The long-running conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt over building a dam on the Nile River
By Thomas Munns
It would be difficult to overestimate the cultural and economic significance of the River Nile to the 11 states and 280 million livelihoods depending on it. As has been the case for millennia, however, disputes over the shared use of this resource continue to pose a threat to peace and stability in the region.
The river’s main source lies in Ethiopia where the Blue Nile crosses the borders with Sudan and Egypt before flowing into the Mediterranean.
Despite this, Ethiopia has yet to exploit fully the river’s bountiful resources and has one of the lowest human development index values in the world. Extreme poverty is rife in the country and 65% of the population live without electricity. Hence, when the opportunity arose to construct a dam on the Blue Nile that would more than double the country’s electrical manufacturing capacity, it was not one to be missed.
‘No force could stop Ethiopia building the dam… if there is a need to go to war, [they] could get millions readied…’ says the Ethiopian Prime Minister.
Generating an estimated 6000 megawatts, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is expected to supercharge the developing country’s economy by providing ample electricity for both its domestic needs and for exporting purposes. It is intended that this economic boost will fulfil the ambition in its name – the rebirth of Ethiopia. Nevertheless, not all are pleased with the dam’s construction.
Sources of conflict
The GERD will afford Ethiopia almost complete control over the water supply in downstream countries. Potential benefits of this are understood by the Sudanese who believe that the dam could help combat several issues they currently face. Sudan has been a victim of harsh flooding in recent years and their own dam projects are continuously affected by river sediment. The GERD would minimise the effects of both of these problems whilst simultaneously providing a source of cheap electricity. Thus, Sudan is sympathetic towards its neighbour to some extent. However, they align with Egypt in viewing Ethiopia’s control of the water supply with great caution overall.
It is not an exaggeration to term the GERD an existential threat for Egypt. As one of the most arid countries in the world, 90 million Egyptians depend on the Nile’s water for their survival.
They consequently fear that relinquishing control of the river will lead to a drop in the water supply, lost agricultural production and eventual famine. Such effects will most likely be seen during the initial filling of the dam’s reservoir. Research suggests that if this is completed over ten years, the resulting drop in the water supply will mean a loss of 18% of Egypt’s farmland.
If filled more quickly over five years, the water supply will drop by a further 22% and half of Egypt’s farmland will be lost. To put this into human terms, it would affect at least 18 million of the most impoverished people in Egypt. Hence, the filling of the dam and the underlying notion of Ethiopia’s newfound authority over the lives of those downstream are significant points of contention between the Nile Basin states.
The other main source of conflict is the historical and cultural significance the river (and increasingly the GERD) hold in the region. The Ancient Egyptians heralded the river as a ‘gift from the Gods’ whilst Herodotus conversely termed Egypt itself as the ‘gift of the Nile’. This intrinsic link between the river and Egyptian society remains to this day and means that the GERD constitutes not only a threat to Egypt’s ancient fluvial hegemony but also an assault on national pride.
The importance of the Nile River
Although the Nile is similarly revered in Ethiopia, it has taken on an added layer of symbolism in more recent times. When it comes to the governance of the river and the numerous colonial-era agreements that Egypt currently rely on, Ethiopia sees itself as the victim of grave historic injustices.
In 1929, for example, the British granted Egypt the power of veto over any upstream developments that would affect its water supply. In doing so, they disregarded the interests and needs of others in the region who would inevitably be affected – Ethiopia being the prime example.
This agreement was later consolidated in 1959 when Egypt and Sudan were guaranteed 55 and 18.5 billion cubic metres of Nile water a year respectively. Again, Ethiopia was not considered or included in the signing of this agreement.
The GERD’s construction thus embodies Ethiopia’s final triumph over years of political and economic marginalisation in the region and especially in relation to the river. Where the Nile once stood as a symbol and constant reminder of their historic subjugation and disregard by colonial powers, the dam has now become the predominant symbol of national pride in Ethiopia, epitomising the country’s recent development in the 21st century.
It follows then that for both countries, the dispute goes beyond logistical and economic practicalities. It is a personal issue that evokes strong emotions in all levels of civil society.
Attempts and failures at resolution
The gravity of the potential consequences of this dispute mean that armed conflict is yet to be ruled out.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed stated in 2018 that ‘no force could stop Ethiopia building the dam… if there is a need to go to war, [they] could get millions readied…’
Equally, leaked emails between Egyptian officials describe discussions of possible military cooperation with Sudan, special forces-rendered sabotage and bombing of the dam. They go on to reference a case study of covert action taken in the 1970s when dam equipment bound for Ethiopia was destroyed at sea.
Yet there has been no shortage of negotiation between the riparian states on how best to share the Nile’s resources. With regards to the GERD specifically, third-party mediation has been carried out by international bodies such as the World Bank, the UN Security Council (UNSC), the USA, Switzerland and, currently, the African Union. The 2015 Declaration of Principles, signed by all parties, also outlines how cooperation between them is to be achieved.
To date, these discussions have allegedly resolved 90% of the issues. However, it is the remaining 10% that continues to prevent any thawing of relations and means that future armed conflict cannot yet be discounted.
If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water
Egypt and Sudan are insisting on the signing of a binding agreement on the operation of the GERD before the reservoir is filled. Most importantly, they maintain that legal guarantees must be made in relation to the volume of water they will receive per year irrespective of drought conditions.
Ethiopia, however, has refused to sign any such agreement for a number of reasons. They are conscious of the effect that future upstream developments could have on the functioning of the GERD and do not wish to be tied down. They also disagree on the issue of dispute arbitration and how it should be conducted: with or without third-party mediation. Talks on these substantive issues are ongoing.
Alongside these obstacles, dialogue has been hindered by an underlying sense of distrust amongst the parties. Following the obvious military planning and sabre-rattling, Ethiopia accused Egypt of having conducted cyber-attacks earlier this year.
Whilst not proven, the allegation could be corroborated by the tactics suggested at a televised presidential meeting in Egypt in 2013. There, a senior politician advocated for the fuelling of internal conflict and interfering with internal decision-making as an alternative to conventional military action against Ethiopia.
What of the future?
On 21st July, despite no legal treaty being in place, Ethiopia announced that it had reached its first-year target in the filling of the reservoir. Nevertheless, they have returned to talks stating that the conclusion of such a binding agreement remains their sincere intention.
Many more negotiations and compromises will be needed to ensure this threat to international peace and security does not descend any further than the current war of words.
Faced with increasing water scarcity due to the challenges of global warming and rising populations, the need to manage effectively shared resources is becoming ever more pressing.
This also means that the Nile is far from unique in its likelihood of sparking regional conflict. The UN has identified four other areas that may become, if not already, susceptible to similar fluvial-based disputes: the Indus Valley, the Tigris-Euphrates system, the Colorado River and the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta.
It was in 1995 that the Vice-President of the World Bank, Ismail Serageldin, famously predicted that ‘if the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.’
Whilst having become something of a cliché in recent years, his assertion remains no less valid or sound today. It would therefore be beneficial to the global community if a precedent can be set by those in the Nile Basin. The swift conclusion of a long-overdue agreement on the fair and equitable use of the river will go some way to ensuring peace and stability in the region and beyond.
Thomas Munns specialises in International Law and Governance, particularly international human rights and criminal law