• Map showing the full extent of the Nile with its two main branches, the White Nile, which flows from Lake Victoria, and the larger Blue Nile, which originates in the highlands of Ethiopia. The location of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), now under construction near Ethiopia’s border with Sudan, is shown in red.

    Map showing the full extent of the Nile with its two main branches, the White Nile, which flows from Lake Victoria, and the larger Blue Nile, which originates in the highlands of Ethiopia. The location of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), now under construction near Ethiopia’s border with Sudan, is shown in red.

    Image: Hel-hama/Wikimedia

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International experts analyze impacts of Ethiopian dam

An aerial view of the Nile basin shows Lake Nasser in Egypt, a reservoir created by the construction of the Aswan High Dam.

Report from conference at MIT addresses potential effects of huge construction project.

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According to present plans, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) — now under construction across the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia — will be the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa, and one of the 12 largest in the world. But controversy has surrounded the project ever since it was announced in 2011 — especially concerning its possible effects on Sudan and Egypt, downstream nations that rely heavily on the waters of the Nile for agriculture, industry, and drinking water.

To help address the ongoing dispute, MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Laboratory (J-WAFS) convened a small, invitation-only workshop of international experts last November to discuss the technical issues involved in the construction and operation of the dam, in hopes of providing an independent, impartial evaluation to aid in decision-making. The group’s final report, which was shared with the three concerned governments in early February, is being released publicly today.

On March 23, the three governments signed an agreement to enter negotiations for final settlement of issues surrounding the dam’s operations. Though the agreement is preliminary, it marks a significant step forward.

Professor John H. Lienhard V, the director of J-WAFS, was among the organizers of the November workshop held at MIT. He says that the group was carefully selected to include top experts on water resources engineering and economics and on the Nile Basin, and was charged with reviewing the current state of technical knowledge on the GERD and its potential downstream impacts. The idea was “to give advice, and do it impartially,” Lienhard says.

“We went out of our way to find people who know about large dams and large rivers, and who are not affiliated with any of the three governments,” including people with “hands-on experience with dams of this scale,” Lienhard says. The meeting also included observers from Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia. After the report was shared, members of the group also met with officials in Egypt and Ethiopia to review the technical issues.

Technical issues

The working group developed consensus recommendations, which were incorporated into the 17-page report. It reflects agreement reached at the November workshop, says Lienhard, who is also the Abdul Latif Jameel Professor of Water and Food at MIT.

The report raises five technical issues that require resolution. First, the GERD will join the Aswan High Dam as a second large reservoir on the Nile River. Egypt and Ethiopia need to formulate a plan for coordinating the operation of these two dams, so as to equitably share Nile waters during periods of reservoir-filling and prolonged drought. Nowhere in the world are two such large dams on the same river operated without close coordination.

Second, the design of the GERD requires that a very large “saddle dam” be built to prevent water stored behind the GERD from spilling out of the northwestern end of the reservoir. The risks associated with a possible failure of this saddle dam may not have been fully appreciated, and must be carefully managed.

Third, there is concern about the location and capacity of the GERD’s low-level release outlets to provide water to Egypt and Sudan during the reservoir’s filling or periods of drought.

Fourth, the hydropower generated from the GERD exceeds Ethiopia’s current domestic power market, and it will therefore need to be sold outside Ethiopia. A plan is needed for such sales, and for the construction of transmission lines to regional markets. A power trade agreement will ensure that the Ethiopian people receive a good financial return on their investment.

Fifth, the ongoing accumulation of salts in the agricultural lands of the Nile Delta could accelerate rapidly; additionally, the GERD will enable Sudan to increase irrigation withdrawals upstream, further reducing the water available to Egypt. Studies are urgently needed to identify the magnitude of these potential problems, and to mitigate their impact.

Managing the flow

Perhaps the biggest question concerning the new dam is how Ethiopia will manage the process of filling its huge reservoir, whose capacity equals more than a year’s flow of the Blue Nile. Egypt has expressed concerns that if the reservoir is filled too quickly, it could severely diminish the flow upon which Egypt depends; 60 percent of the nation’s water comes from the Blue Nile.

