The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD): Diplomatic War Between Ethiopia and Egypt

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD): Diplomatic War Between Ethiopia and Egypt

Berlin, Germany February, 2020


One of the key challenges for the 21st century is the sharing of international water resources. The global community is concerned mostly by the lack of a holistic cooperative legal framework for the transboundary river basins. An important aspect of this challenge regards the scope for how international law resolves conflicts and provides a sustainable solution related to transboundary rivers (Nagheeby, Piri & Faure, 2019:2). Studies shows that there are 276 rivers in the world that either cross or demarcate international political boundaries. A total of 148 countries contribute territory to international basins (GIZ, 2015:29).

The report of the World Commission of Dam demonstrate that the transboundary river utilization is not only the means of regional cooperation, but it is also the sources of contentions and conflicts. Currently the decision to build a large dam on rivers that across more than one country is rarely the decision of only a local or national one. It is also transnational concern and the issue of other countries. The debate has been transformed from a local process of assessing costs and benefits to one in which dams in general are the focus of global concern about development strategies and choices (WCD, 2001:5).

The large dam construction on the transboundary rivers is sources of confrontations for many decades. Between the 1930s and the 1970s, when the construction of large dams peaked, its considered as synonymous with development and economic progress. However, a growing body of knowledge and experience about the performance and consequences of dams has raised questions about the reported returns on the investments required, and the level and distribution of benefits actually delivered (WCD, 2001:5). The debates have intensified in recent decades, and they generally fall into three types of concerns: economic feasibility, environmental sustainability, and social equity (Wang, Dong & Lassoie, 2014:16).

In this paper, I will discuss the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the motive behind the construction of the dam, the potential benefits of the project to the region. I will also discuss the hadro-politics of the Nile river, how Egypt is justifying the colonial era agreements and how the GERD project is changing the hydro-hegemony of the Nile river. Finally, the role of USA and World Bank in negotiating the riparian states and the fate of final consensus.

2. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)

As the part of the Climate-Resilient Green Energy strategy, the Ethiopian Government is planning to expand its hydroelectric capacity further and to become a regional power hub by implementing several hydropower projects and building power transmission and distribution (Liersch, Koch & Hattermann, 2017:1). The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is one of the giant projects which is built to achieve the objectives of the national electrification program and as well as the climate resilient green energy strategies. Ethiopia has begun building the grand hydropower dam in 2011 on the Blue Nile River. The GERD project located just upstream of the border with Sudan, is the first dam ever to be constructed directly on the main stem of the Blue Nile and will become the largest dam in Africa (Zhang, Block, Hammond, & King 2015:1). The project’s launch came in the midst of the Egyptian revolution, which some observers believe was intended to take advantage of the more powerful nation’s confused political state at a time when the issue of who controls the Nile is heating up. Specifically Ethiopia officially launched the construction of the dam just two days since the overthrow of the then Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (Tsega, 2019:46).

The GERD is a huge project on the headwaters of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia in Benishangul- Gumuz region, 500 km North West of the capital Addis Ababa and about 32 km east of the border of Sudan. It will reportedly have a reservoir capacity of 74 billion cubic meters (BCM); and when fully operational, it will have a power capacity of 6,000 MW (Zhang, Block, Hammond, & King 2015:1). This mega project will account for more than 40% of the installed generation capacity in the country and may produce more electricity than Ethiopia can use in the medium term. The project is supposed to support the economic development of Ethiopia, to secure the energy supply, to make Ethiopia less dependent on oil imports and to provide electricity to a number of neighboring countries (Liersch , Koch & Hattermann, 2017:1-2). The GERD project opens a new era in utilization of the waters of the Nile River which was almost entirely controlled by the two downstream countries, more importantly Egypt (Taye, Tadesse, Senay & Block, 2016:5).

