supposed to be completed this year (2020). The project aims to produce electricity both for Ethiopia and for the neighboring countries. When completed, it is forecasted to account for 5 percent of the whole Ethiopian GDP.

The dam could impact and bring negative externalities to the downstream Nile countries. Firstly, Egypt relies on the Nile for almost 90 percent of its water supply. Hence, it feared that the GERD project will lead to water shortages. Secondly, Sudan, on one side, is willing to receive the dam benefits: from the access to cheap electricity to reduced flooding.  On the other side, Sudan is scared that GERD could decrease the electricity capacity production of its smaller dams downstream.

In June 2020, Egypt accused Ethiopia of “intransigence” and appealed to the United Nations Security Council to intervene. In the past years, the UN called these three countries at the negotiating table. Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia signed the 2015 Declaration of Principles on the GERD emphasizing “cooperation based on common understanding, mutual benefit, good faith, win-win, and the principles of international law”. However, conflicts among the states’ capitals Cairo, Khartoum, and Addis Ababa continued.

Current developments and the role of the EU

Despite Egypt’s diplomatic efforts to reach an agreement with Ethiopia over the operation of filling the Dam, Addis Ababa announced in May that it would start the above-mentioned operation in July 2020. The month before, in April 2020, Egypt and Sudan have refused an Ethiopian proposal of a partial agreement that would only cover and be valid during the first stage of the filling.

The European Union has been an active player in these negotiations, trying to smooth their developments. The EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton visited Egypt to reaffirm the EU’s interest in future cooperation and bilateral relations with Egypt. The EU commitment is focused to help Egypt, especially Upper Egypt that has been suffering lately due to instability amid general poverty.

July 2020 negotiations have been developing under the close watch of observers from the United States, the European Union, and the World Bank. EU diplomat Josep Borrell commented on the situation of the dam as a “matter of stability” in the region. The High Representative and European Commission Vice-President stated in mid-July 2020 that “as Chair of the African Union, South Africa has dedicated considerable efforts to find a solution to the differences among Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt […]. The EU welcomes this engagement, which deserves unanimous support from the international community. In the days ahead, the parties will have to work out whether they can come to a collective agreement. If they do, and we encourage them to choose the conciliatory way forward, the benefits could be considerable: trust will be built; tensions diffused; and possibilities renewed for a conducive environment for investment in the development and water security of the entire Basin. The European Union fully supports a positive outcome for all parties.”


Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia have been discussing water resources for over a decade. Political tensions have been rising due to concerns about the extent according to which the flow of the river will be reduced downstream while the dam’s reservoirs will start being filled. Only once the dam is filled may the river flow be restored. The filling period should satisfy everyone’s needs. Unfortunately, the example of the Nile is far from isolated and water conflicts in the EU neighborhood area will multiply in the future. Europe is very directly concerned by the water scarcity issue and the geopolitical tensions it can generate. “Water diplomacy” will be more and more essential to EU foreign policy.

As reported in the European External Action Service (EEAS), the EU has already promoted water resource management over the last decade providing €2.5 billion to 62 countries and granting access to clean water to 70 million people and sanitation to over 24 million. Moreover, the European Union has also promoted “the implementation of the Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Water Courses and International Lakes, Helsinki Water Convention 1992”. In light of what has been discussed so far, it is clear that the future of diplomatic relations in the already fragile region of the horn of Africa will be concerning water diplomacy. In the upcoming scenario of climate change, water policies will be the future of European external policy.

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