The Fairness ‘Dilemma’ in Sharing the Nile Waters: What Lessons from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam for International Law?

The following essay by Dr. Zeray Yihdego is a summary of his recently published monograph (under the same title), which appears in Vol. 2.2, 2017, pp. 1-80, of Brill Research Perspectives in International Water Law. Dr. Yihdego is a Reader in public international law at the School of Law, University of Aberdeen. He can be reached at zeray.yihdego [at]

The Nile, the longest River in the world, is shared by eleven riparian states, including Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan and Ethiopia.  Ethiopia contributes about 86% of the Nile waters, while Egypt (and to a certain extent Sudan) rightly or arbitrarily use most of the waters. Rightly because the climate and dependency of the two downstream countries on the Nile may be used to justify their historic or existing (lion) share. Arbitrary because other riparian states with millions of people who live within the basin are denied their equitable share of Nile water resources and socio-economic development needs. The construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) by Ethiopia on the Blue Nile is justified by Ethiopia based on equitable utilisation and crucial development needs, while questioned (until March 2015) by Egypt as a threat to its ‘historic’ water use rights.

This monograph articulates the key arguments and messages of enquiring into the fairness dilemma in connection with the construction, reservoir filling, and to some extent, future operation of the GERD, in light of relevant colonial-era Nile treaties, post-1990 Nile framework instruments, and international water law.

Nile-GERDAfter providing factual, political and historical context to the GERD case in the Introduction, the monograph sets out the theoretical and normative framework around Thomas Franck’s fairness principle, and international water law (IWL), as primarily featured in the 1997 United Nations Watercourses Convention (UNWC). Franck’s theory of fairness uses procedural legitimacy (or right process) and distributive justice as two fundamental features of fairness.  These are supported by the rejection of making absolute claims and the possibility of accommodating inequality among states, as caveats to the fairness principle. It is argued that IWL, in general, and the UNWC provide rules and principles that specifically fit into the principle of fairness in all its aspects, although there is no evidence to suggest that inequality is tolerated or promoted in international (water) law.

Given that none of the Nile basin states is a party to the UNWC, and notwithstanding the relevance and application of customary international water law to the GERD, the monograph resorts to dealing with the Nile Basin Initiative and the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), and argues that the CFA, either as a treaty regime or a codification of customary watercourses law, represents an emerging Nile basin legal framework with a potential to addressing questions of fairness in the basin. As the CFA has not entered into force and Egypt and Sudan do not constitute part of the process, however, the fairness of the GERD cannot be judged form the CFA perspective.

Following a thorough investigation of the fairness of the 1902 Nile Treaty, the 1993 Ethio–Egyptian Framework instrument, and the tripartite Declaration of Principles (DoPs) on the GERD signed by Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt in March 2015, the monograph submits that the 1902 and 1993 instruments do not provide a fair content and system for the concerned parties, albeit for different reasons. While the 1902 Nile Treaty is inherently arbitrary, and thus not compatible with the notion of fairness, the 1993 instrument incorporated modern principles of IWL, but not sufficiently, and lacks specificity of rights and duties of the two countries.  In contrast, the DoPs is founded on the globally accepted principles and rules of IWL and has

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

embraced both relevant content and legitimate process. The content of the DoPs includes the adoption of equitable utilisation and no significant harm principles. Similarly, the process agreed to in the DoPs includes the duty to exchange data and information, establishment of a National Technical Committee, the use of foreign consultancy firms and the use and endorsement of the work of an International Panel of Experts (IPoE).  All these, although not without challenges, have been negotiated in good faith, with equal participation of all concerned.

Based on this analysis, the monograph submits that:  the GERD is a symbol of a fair share of the Nile waters, the realization of which depends on, inter alia, an appropriate economic return and prevention of significant impacts; although application of the fairness principle can be complex, the notions of procedural fairness and distributive justice can be applied to define and delineate the principle with reference to a specific treaty regime; despite historical or existing injustice, a fair share of natural resources can bring sustainable and durable peace in inter-state relations.

The entire article is available here.


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