Water Wars: Could the dispute over GERD project push Egypt and Ethiopia closer to an armed conflict?

The challenge for leaders is to strike the right balance between Ethiopia’s developmental needs while considering Egypt and Sudan’s water rights as well.

Nile river basin, water supplies downstream, Nile Water Agreement, irrigation, agriculture, GERD negotiations, water rights, agricultural produce, access to clean water, ethnic groups, agricultural lands, hydropower potential, irrigation, water resources, hydropower, political class, Nile, Nile dispute, Abiy Ahmed, political connotations, waters of Nile, GERD reservoir, annual water quotas, zero-sum competition, Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan

Bird’s eye view of the Blue Nile falls — © Travel Aficionado/Flickr

For quite some time now, Ethiopia and Egypt have been at loggerheads over the construction of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The GERD is a developmental project that is expected to propel Ethiopia’s economic growth and diversification, and is located on the Blue Nile, about 20-40 kilometres away from the Ethiopia-Sudan border. The cost of completion of the project is estimated to be $4.7 billion. Upon completion, it will be the biggest hydroelectric power plant in Africa, capable of generating up to 6,450 megawatts of electricity. All the electricity generated will be fed into the national power supply network which in turn is expected to spur Ethiopia’s economic development. However, the megastructure, sitting on the bank of river Nile, has become a source of tension with neighbouring Egypt.

Egypt is a desert state, that sits downstream and sources over 90 percent of its water supply from the river Nile for its households and irrigation for agriculture. Egypt is vulnerable to any changes in the water flow upstream. Historically, Cairo has had sole control over the usage of Nile due to two colonial era treaties — the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, and the 1959 Nile Water Agreement between Egypt and Sudan. However, in recent years, upstream countries have started challenging Egypt’s monopoly, thereby making the river Nile a regular source of conflict over water rights and distribution.

Egypt insists that the timeline be extended and fears that any rapid filling of the reservoir in upstream Ethiopia could cause a drastic reduction in water supplies downstream.

The most fundamental point of contention is the timeframe and the pace for filling up the 74 billion cubic metre reservoir behind the dam. With the construction of the dam is nearly complete, Addis Ababa is eager to begin the process of filling up the reservoir as early as July, during this year’s rainy season. Egypt insists that the timeline be extended and fears that any rapid filling of the reservoir in upstream Ethiopia could cause a drastic reduction in water supplies downstream. Due to the 1925 and 1959 agreements, Egypt and Sudan were allocated the bulk of the Nile’s waters at 55.5 and 18.5 billion cubic metres, respectively. These colonial-era agreements, however had failed to recognise and consider the rights of upstream countries, including Ethiopia.

What is the role of Sudan?

Diplomatically, Sudan is caught between Ethiopia and Egypt’s dispute over GERD project and is trying to mitigate the risk of conflict between its two major African and Arab partners. A full-blown conflict in the region is not in the best interest of Sudan. Sudan had benefitted from PM Abiy Ahmed’s mediation efforts in the Sudanese peace process and transition but the country is a political supporter and ally of Egypt. It also stands to benefit from the dam in many ways. Khartoum not only stands to gain cheap electricity from the GERD, the dam will also help remove silt and sedimentation, regulate steady water flow throughout the year and avoid unexpected flooding to downstream countries.

Stalled negotiations resume (yet) again

Negotiations between Cairo and Addis Ababa over the GERD have been rolling on unsuccessfully since the past nine years since the construction of the GERD began in 2011. The tripartite negotiations between Egypt-Sudan-Ethiopia over operating the dam and filling the reservoir were stalled, after Ethiopia rejected the agreement achieved under the auspices of the USA in February this year. Ethiopia’s primary reservation centres around continuous tendency on Egypt’s part to recall and emphasise its so-called historical rights to the Nile water. Ethiopia or other Nile-sharing countries cannot be expected to enthusiastically uphold this. Egypt contends that Ethiopia’s refusal to accept the USA and World Bank led draft agreement was only a manipulating and time-wasting tactic under the pretext that Addis Ababa needed more time for consultations.

Ethiopia’s primary reservation centres around continuous tendency on Egypt’s part to recall and emphasise its so-called historical rights to the Nile water.

After exhausting all bilateral options, the countries in dispute, particularly Egypt, have sought assistance from external mediators — USA, World Bank and UN Security Council. All these external actors continue to encourage the three countries to work together and resolve the issue peacefully through continued negotiations. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres encouraged the countries to reach an amicable agreement in accordance with the spirit of the 2015 Declaration of Principles on GERD.

The African Union (AU) has taken stock of the situation and convened a virtual video conference between the leaders of Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan with the intent of brokering a deal to end this dispute over water supplies. Discussions succeeded in reaching an agreement which stressed that no unilateral measures, such as filling the dam, would take place until a final agreement is reached by all concerned countries. Following AU’s meeting, the three countries have now agreed to resume the GERD negotiations and expressed their desire to reach a fair and balanced agreement.

Now, the challenge for leaders is to strike the right balance between Ethiopia’s developmental needs while considering Egypt and Sudan’s water rights as well.

Although for now Ethiopia and Egypt have agreed to sit in the negotiating table to resolve the technical issues relating to GERD project, the degree of success or failure of these negotiations will depend heavily on political and domestic considerations. Both the countries perceive the issue of Nile’s water as an issue of national security and as an existential issue.

Ultimately, the goal for both countries is to ensure the availability of necessities such as land for agricultural produce and access to clean water for their citizens.

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