Avoiding Military Conflict: A Need For Negotiation On The Blue Nile

In February of 2022, Ethiopia began producing electricity for the first time from its Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD), touted to be Africa’s largest hydroelectric power source upon its completion. Since ground was broken on the project in 2011, it has triggered a dispute between Ethiopia on one side, and Sudan and Egypt on the other. This is because the GERD is situated on the Blue Nile, the main tributary to the river Nile, which Egypt relies on for most of its water supply. Completion of the GERD therefore threatens Egypt, where millions of jobs, acres of farmland, and access to water and nutrition could all be lost. With Ethiopia determined to fill the GERD quickly despite international agreements, and Egypt willing to defend its water rights by any means necessary with millions of Sudanese lives on the line if an armed conflict breaks out, the Nile dispute represents an existential challenge for the region.

Sherif Mohyeldeen, a scholar at the Malcolm H. Carnegie centre in Beirut, states that Egypt has been “insisting on a slow fill… to prevent major challenges to Egypt’s water security, but the Ethiopian government insists on completing the project within six years.” He continues, “given that Egypt expects to face water scarcity as soon as 2025, the Egyptian government wants to ensure that downstream river flow is not affected by Ethiopia’s refilling of the reservoir during periods of prolonged drought.”

However, International Crisis Group analyst William Davidson points out that Ethiopians see the GERD as “a symbol of Ethiopia resisting external pressure.” Moreover, the Dam is expected to bring electricity to the over 60% of Ethiopians who lack it, accelerating the Nation’s development. With ethnic division, the global pandemic, and skyrocketing oil prices rocking Ethiopia’s economy, the GERD presents hope for unity, prosperity, and sovereignty. It is thus unlikely that Addis Ababa will yield to international compulsion. Evidence for this is Ethiopia continuing to act unilaterally in contravention of the 2015 Declaration of Principles (DoP) signed in Khartoum between all three countries. The DoP emphasized that international law should be followed in search of win-win solutions to this issue. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has not ruled out use of military force to defend Egypt’s water rights, saying that “all options are open.”

The Nile is a body of water which transcends the borders of all three States. However, both Egypt and Ethiopia continue to pursue their own interests, making this dispute a zero-sum game. Where it is understandable that Ethiopia wants to quickly fulfill the energy needs of its population of 120 million, it is also important that Prime Minster Abiy Ahmed practice moderation and observe diplomatic agreements already in place. While Egypt’s concerns about water poverty, food scarcity, and economic hardship are also valid, it is crucial that el-Sisi rules out a military conflict and commits to a diplomatic solution.

Sudan meanwhile is in a unique role as the GERD could reduce flooding, giving stability to Sudanese people. But, if Egypt attacks the GERD to defend its water rights, then it would unleash mass flooding, destroying millions of lives and livelihoods. Sudan has had issues with both Ethiopia and Egypt, but where Ethiopia-Egypt relations are frosty, both would rather engage with Sudan than deal with each other. Circumstances have changed in the past seven years, but Sudan is still best placed along with the African Union to mediate this issue.

The now decade-long dispute between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan over the GERD and water rights represents a new paradigm, where resource scarcity, population pressures, and conflicting development needs pose a threat to stability. Moreover, African countries have the added challenge that many borders on the continent were etched by colonists and not determined by Africans themselves. Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt all pursue their own interest within these narrow borders, built to extract from and weaken the continent. The Nile River bypasses these borders. So, it is crucial that Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan are flexible with their national interests to seek out a path based on mutual understanding. The GERD dispute is an African problem that needs an African solution.

Simon Kamau