The construction, filling, and operating of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a major threat in an already troubled region. The severity of the crisis has forced the United Nations Security Council to get involved.
Taking all historical and geopolitical rivalries of the region into consideration, the Blue Nile water resource is considered a strategic resource to Ethiopia, and a hyper-strategic resource to Egypt, and any dispute over the Nile water is considered an enormous breach of international law and to the water security and stability of the region.
This paper will be examining the historical context as well as the implications of the situation to highlight that new approaches to the current issue should be pursued in order to come up with a fair, beneficial solution for the damaged parties involved.
General Background of the Crisis
The Nile River has significant historical, geopolitical and economic value to all 11 countries that own a fair share of it namely; Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda. It is the transboundary river par excellence, with 6700km of longitude making it one of the world’s longest rivers, and a basin of over 3 million km2.
The Nile has two major tributaries: the Blue Nile and the White Nile. The White Nile, originating in Lake Victoria in Uganda, and the Blue Nile, originating in Lake Tana in Ethiopia, meet together in Khartoum city in Sudan and continues downstream to the Mediterranean sea. Almost 70% of the Nile waters come from the Blue Nile as its main contributor.
The crisis started back in 2011, when the Ethiopian government introduced the idea of building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam(GERD) to boost its economy and national development. The downstream countries however, such as Egypt and Sudan were drastically concerned about the negative impacts that should follow.
According to the Sustainable Water Resources Management, 96% of Egypt’s total territory is characterized as a desert with only 4% habitable area, around the Nile River. Accordingly, the Nile is the backbone of Egypt’s economy, it contributes dramatically to the overall GDP, and the high growth-rate levels achieved by Egypt during the recent years. Currently, Egypt has a water share of around 570 cubic metres per person annually, well below the water scarcity level of 1,000 cubic metres per person per year. But this number is expected to drop down lower than 500 cubic metres by 2025.
Ethiopia is described as the “Water Tower” of Africa, with the Blue Nile originating on its lands however, the Water Tower lacks proper agricultural and electrical infrastructure. As of 2001, Only 3% of Ethiopia’s hydro power potential had been developed. In 2013, around 83% of the Ethiopian population lacked access to electricity, according to the Global Water Forum, and were relying on biomass for cooking and heating, which of course worsened the environmental problems in the region. For decades, Ethiopia couldn’t develop its hydrological abilities due to the lack of necessary facilities to store water. This is the reason why it is holding onto GERD so tightly even though the problems, debates, negotiations, and water wars that accompany it are increasing day by day.
The dam’s main purpose is to create long term economic growth for upstream countries while building the biggest hydroelectric power plant in Africa. According to the Global Water Forum, GERD is supposed to generate almost 6GW of electricity, for 65 million Ethiopians, and the construction costs were up to 5 billion USD and were mostly gathered through national bonds and national investments. However, as part of the national scheme to increase hydroelectric activity and ensure national growth rates, the project did not go as smoothly as planned. The dam is supposed to reserve up to 74 billion cubic meters of water behind it, which is basically 40% more than Egypt’s whole annual supply of water from the Nile river and satisfies 85% of Egypt’s water stock.
Historical Disputes About the Governance of the Nile
When discussing the historical framework of the governance of the Nile waters, two significant agreements stand out in history. The 1929 water agreement between Egypt and the United Kingdom on behalf of Sudan, where they agreed to allocate minimum flows to the two countries. This agreement guarantees Egypt and Sudan’s historical rights to the Nile water. It also stated that upstream countries had to consult with downstream nations first over any construction projects on the Nile. The second most important agreement is the 1959 agreement that was put in place after President Abdelnasser’s decision to construct the Aswan High Dam in Egypt. Based on this agreement, Egypt was allocated 55.5 km3 per annum from the water of the Nile, and Sudan was allocated 18.5 km3 per annum.
Correspondingly, in the 2010 Entebbe Cooperative Framework Agreement, which was signed only by upstream countries, Egypt and Sudan were completely left out and strongly opposed it. Claiming that they held Veto power over upstream development projects on the Nile River according to the 1929 agreement.
Lastly, in 2015 the tripartite agreement (The Declaration of Principles on the Renaissance Dam) was signed by Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan and included 10 basic principles as well as emphasizing mutual cooperation based on common understanding, good faith, win-win aspects and the principles of international law. The 2015 declaration was the last agreement between the 3 nations before the situation escalated.
