Professor Yacob Arsano currently serves as an Associate Professor at Addis Ababa University’s School of Political Science and International Relations (AAU- PSIR). Dr. Yacob’s research focus on hydropolitics, coupled with his adamant advocacy for equitable water use in the Nile Basin, makes him a leading authority on  inter-state relations in the Eastern Nile Basin.

His expertise, particularly on the construction  of the GERD project and the consequent  negotiations with riparian states, has allowed  for a scientific framing of recently emerging  water disputes in the region.

On the occasion of the completion of the third filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) Horn Review discussed with Professor Yacob Arsano the technical, cooperative, and policy issues surrounding the dam. 

Question: The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has reported that Ethiopia has written a letter to Egypt on August 2nd stating that it would be filling the dam in the months of August and September. However, Ethiopia completed filing the dam 15 days earlier, on July 18.  What is your opinion on this matter? 

As the owner of the dam, I think it is Ethiopia’s responsibility to notify the lower Nile riparians of its plans to fill the dam before doing so. Egypt’s accusation that “Ethiopia’s dam should not be filled” or complaints of receiving the letter after the dam has already been filled is simply a weak argument. The very purpose of building a dam is to fill it with water; according to the “Declaration of Principles” made in March of  2015, Ethiopia has the right to build the dam and fill it with water, given the very nature of the construction itself. So, Ethiopia is filling the dam according to the declaration, and one day when the dam is fully completed, it will help avoid annual floods in the rainy season, and Ethiopia shall be thanked for it. I do not think Ethiopia should be accused by Egypt since this is the third filing, not the first. In my view, Egyptian accusations are simply baseless.

Question: Professor, according to Asharq al-awsat news, this third filling, more than the previous ones,  is expected to create more tension. Do you think there is some truth to that statement? 

I do not think so. 80 percent of the construction of the dam has been completed since 2011, and the dam is now in its third round of filling. This is neither abrupt nor unexpected. Ethiopia didn’t flippantly start filling the dam, when the dam was built at the beginning it was for the sole purpose of filling it, and also when the first and second phases of filling took place, the countries on the lower river basin were made aware of the annual filling schedule.  

Since the filling of the dam will not cause water depletion in Egypt or Sudan, they will not be affected by the filling of the third round. So, since there will be no water reduction, I don’t think this 3rd filling poses a problem, disagreement, or controversy. 

Question: Just to follow up on this question, to the best of your understanding, what is the significance and the implications of Egypt’s claim of “historical rights?” Is there a precedent of historical rights over transboundary resources? 

Because the agreements signed by Egypt with the other parties, previously with the British in 1929 (G.C.) and then with the Sudanese in 1959, are related to Ethiopia and other Nile riparians, Egypt and Sudan should not claim to be the sole proprietors of a shared resource meant to be utilized by all parties. It should, instead, advocate for joint use of this precious resource amongst all parties. 

Egypt has every right to believe such claims for itself, however, no other party has signed or ratified such an agreement. Since it is the resource of the watershed countries, all parties involved are entitled to fair and equal usage, hence it is unjustified for one or two parties to monopolize this shared resource.

The international experience is that countries in respective river basins agree to put their shared resources jointly and agreeably. In the Mekong river basins, common usage is frequent. Similarly, countries located in Senegal’s river basin follow the same process.  Also, common use in Europe and the US is not based on agreements that consider only the rights of a single country, but rather on agreements and collaborations that respect common interests. It is only in the Nile Valley, that the Egyptians insist on a binding influence on the remaining countries, forcing them to play by Egypt’s rules.

Question: What is the general guideline for utilizing a shared resource? Particularly as it relates to lower riparian countries?

According to the UN convention, approved in 1997, as well as the CFA agreement, which is an agreement that the Nile Basin countries signed in 2010, the use of water should be reasonable and equitable between countries. It is said that if one country uses water, it is to be cautious not to inflict serious harm to others. The two fillings so far have not caused any damage to Egypt and Sudan. 

