Yared obtained his B.A. degree in Political Science and International Relations from Addis Ababa University. He earned his M.A. in International Relations from the same university. Specialized in Media and Communications, Yared worked as a Journalist, Communications Advisor with a number of private, government, and non-government institutions . Currently, he is working as a Political Advisor and Researcher at the Embassy of Japan, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.


Ethiopia and Egypt belong to the Nile Basin Region that in total connects 11 riparian countries (in addition to Egypt and Ethiopia), namely Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, and Eritrea. This piece discusses the prospects of Cooperation or Conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia through the prism of the broader geopolitics of the Nile Basin region, North-Eastern Africa, and the respective national security interests of these two major riparian countries.

The Nile is one of the longest international river systems in the world, with a length of 6670 km (Koutsoyiannis et al. 2008) while the Nile Basin covers an area of about 3.2 million km2, which represents some 10 percent of the African continent and hosts nearly 20 percent of the African population. (1). For the Nile basin, about 86 to 95 percent of the flow of water to the Aswan dam comes from Ethiopia. While the annual maximum precipitation is 2,098 mm per year in Ethiopia, there is almost no rainfall in Egypt that feeds into the Nile. The Ethiopian highlands are also a source of fertile soil sedimentation for irrigation and brick production in Egypt and Sudan (2).

Nevertheless, there is a geopolitical paradox among the Nile states. That is while being the source of 86 percent of the Nile water; Ethiopia has never claimed a monopoly over this water, and at the same time has utilized very little of this resource (Yacob, 2012). From Egypt’s side, on the contrary, in the history of the Nile basin, there has been a huge effort toward creating hegemony. Based on the colonial era agreements and post-colonial period agreements signed between Egypt and Sudan, in 1929 and 1959, Egypt claimed its right to an annual quota of 55.5 billion cubic meters of Nile waters (Kimenyi and Mbaku, 2015). The 1959 agreement afforded no water to Ethiopia or other upstream riparian states—the sources of most of the water that flows into the Nile. Perhaps even more consequential is that this agreement granted Egypt veto power over future Nile River projects (Mbaku, 2020). This quest for hegemony has played a very negative role that has become relevant today (Yacob, 2012).

Although Egypt has persistently argued that the 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan is the legal framework for the allocation of the waters of the Nile, Ethiopia, and other upstream riparian states reject this line of argument. This kind of reaction is reflected among the majority of upstream countries, and Ethiopia is always the first to do so. Despite the strong reactions from Ethiopia and other states, Egypt has been trying to establish a norm on the basis of immaterial agreements or treaties (Abadir, 2012). Such a rivalry that steamed from the contentious relationship over the Nile River has been one of the most impediments to peace and stability in the Horn of Africa region, particularly for Ethiopia. Tadele (2020) argued that more than any other factor, crucial geopolitical and geo-economic developments have caused, accelerated, or triggered tensions in the Nile Basin.
Ethiopia, whose highlands supply more than 85 percent of the water that flows into the Nile River, has long argued that it has the right to utilize its natural resources to address widespread poverty and improve the living standards of its people. Over the years, Egypt has used its extensive diplomatic connections and colonial-era agreements to successfully prevent the construction of any major infrastructure projects on the tributaries of the Nile (Mbaku, 2020).

Until not the last two decades the Nile water controlling tactics employed by Egypt proved successful. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Egypt was the key player in supporting the antagonist state, rebel groups, and other militants’ against Ethiopia and other upstream countries (Carles, 2006) to hold back the riparian countries from developing and utilizing the Nile water.
Warnerb and Zeitouna (2006) wrote that the Hydro-Hegemon is a concept that best explains the approach Egypt attempted to employ with a view to asserting its dominance in the Nile basin region. According to this framework, Hydro-Hegemon uses four water resource control tactics. These include coercion, utilitarianism, norms, and ideology (Warnerb and Zeitouna, 2006).

According to Cascao (2008), an active and persistent move against the status quo will lead the counter-hegemony force to the formation of a new regime which will consider an emergent or new hegemony. Resisting the status quo, the counter-hegemony, or the emergent hegemon will have three options, either to adopt a negative hegemony, stay neutral or promote a positive hegemony. In this regard, one can contend that Egypt and Ethiopia have been playing the role of the old hegemon and the emerging hegemon, respectively, in the Nile Basin region.


