By: Aderru Janni (Independent Scholar and Researcher on water and environment)

Thousands of years of culture, history, religion and most importantly the Nile waters have created strong bond among the peoples of Egypt, Ethiopia and the Sudan. It should be clear that no wicked force in the world can break these people to people cultural ties, fraternities and interactions. Negotiation that reflects the above spirits and the needs and the rights of people to flourish within the boundaries of their countries and or regionally as their aspirations should be encouraged.  Most importantly, however, science driven and evidence based negotiated settlement are key. Most observers and followers of the discussions also recognize the tripartite negotiation between the three countries on the filling and operation of GERD dam is a result of gradual trust and confidence building measures cultivated through the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI).

The NBI is a breakthrough and comprehensive transitional mechanism of Nile riparian countries that brokered the basin to move towards a shared rights on water resources. This was the first collective understanding of Nile colonial water arrangements were obsolete, just as colonialism is. The NBI is also indicative that it is not in the best interest of Africa and the Nile basin states to shy away from the “shared vision  of the basin, i.e. achieving sustainable socio-economic development through the equitable utilization of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin water resources.”

Unfortunately, the recent negotiation on the GERD lacks the traction of shared responsibility, spirit of equitable utilization and most of all, basin fraternity. And the issue of drought management is the most important one.

The 1970s and the 1980s Ethiopian droughts

The 1970s and 1980s prolonged drought disaster and its consequences are fresh in the memory of humankind. Who will forget the skinny Ethiopian boys and girls, who will forget, the hundreds of thousands of people, who perished due to lack of food and water. There were millions of people who trekked to all parts of the country and the world. No one forgets the world aid band “we are the world” organized to mobilize aid for millions of dying Ethiopians children.

Ethiopian children of the drought period still live in different parts of the world, traumatized, not to hear the shocks and the aftermath of their childhood memory. Drought in Ethiopia is ferocious mainly because it manifests in all its forms – meteorological, agricultural, hydrological and socioeconomic-economic drought.

When drought strikes Ethiopia, It deprives of water supply to the community, it destroys agricultural crops and it affects both the macro and local economics. It throws the country into power rationing reducing economic outputs and basic household electricity, curtails crop production interfering in the macroeconomic of the country as more than 80% of the country’s is largely rain fed. Despite the apparent abundance of rainfall in Ethiopia, it is a well established science it is both erratic and rushes to the rivers due to the rugged, eroded and mountainous terrain. It gives little time for the water to infiltrate into the soil and remain as residual moisture for sufficient time. As few as 10 days rainfall deficit in the middle of wet season significantly reduces the crop yield or crops totally wilt let alone annual or prolonged drought in the country. Consequently, even under normal rainfall year, as much as 5 million or more Ethiopians are chronically food insecure, electricity is rationed and wells could be dry. This is clear rational that Ethiopia cannot feed itself without small and large-scale irrigation using its share of water from the Nile. It should be known that more than 85 % of Ethiopia’s water flows into the Nile.

Drought and GERD negotiation

GERD for Ethiopia is the hope and renaissance from its deep rooted drought trauma and its stigma. Since the start of construction in 1911, the three countries of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are in advanced stage of negotiation on the filling and operation of GERD dam. The concerns of the downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan due to GERD filling and operation are rational and should be appreciated by Ethiopians and resolved in cooperative and shared approach. It is also important to recognize once GERD is a fact on the ground, the risks posed by drought should be a business of the three countries not only Ethiopia.

Ethiopia’s GERD

It is not only sad to hear Ethiopia is asked to shoulder the brunt of the hydrological drought all in its own; but it is even more cruel when such an assertion comes from the downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan, countries that are fully aware of the problems Ethiopia faces due to the drought. It should be known Egypt and Sudan have many reservoirs that can absorb the impact from GERD filling or even more than a year of drought. So demanding Ethiopia to shoulder the hydrological droughts alone is like demanding a farmer to repay his debt after drought imposed crop failure.

The whole world recognizes that when drought strikes in Ethiopia it strikes in its entirety. All the manifestation of the meteorological, hydrological, agricultural and the social-economic droughts cripple the country. As usual, Ethiopia will continue to face the brunt of the other three droughts but it is in the best interest of all the three countries to manage the hydrological droughts (the drought manifested in the Blue Nile Rivers) jointly by the three countries. In the negotiation, shared responsibility and accountability of the three countries need to be articulated clearly and shown in the final document.

It is not in the best interest of the people of the three countries to corner Ethiopia (85% Nile water contributor) to shoulder the drought mitigation at GERD alone.If conflict arise on shared water, river flows may not be same as before. Negotiated and peaceful water sharing benefits everyone.


  • There is an utter lack of spirit of collaboration, principle of shared responsibility and sincere recognition of Ethiopia’s right to utilize the Blue Nile resources as a contributor of more than 85% of the water to the Nile. This recognition opens up a new gate to collaboration and collegiality in the entire basin. Egypt and Sudan can demonstrate this by signing the basin wide Cooperative framework Agreement (CFA), which gives a legal basis for permanent agreements that is administered by an independent commission as any other basin countries in Africa, like the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) water sharing agreements region)
  •  In the case of ongoing GERD negotiation, discussion on the annual drought thresholds is futile attempt to protect the de facto ‘historical water rights’ at any cost. In principle, annual droughts are easily manageable in both Egypt and Sudan and shouldn’t be as such a sticking point. However, they can introduce a concept of severe drought that is less than 30 BCM. Under such circumstances, the three countries enter into a joint emergency mitigation plan. Beyond and above the 30 BCM thresholds, the annual droughts can be managed by each country given transparent and proper communication from Ethiopia as to the extent of the drought. 
  •  In the case of prolonged droughts (as the term may be agreed by negotiation), the three countries should fully take the shared responsibility of such drought and step up efforts to mitigate jointly. Once, it is identified as a prolonged drought, the three countries need to invoke and establish an emergency plan known as “Drought Response Operation Plan (DROP)”. This is a well known mechanism that can function well.  The basis of mitigation should be severity of impact on each country.In the event of CFA is signed and the countries step out of the shadow of bilateral agreement, the Nile basin wide institutional mechanism may step in to undertake the emergency plans.
  • The fact that Ethiopia has undeniable right to benefit from its rivers for irrigation and power generation shall be accepted for any longstanding water agreement.
  • The three countries of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan need to show their resolution to conclude the filling phase of the GERD. As recommended recently, the three countries may enter into a binding agreement as far as filling is concerned. The negotiation on operation aspects of GERD can be continued as the interim agreement on filling is concluded. It is not advisable to rush the operation aspects of the dam under such short period of time.
  • It is not in the interest of any of Egypt or Sudan to continue putting fire on the wounds of Ethiopians by demanding to shoulder the hydrological drought solely on Ethiopia while Ethiopia carries the brunt of complex drought manifestations as mentioned above. The way out of such a not-going-anywhere negotiation is to fully implement integrated Nile basin development and management under the auspices of Nile basin authority.

The author, Mr. Aderu Janni could be reached at <[email protected]>