This Declaration was signed between the President of Egypt and Sudan and the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, making it an excellent example, at least initially, of transboundary resource cooperation. In these agreements, many provisions prove beneficial to all three parties. The understanding is that Ethiopia owns and manages the renaissance Dam and, upon completion, Ethiopia should be cautious not to cause serious harm to the downstream countries.

As you know, the filling process goes in tandem with the construction, in accordance with the declaration. Thus far, I am yet to see anything that Ethiopia has done to undermine the agreement. So far, there is no instance where the water going to Sudan and Egypt has been significantly reduced, blocked, or put in jeopardy. 

It is no secret that Sudan suffers extreme flooding, and as a result of the Dam, destruction to life and property has been relatively minimal as of late.

Question: Until this third filing, downstream states were involved in tripartite negotiations. However, due to civil unrest in Sudan, the African Union also blocked the country from further participating. So, how will the negotiations continue in this situation? If there is any negotiation to happen, what kind of step will be taken next? Is it only with the two of them or how can this work for Egypt who says that Sudan must enter?

Until now, the government of Sudan, the government of the civil and military coalition that came after Al Beshir, has been attending the negotiation platform facilitated by the African Union between Ethiopia and Egypt. Because Egypt and Sudan are not willing to be on the negotiation stage separately, further stalling the negotiation process.

However, it is not the case that Egypt is not attending the negotiations because Sudan has been banned from the process. Together, the two countries are making elaborate excuses for refusing to sign the binding agreement that Ethiopia insists on. If Ethiopia does not sign their binding agreement, I think it is because they are withholding willingness to sign an equally binding agreement facilitated by the African Union, I think that is the main thing.

Question: Around 10% of the water reserve in Aswan High Dam is said to be reserved for Gulf states. Do you think this might be a complicating factor in potentially internationalizing the dispute?

I am not sure of the 10% figure. However, the water stored in the Aswan High Dam should, logically, be used by Egypt. Egypt’s poor water management is self-evident. Egypt allows its water reserves it flow through the Sinai desert,  using it outside the watershed. Ethiopia has long protested this action. Second, it is known that Egypt created a new valley west of Aswan Dam to create a new oasis to develop its area; this is all in addition to its wasteful agricultural practices and choice of crops.  Ethiopians, along with other basin states continue to protest. 

Question: While we are on the subject of informal objections or complaints, Egypt often runs to the UN security council with every possible objection. Entertaining this as a neutral objection, a neutral subject, and what is the merit and downfall of international level litigation?

So, if one country complains about another country, as it relates to international waters, that country is expected to follow the procedure of the International Court of Justice. However, barring other countries from using international waters by insinuating monopolistic ownership is simply unjustified. We are yet to see Egypt lodge a formal complaint to the concerned international tribunal because, I presume, it is not in their best interest.

What we see is a deliberate attempt to push this as a regional stability and security issue, hence their frequent complaints to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Since the GERD is a development issue, the UNSC suggested that it would be better to move this negotiation to the African Union stage, as it is an African issue. Until recently, it was a successful approach. 


Question: We know that the dam is being built by internationally acclaimed construction companies. However, Egypt and Sudan claim to worry about the safety and structural integrity Dam. Is there any merit to this concern? 

Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan jointly created an International panel of experts between 2012 and 2013 which includes members (representatives) of each respective country, in addition to intellectuals and technical experts. The International panel of experts then did a study on the dam and made a report in 2013 on how the dam is up to international standards and that it is of high quality, and that is not a matter of worry. The Egyptians have signed on it through their representatives; therefore, they have no reason or evidence for them to say that the dam building process is weak.

The international panel of experts didn’t come to this conclusion on their own, they first analyzed all 153 documents Ethiopia has been using throughout the construction process. Additionally, they inspected the site in person, confirming that the dam meets international standards. I find the safety and structural objection to the dam prejudicial, if not an outright lie.