Broadly speaking, not only Ethiopia, but the other Nile riparian countries were all determined to object to Egypt’s age-old hegemony on the Nile waters.

However, the aforementioned explanation put Ethiopia as a country playing an active role in countering Egypt’s grand strategy of maintaining its dominance over Nile issues and persistently working for the equitable entitlement of this natural resource through the establishment of a permanent Basin-wide Cooperation Framework such as the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), which was a framework prepared by the Nile Basin Initiative members countries in 2010. As a multilateral attempt of dealing with the Nile issue, the CFA is a legal and institutional framework that facilitates a positive hegemony leadership (Alan, 2003) which is based on the principles of equitable and fair distribution of Nile water inviting all member states to take part in a win-win approach.

As Shapland (1997) argued the positive hegemony tactic has the power to bring the declining hegemony to the negotiation table and then to cooperation. However, Egypt and Sudan have been reluctant to change their claim based on historical and natural rights over the Nile waters and alter their bilateral agreement allowing full utilization of the Nile waters. While upstream countries want cooperation based on a new opening, both Egypt and Sudan would like more cooperation, but on the basis of the status quo (Yacob, 2012).

The GERD: An end of the old era?

Although conflict over the allocation of the waters of the Nile River has existed for many years, the dispute, especially that between Egypt and Ethiopia, significantly escalated when Ethiopia commenced construction of the dam on the Blue Nile in March 2011 exposing a fault line in the diplomatic relations between Ethiopia and Egypt (Mbaku, 2020).

Ethiopia asserts that the GERD will not harm Egypt. Egypt disagrees. Ethiopia avers that it is only claiming its right to utilize one of its resources for national development under international law of equitable use of transboundary water bodies. Egypt claims its rights under international agreements. Egypt, which depends almost entirely on the Nile waters for household and commercial uses, sees the dam as a major threat to its water security. When completed, the 4.8 billion USD Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will become Africa’s largest source of hydroelectric power, with the potential to generate 6450 MW. Despite the obvious benefits of providing electricity for Ethiopia, its construction has exposed fault lines in the rising power’s diplomatic relations with regional rival Egypt (Cole,2018).

Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to construct the GERD symbolizes the first serious move to undermine Egypt’s hegemony over the Nile, and further indicates the shifting balance of power and has emerged as the catalyst for either conflict or cooperation between the two countries. The GERD has become a new reality challenging the traditional dynamics in the Nile River Basin (Attia and Saleh, 2021).

Egypt, fearing major disruptions to its access to the Nile’s waters, originally intended to prevent even the start of the GERD’s construction. Indeed, Egypt called the construction of the dam an existential threat, as it fears the dam will negatively impact the country’s water supplies. Egypt as it considered the launching of the project as a violation of the 1929 treaty, immediately requested Ethiopia to halt the construction until it provided a detailed study on the impacts of the dam on the downstream countries (ElBarbary, 2021).

Egypt’s Approach: New wine into an old wineskin?

Events on the ground attest that the conflict-oriented old approach is giving way to a new model of cooperation– centered on a fair and equitable sharing of the Nile waters with other riparian countries. This fact forces Egypt to alter its stubborn, win-lose approach and capitalize on cooperation as a reliable guarantee of ensuring water security, which had been at the core of its hostile policy towards the other riparian countries, particularly Ethiopia.

According to Mehereteab (2018) in addition to the emergence of the new hydro hegemony, other additional factors force Egypt to drop its “Win-Loss” approach to come to the negotiation table for a Win-Win approach, which could only be achieved through cooperation. Mihereteab argues that this is high time for Egypt to alter its policy on the Nile River and come to the table for equitable and fair distribution of water resources. Ethiopia and the other upstream countries are moving in the direction of the Dublin Principles which are framed on the principle of equitable and fair share. In the near future or long run, Egypt is expected to join the other Nile Basin countries that are fully supporting the EGRD and other Mega Projects on the Nile River ( Mihereteab,2018).

As the biblical parable says “No one puts new wine into old wineskins, otherwise the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and the skins as well; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins (Mark 2:22) (2). Similarly, the new developments, realities, and claims around the Nile waters call for cooperation along a new approach that accommodates and harmonizes the legitimate demands of the riparian countries for a fair share of this natural resource. Otherwise, any attempt to employ a non-cooperative approach that ignores the empirical developments on the ground would yield a negative consequence. Through such an approach there is no guarantee whether the outcome will even be a Win-Lose one, rather it could most likely be a Lose-Lose.