The Ethiopian Government mainly finances the construction of GERD project by urging citizens and private companies to buy bonds to support the project (Liersch, Koch & Hattermann, 2017:2). The cost is estimated to be about US$ 4.8 billion. Foreign investors lacked desire to invest in this project for its potential risk of conflict in the region (Abdulrahman, 2018:140). The project does not stand as a single project but rather is an inherent part of a larger plan to introduce an energy export market hub in the country. It is argued to be seen as a symbol of development; it symbolises independence and ownership as it is on the Nile (Berhanu, 2013:19). The Dam is said to be source of pride for Ethiopians (Yihdego, Khalil & Salem, 2017:17). The project represents a shift from a “politics of difference” to emphasizing “unity in diversity”, and is designed to bring together the country’s population to the common goal. It has become a symbol of Ethiopian nationalism or “renaissance” linking the Ethiopian initiative with wider Neo Pan-Africanist ideas of African revival (Abdelhady et al.., 2015:76).

The GERD has the potential to foster cooperation by offering regional socio-economic benefits through the coordination and management of hydraulic infrastructure in the basin for an improved water regulatory regime. These improvements in turn may greatly assist in addressing the uncertainties that climate change will bring to the basin (Yihdego, Clarke & Cascão, 2016:504). It will also be the hub for clean and renewable energy supply for Ethiopia and other African countries at cheaper prices. In will be a catalyst for people to people relation as well as the trade between the regions (Tesfa, 2013:7). Additionally, the project can provide substantial benefits for the regional development. It will undeniably bring about social, environmental, and economic change. However, the strong partnerships between riparian countries are essential to bring all these benefits (Taye, Tadesse, Senay & Block, 2016:1).

3. The Nile River Basin and the Hydro-Politics of the Region

Competition over limited water resources is one of the main concerns for the coming decades. Although water issues alone have not been the sole trigger for warfare in the past, tensions over freshwater management and use represent one of the main concerns in political relations between riparian states and may exacerbate existing tensions, increase regional instability and social unrest (Farinosi et al.., 2018:286). Despite the contentions and conflicts, the Hydropolitical complexes are emerging to negotiate water-sharing policies that promote political stability, regional security, economic prosperity, and environmental sustainability. Yet interstate disputes are occurring within most hydropolitical complexes, and weak riparians are often coerced to agree to water-sharing policies that adversely affect them (Kehl, 2010:2).

The Nile River Basin represents one of the major transboundary water regimes in the world with an estimated population of 300 million (Grandi, 2015:P.2). The Nile is the longest river in the world with the length of 6,695 km. The catchment area of the river is 2.9 million km2 representing one-tenth of the surface area of the entire African continent. It has eleven riparian countries: Burundi, democratic republic of Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and the newly independent South Sudan (Teshome, 2015:124).

The Hydro-politics in the Nile Basin is not a recent phenomenon. There are records of agreements and conflicts that date back as far as pre-Egyptian civilization. Mostly, water sharing agreements have been achieved under non-cooperation regimes/settings rather than mutual understanding and peaceful settings, and the previous attempts at reciprocal cooperation among the Nile riparian states have mainly been a failure. As far as the Nile basin is concerned, there is no single binding agreement to acknowledge riparian rights to Nile water resources in any way to create an environment for trust and equitable water sharing (Motlagh, Bhaduri , Bogardi & Ribbe, 2017:74)

The ongoing construction of the GERD has brought the international spotlight to the Nile basin, with riparian country relations oscillating between contentious and cooperative. How regional planning transpires, in a coordinated cooperative framework or not, will surely set a precedent for future development across the basin. The potential for increasing shared benefits is strong, but collectively realizing those benefits will require an even stronger united will (Taye, Tadesse, Senay & Block, 2016:5). Zeray Yihdego his collogues argued that the GERD is not the first project of its kind in the Nile Basin, Egypt, Sudan and Uganda have all developed large-scale infrastructure projects, particularly over the last two decades. GERD, however, is arguably the most significant, given its size, its location and its influence on transboundary relations between the three key basin countries (Yihdego, Clarke & Cascão, 2016:504).