“The Egyptians are very concerned about what a reduction in the amount of water would mean to them,” says Kenneth Strzepek, a research scientist at MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change, and a co-chairman of the November workshop.

Dale Whittington, a professor at the University of North Carolina and a co-editor of the MIT report, says: “Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan are currently hoping that a team of international consultants can quickly find technical solutions to these challenging problems to which they can agree. From our perspective, this is likely wishful thinking. The hard negotiations ahead will require that foreign policy and water experts from each of the three countries have a shared understanding of the technical issues and a willingness to compromise while hammering out detailed agreements on reservoir operation policy, power trade agreements, dam safety, and salinization control.”

But, Whittington says, “A shared knowledge base and modeling framework is unfortunately lacking, despite over $100 million in investment by the Nile Basin Initiative over more than a decade of engagement.”

Don Blackmore, former executive director of the Murray-Darling River Basin Authority in Australia and current chair of the International Water Management Institute, says, “Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia will try to work with their consultants to solve these five problems, but if these countries request assistance, we believe that the international community has an obligation to step forward.”

Other nations can potentially play three roles, Blackmore says: providing impartial scientific advice; bringing legal expertise and experience on transboundary waters to help craft the text of technical agreements; and serving to arbitrate disputes that arise over time.

Given the potential for conflict among the nations dependent upon this water, Blackmore adds, “The international community needs to focus on the Nile as a matter of urgency.”

Topics: Research, School of Engineering, Water, Food, Mechanical engineering, Environment, Developing countries, Sustainability, Africa, Abdul Latif Jameel World Water and Food Security Lab (J-WAFS), J-WAFS


Nothing new from this report. Egypt has 3 years of Nile flow in the High Aswan dam. That can easily offset 1/7 to 1/5 of water holding at GERD for 7 to 5 years without significant harm to farmers down stream of Aswan dam. The only negative effect Egypt my suffer dulling filling at GERD is reduced power generation at the high dam, but this dam only contributes 3% of total electricity produced in Egypt, so thats no big deal. This can be offsest by Egypt buying power from Ethiopia at a discount price. Salination in the nile delta started well before GERD,-its due to the Aswan dam- and Egypt has done nothing about it.

This article has listed all the shortcomings of the dam but very little on how this dam could also transform a nation of 90m people who,only 1/4 have access to the national Grid . What the authors failed to highlight is the fact that since over 75% of the population has no access to electricity most people use firewood as a charcoal to cook their food which has lead to the decimation of over 90% of the nation's forests over the years hence , the reason why Ethiopia is constantly mired by perennial draughts.

This dam will have enormous benefits to the region and Ethiopia on so many levels which I had hoped the authors would elaborate but instead we are invited to read a list of Egypt's complaints.

I do not think the three countries in this agreement will solve the issues raised here amicably. The main obstacle is the Ethiopian and Egyptian Governments dishonesty and understanding the real issues. Sudan also does not tell the truth. It is appeasing both country and it is not now know which side it takes if potential dispute arises. Egypt is an Arab nation and closely related to Egypt. However, since the coming into power, the current ethiopian ethnically based political party, EPRDF, has formed good relation with Sudan. However, the geopolitical situation in the Horn of Africa is not in favour of Ethiopia. Ethiopia is considered as christian nation despite more than half of its population is muslim. It has sent its army in somalia and it is still playing significant role in destabilizing somalia. The ethiopian arch-rival, Eritrea, is waiting on side for best conducive time. The popularity of the ethnically oriented political party is diminishing from day to day. It is a matter of time before the Ethiopian people rise up and bring down the unpopular government. EPRDF is in power simply because it has succeeded to divide the Ethiopian people into different ethnicity. At the moment no ethnicity is not talking to the other one. The Oromo, the largest Ethiopian population, is deeply divided. Ethiopia is on the major crossroad. Recently the so-called Islamic State has slaughtered more than 28 Ethiopians and Eritrean in Libya. Although the Ethiopian Government has not shown what individual action it will take to preempt the threat of IS, it is most likely IS will exploit the internal situation in Ethiopia as a means to win the heart and mind of Ethiopia. Muslims in Ethiopia are oppressed. Many of their representatives are in prison simply because they have asked for their freedom and rights. The political situation in the Horn of Africa is delicate. Al-Shabab has not shown yet to sympathise with IS. However, it is most likely that IS and Al-Shabab will form pact. Both of them consider Ethiopia as enemy. The question would it create perfect condition for the further deterioration of situation in somalia. The condition in Somalia is not fertile for IS. The Al-QUade has not succeeded in wining the heart and mind of somalis.

