On July 8th, Egypt’s foreign minister pleaded for the UN Security Council to intervene in Egypt’s dispute with Ethiopia over the new Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. During the open session, he urged the council to lobby in Ethiopia so that a binding agreement can be signed with Egypt and Sudan. In June, the Arab League announced its support for Security Council intervention in the conflict. Recently, Tunisia introduced a draft resolution to halt the dam’s filling process and urge for the creation of a binding agreement. Similarly, Sudan supports a treaty that ensures the sharing of communication about the operation of the dam. However, as Ethiopia begins its second stage of filling, it has vehemently opposed international mediation or intervention. Instead, it supports further talks facilitated by the African Union. However, the talks through the African Union failed most recently in April. Despite this sentiment, Ethiopia has unilaterally continued the filling process without an agreement between the three states, angering the downstream countries.
The new dam on the Blue Nile could significantly alter the humanitarian conditions in all three states. Currently, Ethiopia cannot provide electricity to more than half of its citizens. Through the dam, the state could provide 65 million people with electricity; this development would jumpstart the country’s economy and elevate the standard of living for millions. Furthermore, many Ethiopian nationals paid out of pocket to construct the dam, which has made the dam a national treasure. Similarly, Egypt is reliant on the Blue Nile to support its agriculture and population. Upstream infrastructure could threaten Egypt’s population during a drought, if the dam significantly restricted the Nile’s flow. Although Sudan is not as concerned about water insecurity, it fears that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam could damage its downstream water infrastructure.
Consequently, Egypt and Sudan want to establish a binding agreement to regulate water flow. Egypt has even pushed Ethiopia to slow its filling process to ensure enough water flows through. Egypt consistently labels this conflict as an “existential threat.” In the event of a drought, Ethiopia could significantly restrict Egypt’s water supply. Egyptian officials have gone as far as alluding to potential military action over the dam. Ethiopia refuses mediation beyond the auspices of the African Union because it wants to generate as much electricity as possible without externally imposed limits. In response to Egypt’s leaders, the Ethiopian military has pledged to confront any military incursions on the dam. These conflicting attitudes and desires have prevented the countries from reaching a final agreement.
In response to Egypt’s foreign minister, the United Nations Security Council urged the three states to continue talks through the African Union; this pushes off the issue rather than solves it. Consistently, Egypt has appealed for help from the United States to support a binding agreement, but the United States hasn’t intervened. Compounding the issue, talks through the African Unions have collapsed on multiple occasions, indicating that the current mediation method is failing. Without direct pressure from an external, neutral force, like the United States or China, the conflict will continue.
The current course of negotiations will pose a significant danger to downstream countries if a deal is not reached. According to Sudanese officials, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam continues to decrease Blue Nile water flow by up to 50 percent. A recent USC study found that the dam could reduce water supplies in Egypt by more than one-third. This development would reduce Egypt’s arable land by up to 72 percent, cost $51 billion, and push Egypt’s unemployment to 24 percent. Without a brokered deal, the unregulated use of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam could cause a downstream humanitarian disaster.
Moving forward, a large, third-party actor should put pressure on Ethiopia to enter a binding agreement with the other states, given the UN Security Council’s unwillingness to intervene. This third-party actor must be a neutral state, so as to prevent potential bias and stop Ethiopia from ending talks because of perceived bias. In addition, this actor must have the political and economic clout to encourage Ethiopia to enter an agreement. According to Allam Ahmed, the founding president of the World Association of Sustainable Development, an independent third party like the US, Canada, or China will likely need to mediate the conflict in order to de-escalate tensions. Furthermore, Ahmed states that independent experts need to evaluate the dam to consider how the dam may impact downstream Sudan and Egypt. With an expert evaluation, all parties can reach an agreement that protects downstream peoples and ensures Ethiopian nationals receive reliable energy during droughts. For a diplomatic resolution, a third-party state must encourage Ethiopia in two ways. Ethiopia must allow evaluation by independent experts, and Ethiopia must be open to enter talks over a binding agreement.
During the Security Council session, Egypt and Sudan advocated for “preventive diplomacy” through a treaty. In other words, Egypt and Sudan were advocating for a binding agreement that could prevent future water-related conflict. Since climate change will make climate disasters more frequent, the three states must enter a “preventive” agreement that stipulates how Ethiopia will regulate flow during a drought. If Ethiopia significantly restricts the Blue Nile’s flow during a prolonged drought, Egypt could face a humanitarian crisis: thousands downstream could face famine and unemployment, potentially leading to a refugee crisis. Although military conflict during normal dam activity is unlikely, conflict could occur during a drought, since leaders from Ethiopia and Egypt have already alluded to potential military action. Therefore, establishing a binding agreement with enforcement mechanisms will be essential in preventing a military conflict or humanitarian disaster during a drought. Establishing a mutually beneficial model for dam operation will help minimize human suffering in all three states. This agreement should ensure that downstream populations receive enough water to sustain their livelihoods, while Ethiopian nationals get continued access to reliable power during drought conditions. Through this agreement, the nations involved will be less inclined to use military force to secure their water-related interests.
Beyond the particularity of this conflict, a binding agreement could set a general precedent for the region. Rather than compete over water resources, this agreement would model how African countries can act cooperatively in regards to cross-national rivers. Moreover, this binding agreement would encourage other states outside of the region to consider how upstream hydroelectric infrastructure may impact downstream countries. In short, this potential binding agreement would present a replicable diplomatic model, regarding hydraulic cooperation and conflict resolution, for other countries.
Whether or not the three countries can reach an agreement, the downstream nations — especially Egypt — should implement hydraulic and agricultural reforms to prepare for drought and other climate disasters. The dam is already restricting flow to Egypt and Sudan since, based on the dam’s infrastructure, the filling process cannot be stopped. These developments, combined with the looming dangers of climate change, make reforms critical to the region’s welfare and stability. According to the USC study, Egypt should adjust operations at the Aswan Dam and pump more groundwater during droughts. In the long term, Egyptian farmers should improve irrigation techniques and cultivate different crops to adapt to new climate realities. If Ethiopia doesn’t reach an agreement with Sudan and Egypt, these policies could be a blueprint in helping mitigate a humanitarian disaster during a prolonged drought. In conclusion, the combination of a binding dam agreement with agricultural and hydraulic reforms will help Sudan and Egypt become resilient during climate disasters.
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