Egypt has been the major power in the region for millennia, yet all of the water that sustains Egypt comes from upstream states. These upstream states are some of the poorest, and most contentious states on Earth (McKinney, 2011). The use of the Nile River has for centuries been monopolized by the lower riparian countries that claim “historic right” over the waters, predominantly Egypt. The hegemony over the Nile has been under these countries, thus building tensions among the riparian states which are sources of the water, since they were for long alienated from their own vital resources (Teshome, 2017:125-126). The GERD constitutes a significant counter-hegemonic measure capable of inducing a positive transformation in the basin’s inequitable status quo (Mekonnen, 2017:255). It is a ‘game changer’ that challenges Egypt’s long-standing hegemony over the Nile Basin. It heralded the transformation of Ethiopia’s counter-hegemonic policy from the reactive diplomacy of occasional contestation of Egypt’s Nile policy to a proactive diplomacy that creates new facts on the ground. It forced Egypt to accept, for the first time, a project that was unilaterally constructed by a Nile upstream riparian (Tawfik, 2016:1048).

The main hydraulic and political features of the basin, however, are the asymmetric use of water resources. The downstream riparians (Egypt and Sudan) have consolidated their control over water resources. Egypt is the most powerful state in the basin; it has achieved a substantial degree of hydraulic, legal and political control over the Nile waters (Cascão, 2008:3). Moreover, political instability and shifting regional and international alliances might impede an equitable utilization of the Nile waters and the establishment of integrated water management mechanisms toward win-win solutions and viable policies for wider benefit- sharing agreements (Grandi, 2015:1).

The GERD is subject to a number of concerns and criticism with regard to jeopardizing downstream water security and livelihoods, which created tension particularly between Egypt and Ethiopia. The large capacity of the reservoir will certainly shift the geopolitical balance in the Eastern Nile Basin for which Egypt has fears about its water supply (Liersch, Koch & Hattermann, 2017:2). The flow of the River Nile has been treated as a national security matter by leaders of the modern Egypt who have sometimes sought to take military actions against its violators. This discourse has had served Egypt in the past to receive a lion’s share of the waters. But because of changing circumstances this policy can no longer guarantee this share. The continuation of this discourse will risk losing a deal for Egypt on the River Nile in the future (Abdulrahman, 2019:5).

The tension over the use of Nile resources is not just limited to the ongoing dispute on GERD between Ethiopia and Egypt. It is rather a manifestation of deep rooted lack of trust and sustainable regulatory regime on sharing the resources (Tsega, 2019:52). Up to now, there has been no comprehensive agreement acceptable to either the Eastern Nile Basin countries or for the entire Nile River Basin. The main reason for this failure is mistrust which has been caused by lack of transparency, geopolitical imbalances, lack of adequate and relevant data and shifting development ambitions (Motlagh, Bhaduri , Bogardi & Ribbe, 2017:75).

The hydro-political relationship between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia may escalate or deescalate depending on several factors that affect the contents and direction of domestic water use policies. But there is no doubt that the new facts on the ground have forced the states into a new form of collaboration which functions within the confines of restructured conceptions of entitlement and the realities of power relations (Woldetsadik, 2015:407).

Regional integration through energy trade is currently one of the main paradigm advocated in order to supersede the water-related disputes that the utilisation of the Nile flows has spurred over the regional relationships since the past 50 years (Grandi, 2015:8). Only intensified collaboration and detailed studies on the management of the GERD can bring out benefits that can potentially improve living conditions in all countries within the Nile Basin (Abdelhady et al.. 2015:80). The improving interconnectedness among the riparian states in terms of energy trade could also foster cooperation in other sectors in the following decades, driving the process of regional integration towards the establishment of a new Nile Basin Regime (Grandi, 2015:9).

4. The colonial Era Agreements and the End of Egypt’s Hydro-Hegemony

Hydro-hegemony is hegemony at the river basin level, achieved through water resource control strategies such as resource capture, integration and containment. The strategies are executed through an array of tactics (e.g. coercion- pressure, treaties, knowledge construction, etc.) that are enabled by the exploitation of existing power asymmetries within a weak international institutional context (Zeitoun and Warner, 2006:437). Its the covert use of power by a State can be used to perpetuate water sharing arrangements that can be inequitable and unreasonable, yet tolerated and even ‘stable’, in that they are not readily challenged (Woodhousea, & Zeitounb, 2008:103).

