Ethiopian-Egyptian Tensions Flare Again Over The Filling Of The Grand Renaissance Dam


On 14 July, satellite images from Planet Labs inc. showed visible filling of the Grand Renaissance Dam, adding to the already tense relations between Egypt and Ethiopia. The $4.5 billion hydroelectric dam is the largest in Africa and has acted as a source of international dispute between the two African states for the better part of the last decade. The Grand Renaissance Dam is positioned on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia and began construction in 2011. Ethiopia built the dam with aspirations of becoming a leader in regional energy production and expanding its national economic growth. However, Egypt, a downstream state on the Nile that relies on the river for over 90% of its water reserves, fears that the dam will threaten national water supply and endanger millions of Eygptian lives.

According to the World Bank, water scarcity is defined as having less than 1,000 cubic meters of fresh water available per person a year. Egypt falls into the scarcity range, with authorities reporting 550 cubic meters available per person annually. Moreover, 90% of Egypt’s 100 million population lives in the Nile valley, which makes up only 6% of the country’s total area. The population density of the valley is primarily due to the state’s limited amount of habitable land, with deserts surrounding the valley on either side. As a result, Egyptians have been highly dependent on the Nile River for daily water supply since the country’s ancient origins in 3100 B.C.E and has justified its dominance over the Nile through a colonial-era 1959 water treaty with Sudan that Ethiopia refuses to recognize in the modern era.

According to the United Nations, Egypt’s population grows by approximately a million every six months, an alarming rate that is predicted to culminate in frequent water shortages by 2025. Egypt fears that the filling of the Grand Renaissance Dam will exacerbate current and future pressure on its water supply system and has disputed the dam’s construction and filling since 2011. In 2015, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan signed a declaration of principles which aimed to achieve a “spirit of cooperation.” However, neither the declaration nor negotiations produced a definite legal pathway for the dam’s filling, and tensions continue to grow between the two states with military invention remaining a viable option.

Ethiopia has insisted that the Grand Renaissance Dam will not negatively affect the region and views Egypt’s demands as framing Ethiopia to become a “hydrological colony,” according to one Ethiopian negotiator. Ethiopia’s concerns are perfectly valid; as a nation, it has a right to perform sovereign rule over its territory, including the construction of any project it finds beneficial to its people. However, the 21st century is defined by planetary politics, meaning that one state’s action can inspire a global response. It is within the best interest of Africa and the international community to find an agreeable method of filling the reservoir without endangering Egyptian water supply.

Previously, the 2010 Arab Spring, which included the Egyptian Revolution, saw the mass migration of civilians to urban areas throughout the Arab world due to climate-change-related severe droughts. Such migrations aggravated the already tense socio-political environments of multiple Middle Eastern states that accelerated the eruption of protests and violence in December of 2010. If the Grand Renaissance Dam were to damage Egyptian water supply further, it is highly probable it would instigate similar migrations from the Nile Valley and culminate in an armed water-resource conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia. To avoid conflict between the two states, the continuation of negotiations is critical.

In December of 2019, President Trump invited negotiators from Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt to Washington, D.C, to laminate his reputation as a ‘deal maker’. However, the negotiations were marred by several inflammatory factors. For instance, the State Department, which is the department most qualified to deal with such international disputes, was not included in the negotiations. Instead, the United States Treasury Department, which serves as the U.S. governor to the International Monetary Fund via the Secretary of the Treasury, took the State Department’s place. The incorporation of the Treasury Department was primarily due to the sizable amount of money the United States and World Bank has invested in Ethiopia’s reform under its prime minister, Abiy Ahmed.

Despite U.S investment in Ethiopian development, the negotiations were regarded as biased for the benefit of Egypt. Ethiopia withdrew from negotiations and called the draft agreement “unacceptable and highly partisan,” while the Treasury Department declared that the deal “addresses all issues in a balanced and equitable manner.” Without the State Department’s aid, the United States was not equipped to lead such negotiations, and the ‘suave’ self-professed deal-making power of Donald Trump proved irritable to relations.

After the United States failed to mend negotiations, the African Union held an emergency meeting in late June regarding Egpytian calls for the intervention of the United Nations Security Council. The meeting urged Ethiopia and Egypt to return to the negotiation table as soon as possible. However, negotiations were again disrupted with the recent advent of satellite footage of the dam’s reservoir filling. Throughout the past several years of negotiations, there has been a lack of agreement that can mend the two states’ relations.

Instead, both states must accept aid from the United Nations and the African Union to ensure that neither side turns to military intervention and the appropriate international water resource laws are taken into account. Considerable research on the dam’s effects on Nile River water content is needed to measure the impact that reservoir filling will have over the next several years, which includes the impact of climate change. A majority of the research that currently exists provides details on the Nile’s water supply without consideration of the dam or climate, thus reflecting results that are highly likely to be much worse in reality. Considering that Egypt is projected to become water insecure by 2025, a slower filling rate of the reservoir is necessary. Rather than demanding that Ethiopia halts all reservoir filling, which is nearly impossible now that the wet season has begun in the state, the demand for closing as many gates to the reservoir as possible without resulting in severe flooding should be implemented. However, such requests go sharply against Ethiopia’s prime minister’s interests, Abiy Ahmed, who is facing an election and relying on a hard-line approach in Egyptian negotiations to secure his next term in office.

Both Ethiopia and Egypt must put aside political incentives regarding the filling of the reservoir. As Egyptian Foreign Minister, Sameh Shorkry, said at the United Nations, “Survival is not a question of choice, but an imperative of nature.” Ethiopia must recognize that the filling of the reservoir extends beyond national sovereignty and is an international issue that requires equal criticism from states, such as Egypt, that will be negatively affected by it. However, on the same note, Egypt must recognize that the Ethiopian government and people have invested a large amount of economic power into developing the hydroelectric dam. If the dam is significantly compromised through international negotiations, it could result in a national economic downfall that could increase Ethiopian poverty. Since both states agreed to meet for talks in Washington in December of last year, the holding of future negotiations by the United States that include the State Department and international groups could be highly beneficial in terms of resolution and conflict prevention.

Over the next several years and into the end of the 21st century, it is expected for global temperatures to increase significantly. According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS), armed conflict is estimated to increase by 54% by the year 2030 in Africa as resources dwindle under climate change. The concerns the dam introduces to the Egyptian water supply are only a part of the more substantial threat that Africa will face if emission levels and global warming remain on their current upwards trend. It is crucial for a legally binding agreement to be constructed as soon as possible to protect both the Egyptian water supply and the Ethiopian economy without exacerbating tensions between the two states.

Catherine Kreider

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