On April 1st, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERM) was nearly complete, and would begin filling its newly created reservoir over this summer’s rainy season. Sudanese officials have urged Addis Ababa to reconsider this premature adjustment to the Nile’s flow, with Sudanese ex-negotiator Ahmed al-Mufti stating on Wednesday, “these are the germs of instability, and it will cause a water war.”
Primarily, this conflict would be between Egypt and Ethiopia, whose conflicts over the Nile go back centuries. Currently, Egypt wants to maintain their large population and agricultural industry, while Ethiopia views the dam as a crucial source of energy that will support the development of the country. Experts have determined that it is possible, though difficult, to achieve both of these objectives through careful political deliberation and trust-building exercises. Unfortunately, Egypt and Ethiopia have a very poor relationship, and both countries have diametrically opposed views to the construction and operation of this dam. Egypt is starting negotiations with Sudan, by requiring that Ethiopia continue to honor a 1959 agreement which sees Sudan and Egypt in control of 90% of the Blue Nile’s flow.
Ethiopia, on the other hand, wants to use the Nile to create the biggest lake in Africa, by building the biggest dam in Africa. The potential reservoir capacity of the Millennium Reservoir is more than a year and half’s flow of the entire Nile, giving Ethiopia the capability to completely destroy more than a year of agriculture in Sudan and Egypt. Obviously, this would cause famine. Egypt needs to avoid contraction of its agricultural sector, or severe financial and humanitarian problems will arise. Egypt is obviously not using 100% of the water of the Nile currently, so it could afford for Ethiopia to take a slightly larger share than it is currently legally permitted, though how much more remains uncertain.
In the sense that legal precedents are being upset by the construction of this dam, Ethiopia is technically bypassing internationally established legal channels to make adjustments to existing agreements. It’s worth noting, though, that the current terms of the relationship have always been seen as unfair in Addis Ababa. When British-occupied Egypt and independent Sudan signed the 1959 agreement under the current terms, the leadership in Addis Ababa severed connections with the Orthodox Church in Alexandria. The 1959 agreement superseded a previous agreement between the British colonial rulers of Sudan and the former Ethiopian Empire in 1902, which forbade Ethiopia from damming the Nile in any way.
After Egypt completed the High Aswan Dam in 1970, seasonal flooding downriver was finally controlled and led to an unprecedented period of national growth and stability. After Ethiopia was hit with a series of famines during a drought in the 1980s, construction of a similar project became a national priority. Years of negotiations between the three most powerful Nile basin countries: Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan, failed to produce conclusive agreements.
Ethiopia turned to other, smaller nations to form a coalition in 2010. At that point, Egypt called in international mediators from the U.S. and the IMF. Chinese and western financiers warned Ethiopia that the project was not politically feasible in its current iteration and reduced financial support, hoping that Ethiopia would delay construction until an agreement could be reached. Ethiopian negotiators walked out of the international meetings. Construction began unilaterally in 2011, while Egyptian leadership was preoccupied with the Egyptian revolution.
In 2012, Wikileaks released internal documents from Texas-based intelligence company Stratfor outlining Egyptian and Sudanese plans to build airstrips along the Sudanese-Ethiopia border, in Kutsi. The Renaissance Dam is located just 9 miles from the Sudanese border, well within the range of modern artillery and state-of-the-art Egyptian F-16s, assuming Sudan allows the staging of sorties within its territory. In 2013, an impact study was completed by the Ethiopian government that drew harsh condemnation from Egypt and Sudan. It was then that war was first publicly discussed by officials, though all involved parties have, on numerous occasions, expressed the need to come to an agreement before any “red lines” are crossed.
More so than the actual flow of water, this conflict is about the political power associated with the flow of that water. Ethiopia has dammed rivers that flow into Kenya and Somalia, ruining ecosystems, causing mass migrations, and many deaths. According to Egyptian former minister of water resources and irrigation, Mohamed Nasr El-Din Allam, “Ethiopia built a series of dams on the Ganale Dawa River, which is the source of the Juba River that flows into Somalia and into the Indian Ocean, causing great problems for the citizens of Somalia, taking advantage of instability in this sister country.” No one currently thinks that Ethiopia would do something like that to Egypt, but retaining that “ace” would dramatically shift the balance of power between the two nations.
The reporting on this issue has been incredibly misleading, with both sides accusing the other of negotiating in bad faith. Ethiopia claims that the international mediators are being unfair, and that Egypt doesn’t really need the flow from the Blue Nile. They could instead rely on its nonrenewable reservoirs and aquifers. Obviously that is not a viable solution for the Egyptians. Besides famine, a nation-ending flood will always be hanging over Egyptian society if this dam is built and Egypt does not trust longtime rivals in Addis Ababa. It’s also the case that Egypt is far more militarily capable than Ethiopia, thus feels very little need to make meaningful concessions at the negotiating table. As for Ethiopia, one can’t help but think they are blinded to their immediate reality by the promise of economic success in the short-term future.
I think Ethiopia is being reckless for not halting or slowing construction until an agreement with Egypt is in place. Egypt could easily destroy the dam and is threatening to do it. Ethiopia has no credible response, so I think they are currently gambling with the lives of workers and those downstream of the dam. If they think the current agreements are unfair, and I’m inclined to think they are, they need to build a credible military deterrence to Egyptian and Sudanese air power and renegotiate when they have more leverage. If they can’t afford to buy modern anti-air systems to protect the dam, then they need to accept that they can’t afford the dam at all. Egypt has asked for Ethiopia to construct a smaller-scale dam and to fill it over 20 years, alongside promises that Egypt’s share of the Nile will not be reduced in coming years. Preliminary impact assessments indicate that these promises would be difficult for Addis Ababa to make, though they have yet to be fully released.
The only way to get both parties what they want would be an agreement with international oversight. Egypt would allow the dam to be built only under the condition that Ethiopia does not use the dam to develop its economy and military to the point that Egypt was no longer capable of striking the dam. If that situation came to pass, Egypt would have no way to prevent famine or floods if the shaky relationship soured for any reason.
The solution, then, is for a nation with a military far stronger than Ethiopia would be capable of creating to oversee the use of the dam into the indefinite future. If the US, for example, maintained a presence in the area and was bound by legal agreements to enforce Egypt’s share of water being released across the border into Sudan, officials in Cairo would not have to worry about famine, floods, or war. Short of this kind of agreement and oversight, the two nations will see rapidly escalating tensions in coming months, or face existential crises in coming years.
If an agreement can be reached, Ethiopia could develop its economy and stave off famine in drought years; if international mediators agree to oversee the operation of the dam, Egypt would also have reassurances that they will not be held hostage to the political whims of Addis Ababa in the future.