The arrogant comments from the Egyptians are really offensive. What really gives them this entitlement to Nile waters, a drop of which is not formed in Egypt? Ethiopia should start using the Nile water for irrigation purposes, put a million hectors under gravity irrigation and waste the water the way Egyptians farmers do when they irrigate with their antiquated canals. Like Libya, Egypte is floating on the Nubian aquefer and can tap the 100,000 billion meter cube of water from it- just like the Libyans have been doing. No point wasting time discussing with such rude people. I am upset with my government for getting them involved in the operations of the GERD.

Why wouldn't they apply informally the IHA Sustainability Assessment Protocol for Hydropower Projects?

We Ethiopians know the effect of draught more than anybody else. We had badly suffered from it for the past century and we don't want to see our Egyptian brothers in that situation. Our intentions are solely to take
ourselves out of poverty and we shall be considerate in doing so. If their partiality is maintained, it is very crucial to have such technical support and advices. Nature can feed all of us, if we stop to be greedy. Peace!

For the this project to be successful, the 3 countries need to remove there borders and unite as one country. Water belongs to no man. Sudan and Egypt where once a country of their own.

Africa must start uniting, with no borders between all.

Until Africa Unites the Dam project will do no good, but will just cripple the Egyptian economy.

Stand together as one Africa.

The world community should know that Ethiopia has a full right to use from Nile River- 85% of which is originated from Ethiopia. In addition, Ethiopia is highly concerned about the environmental impact of the project from the very beginning . The project is designed in a way that it is environmentally friend and to optimize the benefit of the Nile river; no down stream country would be adversely affected. GERD will benefit all ;leaving no one harmed off.

Ethiopia seems to have a major economic plan to revolutionize the economy that was retarded by long and protracted civil conflict in the nation, If that kind of situation continued, the nation will not .survive as a nation. which is good for those who used to take hand in the country's affair. Egypt was one of them. Egypt wanted to rule over the resource officially belong to Ethiopia because her old friend granted to use it. If Ethiopia had brought Egypt and her colonial master to the table, we would have been good friends since then. But, Egypt thought that they can use any means to keep the monopoly. Now Ethiopian the politics is very dynamic one not old and out dated like Egypt and her colonial masters. Ethiopia for the first time made it known that this resource can benefit equally all the countries that have part in
it. All t countries including the western civilized got angry. Ethiopia could not back down to any of the hostilities told from some of the western media, that is modern politics, we really showed we live after the true principle of Ethiopianism that is peace and friendship, Africa for all of us all of us for Africa. Egypt Sudan can use the Nile river. So does Ethiopia.That is called win win win project. Winning every one who is offended because of greed and selfishness. who played best the game? Ethiopia .long live Africa.

As an Egyptian, I consider myself a friend and a brother to all African and we as Muslims do not see any differences of people based on color or superiority of race, we like the other and have the same passion to his good as we do. But the big concern is that we receive water and we relay on the water coming from the upper parts of the Nile. As we are living in almost a desert, God has given us the right to share the water of the Nile. It is not England that gave us that right. But it is the creator of all the Earth and heaven. We, without water would die. We, although you need to produce electricity, will die without water or when a small shortage happens, simply because it is already desert. The Nile has almost given itself to Egyptians through ages, we suffered and we bore alone its rage in the past when it flooded the banks and destroyed our houses and everything. It flooded almost since 6000 years ago and only in 1950s we built a protection dam. So, what I want to say that we felt the horror and suffering from the flooding destructive water in the past and learned how to survive it. Now, we cannot give that up and say that Ethiopia now needs to stop it. The Nile runs millions of meters from there to us and any halt of a drop can take to 6 months later to reach us back if the halt is released again. This means we will suffer and in this point, we cannot guarantee that your will is good for us and when we feel thrust and some of us feel angry, we cannot guarantee to maintain good either, we may use every single weapon we have to survive.