The Nile Basin has long been noted as a potential flashpoint for resource conflict on account of the prevalence of inequitable water utilization and acrimonious inter-riparian relations. The basin’s proneness to conflict has been exacerbated by the absence of an inclusive legal and institutional framework governing the utilization and management of its meager water resources. Unilateralism and incompatible riparian claims negating the fundamentals of international water law still continue to be the defining features of the basin (Mekonnen, 2017: 255). The Nile River Agreements or the colonial era treaties have become increasingly contentious and upstream riparian states have denounced the agreements as irrelevant, anachronistic and a major constraint to their national interests. Egypt on the other hand wants to bind the upstream riparian states to agreements that were concluded without their full and effective participation and which did not take the interests of these upstream riparian states into account (Kimenyi & Mbaku, 2010:2)

For a long time, Egypt has been the hegemonic State in the Nile Basin. Through myriad of mechanisms it established an oppressive or restrictive hydro-hegemony in the Nile Basin and prevented the upstream States from utilising the waters of the Nile (Tekuya, 2018:20). A series of treaties have given Egypt, and to a lesser extent Sudan, a position that has been described as hydro-hegemony (Zhang, Block, Hammond, & King, 2015:1). Egypt has been trying to justify its control of the Nile River using the previous treaties signed to regulate the utilization of the waters of the river. Using these treaties Egypt argues that any attempt to manipulate waters of the Nile that would affect Egypt’s interests over the Nile river (Teshome, 2017:7).

The dispute over Nile has lasted almost for a century, since the colonial periods. Egypt and to a lesser extent Sudan were major beneficiaries of the Nile water uses from 1929 and 1959 Agreements, whereas the remaining upstream states have limited access. In such circumstances, the opening of the GERD, a major dam project in the upstream country Ethiopia, helped to coerce the disputes. The main dispute was related to the existing consumptive use of water and water right of the downstream states of Egypt and Sudan (Upadhyay & Gaudel, 2017:19).The two colonial periods agreements are justification for Egypt to fully utilize and control the Nile river. The 1929 and 1959 treaties are the two main contentious legal documents, which provide the exclusive right of utilization of the waters of the Nile to Egypt (Beyene, 2019:2-3).

The 1929 agreement was signed between Egypt and Britain. This agreement provided Egypt an exclusive right to use Nile waters. The agreement states that “no irrigation or power works or measures are to be constructed or taken on the River Nile or its tributaries, or on the lakes from which it flows in so far as all these are in the Sudan or in countries under British administration, which would entail prejudice to the interests of Egypt. This agreement conferred 48 and 4 billion cubic meters of water for Egypt and Sudan respectively (Bayeh, 2016:1). This agreement unfairly empowered and authorized Egypt to undertake reconstruction projects beyond its geographical and political domain (Upadhyay and Gaudel, 2017:19).

The 1959 agreement on the other hand allocated virtually all of the Nile’s water to the two signatory states, effectively abrogating the rights of upstream riparians. To further strengthen their ability to control the Nile River, the two signatory states Egypt and Sudan agreed to act with one voice in facing any challenges posed by other riparians to the allocation of the waters of the Nile (Kimenyi & Mbaku, 2010:4). Dereje Mekonnen argued that the status quo in the Nile basin is the product of lopsided colonial treaties which, in total disregard to the rights of other riparian states, were designed to serve British colonial interests downstream in Egypt and Sudan. As a result, the basin exhibits a distinctively inequitable pattern of water utilization not seen in any other international basin (Mekonnen, 2017:258).

The GERD at a critical moment in the history of Nile riparian cooperation offers a unique opportunity for change as it represents a potent counter-hegemonic measure the recalcitrant downstream riparian states cannot afford to be indifferent about (Mekonnen, 2017:257). In order to address the challenges of the evolving water regime, a broader approach encompassing political as well as social factors is more viable than a solely technical-focused perspective, since it might help in shading light upon the nexuses that water resources are embedded with. (Grandi, 2015:1).

