Building Dams instead of Bridges: Tensions along the Nile River Basin

Rory Johnson on the complex politics of the Nile Basin.

Back in 1979 Anwar Sadat, Egypt’s second president, proclaimed; ‘the only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water’. While global attention is focused on the entrenched conflicts raging to the northeast of this geopolitically strategic country, simmering tensions along the Nile River risk being overlooked. Former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, himself an Egyptian national, warned that competition over water resources, ominously dubbed the ‘oil of the 21st century’, has the potential to be a leading cause of conflict over the coming century. A rapidly expanding population combined with increasingly irregular rainfall is already upsetting the supply and demand balance within the Nile River basin. Consequently, it has earned the unenviable accolade of being labelled a ‘hot spot’ for a future water war. The delicate balance within this river system looks set to face yet more pressure following the imminent completion of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

The politics of the Nile basin are complex. Egypt resolutely believes that it has ‘historic rights’ to the overwhelming majority of its waters. For justification, it looks to the joint Anglo-Egyptian treaty drawn up in 1929, the terms of which were reinforced by a subsequent Sudanese-Egyptian agreement of 1959. The treaty not only granted Egypt 87% of the river’s flow (the remaining 13% going to Anglo-Egyptian Sudan), but also the power to veto any upstream projects in perpetuity. Perhaps out of spite for daring to resist the African colonial enterprise, these agreements totally ignored the interests of the independent kingdom of Abyssinia (the predecessor of modern day Ethiopia), as well as those of  the other riparian states. Such is the importance of this river to Egypt that the first line of the country’s constitution reads ‘Egypt is the gift of the Nile’. The river has been of fundamental strategic importance to this largely arid, desert state since the time of the pharaohs, and even today it provides over 95% of all the country’s fresh water needs.

However, with the Blue Nile tributary that runs through Ethiopia accounting for over 80% of the river’s total output, Ethiopia has justifiably challenged the unfair disenfranchisement of this archaic colonial treaty. Ethiopia adopted the leading role in constructing the multilateral institution, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), which became operative in February 1999. After ten years of negotiation this intergovernmental partnership produced the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) or Entebbe Agreement, that outlined the ‘principles, rights and obligations of cooperative management and development of the Nile Basin water resources’. The CFA was signed by Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania in May 2010 but was vehemently rejected by both Sudan and Egypt. Nevertheless, the international support shown towards the CFA emboldened Ethiopia.  In 2011, just one month after the Egyptian revolution threw this staunch opponent into a state of internal political turmoil, work commenced on the GERD.

The Ethiopian government is deeply proud of the GERD as it is, quite literally, a concrete example of the development miracle that is occurring in a country that has been until recently synonymous with periodic drought, famine and conflict. Entirely domestically funded, the GERD is also a symbol of what can be achieved by Africans for Africans. Upon completion, the dam will provide a targeted 6250MW/year bringing substantial benefits for Ethiopia and its immediate neighbours. However, it is also likely to present distinct costs to those further downstream. A report conducted in 2014 on the impacts of the dam stated that water flow will be unpredictable for at least the five to fifteen years required to fully fill the reservoir behind the GERD. If prolonged periods of below-average rainfall were to also occur during the filling process this may reduce Egypt’s water supply by up to 25% and ‘cause the loss of power generation at High Aswan Dam for extended periods’.

Consequently, the attitude of Egypt towards the project has been one of stubborn belligerence. A 2012 WikiLeaks post claimed to have unearthed evidence of plans made by the Mubarak regime in 2010 to bomb any future Ethiopian dam projects. In 2013, a minor diversion made to the Blue Nile’s course to facilitate further construction sparked a diplomatic crisis. In a show of force, President Morsi called upon Egyptians to ‘defend every drop of Nile water with our blood’ should diplomatic attempts to resolve the crisis fail. That same year proposals to utilise Egyptian special forces to sabotage the dam were accidentally voiced live on camera, prompting an embarrassing diplomatic crisis between Ethiopia and Egypt. Common experience encourages such statements to be seen as mere rhetorical bluster and political posturing, however in this case historical precedent warns against complacency. In 1976, the Egyptian navy attacked and blew up a convoy carrying equipment to Ethiopia destined to be used in an earlier dam building enterprise.

A turning point came in December 2013 when Sudan broke ranks with Egypt and declared its full support of the GERD. The Bashir regime, acting in self-interest, had come to realise the substantial benefits that such a vast new source of cheap electricity on its southern border could bring. It is a dark irony that despite being Africa’s third largest producer of crude oil, Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, continues to be afflicted by blackouts as almost all of the oil is exported. Isolated, and concurrently rocked by ongoing internal political unrest, Egypt reluctantly adopted a more conciliatory stance to try and retain its influence in the region’s affairs. In March 2015, during a meeting facilitated by Sudanese President Omar al Bashir, Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia came together and agreed upon a ‘Declaration of Principles’ regarding the GERD. Labelled as ‘historic’, in reality the terms of the treaty are highly ambiguous, non-legally binding and open to interpretation. Central to the agreement was the tacit recognition and approval of the continued construction of the dam, so long as the reservoir would not start being filled until a series of tripartite technical surveys were completed. Satellite images taken on 10 July 2017 suggesting Ethiopia may have begun filling the reservoir before the agreed end of the consultation period are therefore unsettling. That the veracity of such evidence is uncertain serves to expound the accusation made by NGO International Rivers that Ethiopia continues to pursue a SAD (Secretive, Autocratic and Dismissive) project method.

So far, the three main riparian states are maintaining open communication channels. This in itself is highly commendable. Combating political suspicion by lifting the veil of secrecy that surrounds the project both eases inter-state political tensions and may also offer a better chance to avert some of the feared environmental and local social impacts that a project on this scale will inevitably produce. However, relations between these three states are as transient as the waters of the Nile itself. For now, Egypt’s El-Sisi has adopted a more conciliatory tone than his predecessors as he realises that the benefits of cooperation greatly outweigh the certain costs of confrontation. However, leaderships change and, as the GERD’s full impact on the Nile waters become apparent, so may the cost-benefit balance. Communication channels need to remain open if the risk of open hostilities in the future is to be mitigated. Western governments, with substantial historical baggage, are disinclined to embroil themselves, fearing accusations of neo-colonial meddling. Therefore, this onerous task appears, for now at least, to have fallen upon the unlikely shoulders of President Bashir. That such a sensitive and charged issue is being juggled by an indicted war criminal should compel the international community to remain vigilant.

Rory Johnson is a research intern at UNU-CRIS. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the UN.

Photo by David Berkowitz