What I need to say to brothers and sisters in Ethiopia, come and discuss, and come here then show what you can do of help if we suffered, then we will definately agree. Otherwise, stay there and obey evil will and simple minds and say you own the water alone and can do anything on it. Then, the catastrophe will happen to all of us as we did not respect God's will for our good mutual survival. Thanks Mohammed

Lotta indignant Ethiopians on here talking nonsense about water rights. Legally speaking, any water portion to which a nation has had access to without violence for 1 year or more is permanently allocated to said nation. Egypt has had access to its portion of the Nile, as a STATE since time immemorial, since before the concept of statehood had even started developing in the geographical region known as Ethiopia. Possibly even before any peoples who practice agriculture had settled in that region. As an Egyptian I have every hope the Ethiopians will overcome their problems, I will not however, accept that they attempt to do so at the expense of my inherited right which has stood anywhere from 5000 to 7000 years. Tradition, and the law are on our side. And if you think the Dam is what will lift Ethiopia out of poverty, you haven't read your history. After all, Nasser thought the Aswan dam would do the same for us. And now here we are, 65 years later. The dam has done some things for us, taken away others, but it certainly has not lifted us out of povery.

A win win solution must be achieved as the risks are grave indeed for both countries. Egypt is not just the gift of the Nile but it is simply "to be or not to be" issue.There are long historical friendship bonds between Egypt and Ethiopia and hopefully this will help both nations arrive at some reasonable fair compromise.Not a certain outcome but may goodwill and common sense prevail.

River Nile is by Law an international river that does not belong to certain nation, so in the first place it is not Ethiopian resource whatsoever.... The Nile water supply is controlled by an international treaty signed by all countries, On the other hand if Ethiopian disagree on it due to being signed by UK when they were not an independent country or at that time not yet having educated representatives so let me remind you that UN was founded before then too whoever Ethiopia accepted its regulations and mandate.

The dark side of Ethiopian act was to build the DAMN Dam during the Egyptian revolution, by logic if you speak about rights then you need to be fair which is not since you acted on dark duration, even disregard to that......

It is simple .... you need the power,,, you can have it but power is by any mean not equal or important than life which what Egypt is defending "Water" .... if we plan the conversation based on whom is stronger or whom is capable to hit harder or whom is controlling whom that will be the agenda of Israel whom is a new alliance to Ethiopia....

Base the conversation based on win win otherwise simply We will not die thirsty in Egypt but we will die in Ethiopia defending our rights and factually we can.... Both Ethiopia and Egypt were tied together since hundreds or thousands of years with strong history maybe not always stable but there was good times indeed .... The Egyptian church head used to be Ethiopian church head too. Egypt educated many many Ethiopian during Nasser's days and Silassy used to visit Egypt....

Moments of wisdom is better than years of war.... please let me say that Egypt never had a master neither UK, Russia or US .... Egypt is only Egypt the African country who thought the world the meaning of civilization 7000 years ago.

Regardless the economical reasons behind such projects, when a country starts a major project on a resource shared with its neighbours without an agreement, this shows different intents. Especially When such country has no funds for such projects and at the same time a lot of time is wasted in the negotiations with less commitment on mutual agreements.

Nobody can stop a nation's development, but wars by selfishness.

Negotiations, Negotiations and Negotiations is the only proper way to find a long term sustainable solution that would benefit everyone involved. The Egyptian water usage can be more efficient and the Ethiopian ambitious development plans don't necessarily have to hurt the already very dry Egypt. If both parties cease to think about it as a win-lose game, I am confident we can find a comprehensive model that would make the pie much bigger for everyone.

If Egyptian brothers willing to cooperate with their ethiopia brothers I think we can accomplish any obstacles that might come among us family nation's. When we Ethiopians start filling the dam the Egyptian can utilize their reserve and when it's a Lititle lot the ethiopian will stop and with divert to its original course. It's called technical solutions. Once the dam fool. It will be normal. In drought season ethiopians will produce less electricity so they can let more water. It's actually will help egypt more. What they are wasting the nile to meditranian sea any way. InStade we will save for them
When they are low. We open the dam
I think is win win win for all nation including sudan

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