The colonial agreements are not sustainable in legal and practical terms. Legally, the 1929 and 1959 agreements concerned only two downstream nations, Egypt and Sudan, but allocating almost all the waters of the Nile to them irrespective of the upstream nations. Since the upstream nations are not parties to these agreements they are not legally bound to follow their provisions (Abdulrahman, 2018:11). Due to the changing pattern of power asymmetries, the ambitious plans of unilateral development of water infrastructures by upstream countries, the evolving practices of International Law and the growing interconnectedness of most Nile countries on water-related fields (such as hydroelectric power generation and intra-basin energy trade) are substantially changing the status-quo towards the emergence of a new Nile Basin water regime (Grandi, 2015:2). Today, virtually all of the upstream riparian states express their disapproval of the Nile River Waters Agreements and demand that new, alternative and more accommodating strategies for the management of the Nile River waters should be developed and adopted (kimenyi & Mbaku, 2010:5)

5. The USA and World Bank Lead Negotiations and the Final Accord

The GERD is now over 70 percent complete and its reservoir expected to start being filled in the rainy season of 2020. However, the three countries have not yet reached an agreement on the process of filling and operating it in spite of years of negotiations. Ethiopia has been negotiating with the two downstream countries, Sudan and Egypt, on the pace of filling the reservoir. After failing to make progress for many years, the negotiations picked up momentum after Egypt’s President al-Sisi invited the U.S. to be a broker in November 2019 and the USA shows good face to mediate. Then, all countries accept the invitation of the third party as a negotiator. Starting from January 28-31, 2020 the foreign ministries and the water ministries of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have been meeting in Washington DC to discuss on the filling of GERD project. The USA Secretary of the Treasury and the President of the World Bank were participating as an observer in the negotiation process. After extensive discussions and debate the three countries agreed on three major issues but not the final accord. The points of the agreements are a schedule for a stage-based filling plan of the GERD; a mitigation mechanism for the filling of the GERD during drought, prolonged drought, and prolonged periods of dry years; and a mitigation mechanism for the annual and long-term operation of the GERD in drought, prolonged drought, and prolonged periods of dry years (U.S. Department of The Treasury, 2020).

It is profoundly within the U.S.’s interest to be involved in successful negotiations for myriad reasons. Mirette F. Mabrouk argued The U.S. has significant interests in the region and in both countries, especially Egypt. Approximately $7.5 billion in trade flows between the two countries every year, Egypt controls 10 percent of the world’s shipping through the Suez Canal, and the U.S. has spent copious amounts on military and economic aid to the country over the past four decades (Middle East Institute, 2019). The current technical discussions taking place under the auspices of the United States and World Bank are jarring precisely for the reasons that the narrative has shifted, and the scope for deals has dramatically narrowed. Anonymous writer argued that no doubt the geopolitical situation, Ethiopia’s weaker negotiating hand compared to that of Egypt’s, and the national interests of countries such as the United States pushed Ethiopia to compromise (Addis Fortune, 2020). Dejen Messele strongly criticized that the unprecedented speedy talks over the GERD uncovers Egypt’s rush to entrap Ethiopia with an international default legal position. The move is an expression of Egypt’s ‘by hook or crook’ approach to delay, if not to suspend, the operation of GERD as planned by Ethiopia. This may ultimately create a safe judicial gateway for Egypt to sue Ethiopia before an international judicial forum (Addis Standard, 2019).

Alula Alemayehu firmly argued that with Ethiopia’s acceptance of the US and the World Bank to be observers, Egypt inched one step closer to realize its goal of getting third parties to be engaged in the tripartite GERD negotiations as “mediators(Addis Standard, 2020). At a broad level, the United States views the stability of Egypt as key to the stability of the Middle East, and therefore maintains a decades-long security partnership to strengthen Egypt’s armed forces and its ability to combat terrorism. Under the Trump Administration, the President and other high-level U.S. officials have largely refrained from publicly criticizing Egypt over its poor human rights record. The Trump Administration has been more open than its predecessors in openly acknowledging that Egypt’s brand of authoritarianism does not disqualify it from U.S. support due to its cooperation with the United States on countering terrorism (Sharp, 2019:19- 20).