One major illustration that Egypt is slowly drifting from its old stubborn claims of the natural and historic rights on the Nile waters ( based on the old 1929 and 1959 agreements) is, as the GERD is nearing completion, Egypt is trying to secure a political agreement over the timetable for filling the GERD’s reservoir and how the GERD will be managed, particularly during droughts (Mbaku, 2020).

Cooperation: the sole, viable option

While Egypt attempted to obstruct the GERD’s construction by blocking funding and threatening military action, it was unsuccessful. The unity of the upstream countries concerning a more equitable Nile River management and utilization, as displayed through the NBI and the CFA, further indicates that Egypt’s influence is weakening. Combined with the Declaration of Principles (DoP),(3) the commissioning of impact studies, and the decline in hostile threats, increased interactions between the two countries since 2013 imply that Egypt will not attempt to prolong its inevitable decline (Kazickas, 2016).

Ethiopia’s rise is not being countered by Egyptian aggression but instead by the understanding that the costs of cooperation outweigh the benefits of conflict. National self-interest is contributing to the development of a more cooperative and inclusive framework that may become the platform upon which a regional society can emerge.

The current situation in the region and the reality on the ground shows that Egypt and Sudan can no more stick to the old approach, but accommodate the new paradigm, that promotes an equitable and fair share of resources based on a win-win principle. A case in point is the steady progress of the GERD, regardless of the all-out attempt by Egypt to see the project buckled. According to official data released in February 2022, the construction of the GERD exceeded 84 percent, and the dam already entered into a trial phase and began generating 357 MW of power (4).

A pragmatic evidence of the non-reversible position Ethiopia is promoting on its GERD project is that while negotiations with Sudan and Egypt remain at an impasse, Ethiopia continued with the project firm and undisrupted and is warming up for the third round of the filling of the dam this main rainy season.

Such an empirical development on the ground is not only evidence that the old-fashioned win-lose approach is no more functioning but also forces Egypt to respond in a pragmatic manner realizing that it is left with a single option, that is cooperation. This change requires a reorientation of the old approach of Egypt, which is based on the Win-Loss principle.

With the coming into the stage of contending, rational, and legally sound claims on the Nile waters, the only viable option at Egypt’s disposal would be to sincerely adhere to a mutually beneficial and cooperation-oriented approach so that all the parties would come out winners.

Trust and confidence at the heart of cooperation

While Egypt was calling the halt the GERD project, the Ethiopian government plainly outlined that the GERD project will be beneficial not only for Ethiopia but in many respects also for the downstream countries, Egypt and Sudan. First, the flow of Nile water will be regulated from season to season because of the dam holding water, and hazards from flooding will decrease, especially in Sudan. Second, clean and cheap energy will be supplied from it and be made available to the region -given that the planned strength of the plant is 6000 MW (Mbaku, 2020).

Besides, Ethiopia’s move to invite Egypt and Sudan to form an International panel of Experts (IPoE) tasked to review the design documents of the GERD, provide transparent information sharing, and solicit understanding of the benefits and costs accrued to the three countries and impacts if any of the GERD on the two downstream countries to build trust and confidence among all parties (IPoE, 2013). Noticeably, this is a bold step that indicates Ethiopia’s readiness to boost confidence and promote cooperation with the two downstream countries.

Ethiopia’s initiation of the IPoE, the development of the TNC, and Ethiopia’s continued articulation of GERD’s benefits to downstream countries are representative of Ethiopia’s desire to assuage Egypt’s fears and work with the downstream country towards a mutually beneficial outcome (Kazickas, 2016). Similarly, The final report released by the IPoE in May 2013 sufficiently addressed the main concern of Egypt regarding the GERD, such as the reduction in the volume of water (water security), the safety of the dam, and the quality of the water.

