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June 18, 2021
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River of the Dammed

Ethiopia’s continued efforts to dam the Nile could end in war with Egypt. Here’s how to stop that from happening.

In October, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in starting peace negotiations with Eritrea. But his country is still in the middle of another major dispute that threatens regional stability. This one is over the waters of the Nile River, specifically, Ethiopia’s plans to build the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the river’s Blue Nile tributary. Egypt considers the dam to be a looming threat to its very survival. Ethiopia, on the other hand, sees the undertaking as essential for its development and has vowed to continue the project no matter the ramifications.

Ethiopia and Egypt are two of Africa’s most populous and powerful countries; any ongoing showdown between them is a major threat to peace, which is why the international community should press for an equitable settlement.

Both countries have expressed their preference for a negotiated long-term settlement for the dispute, but the road there has not been smooth. A round of negotiations in early October—following many others over the last few years—failed to reach a compromise. Egypt accuses Ethiopia of dismissing concerns its officials have raised about the threat to its water security. Ethiopia insists that pending issues will be resolved before the completion of the dam.

Meanwhile, two other countries—Russia and the United States—have been looking for ways to mediate the dispute. Abiy and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi held a meeting on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi, Russia, in late October, during which they merely agreed to allow a technical committee to continue its work. Their host, Russian President Vladimir Putin, pledged to help them reach an accommodation.

The United States has invited Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan, which is also affected by the dispute, for discussions in Washington. The three settled on a trilateral meeting on Nov. 6, which was also attended by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and World Bank President David Malpass. The three countries’ foreign ministers agreed on holding four technical meetings on the dam. They’ve noted that they hope to reach agreement by Jan. 15, but, failing that, the countries’ water ministers will refer the issue to their heads of state to seek further outside mediation. It is hard to know if Washington’s intervention will help reach an agreement before the new deadline, making genuine U.S. assistance pivotal in the endeavor.

The Nile River is arguably the most important natural resource for at least 10 countries abutting its White and Blue tributaries: Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. But the current dispute involves only Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan, and it revolves around Ethiopia’s use of the Blue Nile, the larger tributary, which originates in Ethiopia’s Lake Tana, crosses into Sudan, and joins the White Nile in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, on its trek north across Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea.

Two agreements, from 1929 and 1959, have guided the use of the Nile River north of Ethiopia thus far. The 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty was signed by the United Kingdom, the colonial power in much of East Africa at the time, and monarchical Egypt—which was under British occupation—to allocate water rights along the basin. According to this treaty, Egypt and Sudan were guaranteed an annual supply of 48 billion and 4 billion cubic meters, respectively, out of an estimated yearly yield of 84 billion cubic meters of Nile water. Another agreement in 1959 between the United Kingdom and independent Egypt increased Egypt’s share to 55.5 billion cubic meters and Sudan’s to 18.5 billion cubic meters, with the rest shared by the other countries along the river. The new treaty also reaffirmed an essential provision from the 1929 agreement: Egypt had the right to veto any construction projects that could impede the flow of water into the Nile.

That the two agreements planted the seeds of today’s dispute is a foregone conclusion. Those negotiating them should have surmised that Ethiopia—indeed, all states along the river other than Egypt and Sudan—would have trouble abiding by the terms and also sustaining their populations. Indeed recent Nile Basin Initiative demographic projections for 2050 put Egypt’s and Sudan’s populations well below those in some of the eight other countries in the initiative, making the old water agreements appear less fair every day.

And so, it should have come as no surprise when, in 2011, Ethiopia announced plans to build a large, $5 billion hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile near the Ethiopia-Sudan border. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s reservoir will hold up to 67 billion cubic meters of water and will take at least seven years to fill, which will decrease the river’s flow for at least that period by 25 percent. For Ethiopia, the dam is an utmost necessity for its water needs and economic development, as it is set to supply the country with more than 6,000 megawatts of electricity, essential for the country’s agricultural and industrial development. But it would be devastating for Egypt, which relies on the river for irrigation, fishing, and transport.

Egypt has proposed in the latest negotiations that it be guaranteed at least 40 billion cubic meters of water annually and that Ethiopia take a longer time to fill its reservoir. But Cairo’s leverage is limited, and so Ethiopia has offered just 31 billion cubic meters, which is only slightly more than half the quantity the 1959 agreement had guaranteed. Such an offer does not even begin to address Egypt’s needs, let alone satisfy its national pride as one of the African continent’s most historically consequential states. (Sudan, for its part, is less worried about its share because of its own supply of rainwater.)

The chasm between the two countries’ positions raises serious questions about the possibility of Egyptian military action to address what Egypt’s strategists consider the country’s most pressing national security threat. After all, the Nile has been the country’s lifeblood for time immemorial, and Egypt’s economy is currently woefully underperforming.

For some, military action seems even to be a preferred option to diplomacy if for no other reason than to show Egyptians that their armed forces are looking out for the people’s interests.

For some in Egypt’s government-affiliated media, military action seems even to be a preferred option to diplomacy if for no other reason than to show Egyptians that their armed forces are looking out for the people’s interests. Abiy himself has surmised as much and alluded to the possibility on Oct. 22, when he said that his country is ready to field millions of troops to protect the dam should a war erupt over it.

But military action would be folly. Besides being a logistical and operational nightmare, it is unlikely to produce the results that Egypt may desire in the absence of a permanent occupation of the area of the dam—an untenable proposition with dire international repercussions. Without it, though, Ethiopia would still control the river’s water and could devise innumerable schemes to divert it.

That’s why de-escalation and international mediation are essential. The international community—using technical expertise from the United Nations, the World Bank, and other multilateral organizations—could devise a middle-of-the-road plan that addresses immediate concerns without fully meeting the competing demands. Such a plan can include convincing Ethiopia to meet Egypt’s request for 40 billion cubic meters annually, helping the latter develop alternative modern irrigation schemes to decrease water usage, and assisting it in building water desalination plants. In exchange for slowing down Ethiopia’s filling of the dam, international donors could temporarily help meet the country’s need for electricity by funding floating power plants in the Red Sea, whose energy could be transported across Eritrea, Somalia, and Kenya.

Such an effort would do well to include influential friends of both countries, such as the United States and Russia, to apply the right pressure and offer incentives. Any compromise also needs to involve the Nile basin countries, because the required agreement is likely to affect all of them. In fact, the compromise should look to codify a regional entente that can be based on exchanging water rights and privileges for electricity and agricultural and industrial commodities, and vice versa, that can be used by all the countries of East Africa.

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