Addisu Lashtew, a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution argued that USA is pushing Ethiopia to sign the final accord on the proposed Nile treaty. The visit of U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo this week in Ethiopia is for this reason. The America’s significant leverage over Ethiopia could provide U.S. President Trump with a chance to push for a treaty to prove his deal-making prowess once again. This plan might help the USA president Trump to strengthen his friendship with Egypt to resolve his controversial peace plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Brooking Institution, 2020). Alula Alemayehu added that for such a Grand Plan, as Trump’s Peace Plan is, to be successful significant allies of the US in the region, mainly Egypt, must be on board. It was reported in June 2019 that Egypt would get nine billion of the 50 billion USD dividends accruing from the “Deal of the Century.” Egypt’s dividend from the “Deal of the Century”, however, does not end here. The Trump Administration seems to offer Egypt another enticing incentive for coming on board supporting the “Deal of the Century”, which is the GERD (Addis Standard, 2020).

In addition, Mahemud Tekuya argued that in the 1980s and 1990s many Egyptian professionals were able to occupy the World Bank’s key political and environmental positions. This contributed to the establishment of World Bank Operating Directive [7].50 which permits disbursement of World Bank funds meant to develop major rivers only when such projects garner the support [or non-objection] of water- sharing political entities-thereby favoring the status quo’. Also, Egypt was successfully able to block an African Development Bank loan to Ethiopia for a dam project, alleging that the project would reduce the flow of the Nile (Tekuya, 2019.11). This is a golden opportunity for Egypt to push Ethiopia and Sudan on the way Egypt and the two negotiators want. Egypt is more strategic allay for USA and World Bank than Ethiopia. This and other contributing factors may lead the three riparian countries to reach on the final accord with the push of USA and World Bank.


Ethiopia is continuing the building of the Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD) despite Egypt is concerned. The process of filling the reservoirs will be started at the end of 2020. Currently the project is accomplished more than 70 percent. If it is completed as its planned, the project would be three times bigger than the current electric distributions. The report of the World Bank shows that only 35 percent of Ethiopian population has access to electricity and the rest 65 percent is living in the dark. The percent of distribution of the electricity without interruption is Zero. This is hampering the economic development and the industrial sector in particular. The project has many meanings for Ethiopians. It is source of national pride. Each and every citizen has contributed for the dam and the dam is the eyes of all Ethiopians.

The GERD project is a game changer in the hydro-politics of the regions. The hydro-hegemony of the Nile river were solely controlled by Egypt for millennial. The colonial era agreements and the strategic allies with USA and other superpower countries were advantage for Egypt to exclusively use the Nile river without strong push from upstream counties. However, the political dynamics in the region, the launch of GERD project, internal instability in Egypt and other contributing factors are changing the hydro-hegemony of the Nile river from control to cooperation. These dynamic changes are forcing Egypt’s foreign policy from war mongering to negotiations and cooperation.

The Two colonial era agreements are no more usable. They already died when Ethiopian launch the GERD project amid the Egyptian protests. The Arab springs is the most contributing factors for the change of power dynamics in the Nile river. The current USA and World Bank Lead negotiations also shows the loss of Egypt hydro-hegemony on the Nile river. Egypt is shifting from coercion and military power to soft power which is negotiation and cooperation. But Egypt is still beneficiary form the USA lead negotiation. The negotiators would never let the interest of Egypt. On the other hand, the new leadership change in Ethiopia and the international supports for the political reform might also help to conclude the final negotiation with win-win outcomes.


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Picture of Jiregna Tadese

Jiregna Tadese

Interested in Research Project Management with a demonstrated history of working in the education industry. Skilled in Lecturing, Research, Proposal Writing, Management, and Leadership. Strong program and project management professional with a Master of Arts - MA focused in Development Studies from Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia. I am interested in the research areas of Development Studies, Environmental Governance, Human Rights, Conflict Resolution, Peace Building, Sustainable Peace, Political Reform, National Consensus, Reconciliation, Migration, Humanitarian Governance, Internal Displacement, Armed Conflicts, Aids, and Society.