Concerning the GERD, the IPoE report outlines the main concerns of Egypt All these concerns were sufficiently addressed by the IPoE’s report. For instance, on the safety of the dam, the IPOE said “the contractor building the dam is a world-class company that has “designed and constructed over 200 large dams around the globe” (IPoE, 2013)(5). This could be taken as one grand incentive by Egypt to cooperate with Ethiopia around the GERD, which has been scientifically confirmed to bring none other than a positive impact on the downstream countries. Since trust and confidence are at the heart of any cooperation, the steadfastness Ethiopia showed in the formation of the IPoE is a good capital and incentive for any future cooperation schemes with the downstream countries. Moreover, the initiative Ethiopia took is a reflection of its resolve to reclaim its right of utilizing its resource amicably addressing the concerns of the downstream countries, if there are any.


Nile countries must think of the Nile as a symbol of unity and a permanent bond, rather than a source of differences. We have observed changes in political systems and the creation of new states, but the fundamental role of the Nile has not changed (Yacob, 2012).

For centuries the Nile countries have been bound together by the Nile River and such a connection will only become more intimate in the future if these countries appreciate the reality on the ground and realize that water is a common resource whose effective management must be approached from a basin-wide perspective. Thus, it is only through cooperation that Egypt, Ethiopia, and the other riparian countries can effectively exploit and secure a guarantee for the security of this resource. On the flip side, no positive outcome can be obtained from mistrust, competition, suspicion, sabotage, and a continued reference to unworkable natural historical rights claims.

On the GERD

The GERD, which has become at the core of the Nile basin region’s geopolitical characterization could be a great opportunity for cooperation and development instead of escalated conflict and potential war between Egypt and Ethiopia if they manage to build confidence and agree on a cooperative framework that can benefit them without harming the others’ interests. For instance, Egypt must not use sympathy for its water vulnerability as a weapon to frustrate the efforts of the other riparians to secure an agreement that is balanced, fair, and equitable (Mbaku, 2020).

If Egyptian authorities refuse to abandon this anachronistic treaties-which have created untenable water-use rights that benefit only itself and Sudan- all parties will remain at an impasse. Furthermore, resolving conflicts involving the Nile River is most likely to be more successful through improvements in relations between the riparian and not through external intervention.

The GERD, which is a reflection of Ethiopia’s firm determination to exploit its natural resource, signifies a paradigmatic shift in the relationship among Nile riparian countries and attests that Egypt’s old way of dealing with the Nile water is no more. Thus, Egypt should be ready to redefine its old stance so that the GERD and any other future projects on this shared resource should become an integrative factor that provides opportunities for geopolitical interdependence in the region than being a menu for yet another round of conflict and competition. In, this era of continued negotiations, and engagement in hydro-diplomacy, the viable option is cooperation towards maximizing mutual benefits out of this shared resource (Yacob, 2016).

Moreover, there are ample options for cooperation and mutual development that conflict. the Nile Basin region will be the first region to encounter a growing gap between human needs and the available supply of water. This shows how the Nile Basin region needs to act in coordination to use this scarce resource wisely. It is also a stage where it demands integrated efforts and policy formulation and implementation in relation to unlimited population growth (Okbazghi, 2009).

The trajectory is more engagement, more interaction, more cooperation, and strategic prospect for future integration for mutual benefits and incremental integration beyond drops of water. The Nile basin countries should think beyond drops of water. It is not only the amount of water that the Nile basin countries need to discuss but the potential to maximize mutual benefit from each drop (Yacob, 2012, Yacob 2016).


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(1)Location of the Nile Basin in Africa, Nile Basin Initiative,https://atlas.nilebasin.org/treatise/location-of-the-nile-basin-in-africa/

(2) Mark 2:22, “And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. Instead, new wine is poured into new wineskins.”
(3)Agreement on Declaration of Principles between The Arab Republic of Egypt, The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, And The Republic of Sudan On The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project (GDP), Final Nile Agreement 5 March 2015 (2) (internationalwaterlaw.org)
(4) Construction of GERD Jumps over 84 Percent, Ethiopian News Agency, February 20, 2022, https://www.ena.et/en/?p=33612#:~:text=Addis%20Ababa%20February%2020%2F2022,other%20high%20level%20government%20officials
(5)International Panel of Experts (IPoE), Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam Project (GDP), Final Report, Addis Ababa, May 31st, 2013, https://www.scidev.net/wp-content/uploads/site_assets/docs/international_panel_of_experts_for_ethiopian_renaissance_dam-_final_report.pdf