Endless Rounds of Talks
The rounds of negotiations between the 3 nations to ensure the maximum profit for each one started in 2014, and was severally interrupted, lastly in 2019 with no signs of future agreement nor cooperation. At Egypt’s request, a new round of negotiations concerning the rules of filling and operating the dam was recently launched in Cairo however, negotiations failed once again after the Ethiopian rejection of the Egyptian proposal, saying that it posed a danger to its sovereignty .
In 2018, Egypt proposed the participation of the World Bank as a technical party with impartial views, to decide on the work of the Tripartite National Committee. Ethiopia however, rejected this request of mediation, and referred the case to the African Union to decide upon. It is worth mentioning that the World Bank did not cooperate in the financing of the construction of the dam in 2011, Ethiopia then proceeded with national financing.
The latest failed round of talks led Egypt to escalate the matter to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). In June 2020, Cairo pushed for a UNSC resolution concerning the issue and said that Ethiopia initiated unilaterally in the filling of the dam without coordination with the downstream countries. This kind of unilateral action will surely inflict danger on Egypt, and will spark a sequence of serious repercussions that could lead to threatening international peace and security.
The United States intervened to solve the issue as a mediator in 2019, and invited the 3 conflicted parties to attend a round table meeting in order to finalize an agreement. Egypt showed up with a preliminary draft of the agreement, and ready to sign while Ethiopia had more reservations. The negotiation round was also a failure due to a no-show from Ethiopia’s part, and the two rivals remain at loggerheads over main aspects of filling and operating the dam.
The African Union (AU) is now taking the crisis upon itself and is trying to mediate a solution. Ethiopia’s latest announcement included that in the second year of filling, it will release a minimum of 31 billion cubic metres, but did not indicate a maximum figure, which reinserted tensions and skepticism from the Egyptian side.
The developments of this crisis is crucial to understand in order to foresee future behavior in the region. The water security and regional stability depend on key cornerstones that have frequently been breached throughout the rounds of talks between the conflicted nations.
The current crisis is mainly due to Egypt’s worries over reduction of water accessibility owing to the filling of the dam, which triggered a lot of antagonistic negotiations between the involved nations. As well as Ethiopia’s continuous breach of the 2015 Declaration of Principles, its unilateral decisions concerning the issue at hand, and its accusation of Egypt wanting to maintain the flow of 1959. The historical geopolitical rivalry between the 3 nations manifested in the 1959 and Entebbe agreements. Correspondingly, the previous assassination attempt of the former Egyptian President Mubarak in Addis Ababa by some Islamic extremists is still an issue raised by the Egyptian media to this day.
Furthermore, some scholars suggest that this crisis is associated with the effects of the colonial era, where European nations implemented trans boundary river water agreements frequently without safeguarding the interests of the African inhabitants.
Taking all these aspects into consideration, the evolution of events is shaking the security and stability of an already troubled region.
In conclusion, the result of years of negotiations and rounds of talks is still not showing any signs of progress. The rivalry between the 3 nations raises significant tensions regionally and possibly internationally as well. This kind of tension is currently not supported in the MENA region mainly because of the sequential disastrous events taking place in the neighboring countries of the involved parties. In order to ensure mutual understanding between the parties, the commitment and cooperation should be dealt with in the right context, and in the right manner. Any unilateral decision making, such as filling and operating the dam, should not be tolerated as it would not ensure a beneficial outcome to the water security of the region.
Both Ethiopia and Egypt should be shifting their paradigm to economic growth and investment and cooperation, to ensure their interests on short-term and long-term perspectives and priorities reaching a binding agreement on the filling and operating of GERD, with legal framework in accordance with the international law.
The most important aspect is the political will to agree on outstanding issues between all the involved parties, while also taking into consideration the Sudanese stance regarding the future constructions on the Nile River, giving Ethiopia the right for future development projects on the condition that those projects be in compliance with international water laws and the downstream countries be notified.
The security and stability of the region is now a priority, and all efforts should be exerted in order to ensure this regional hyper-hybrid coordination between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine.
Yosr is a political sciences graduate, an active volunteer and an SDG advocate for the UN. She co-founded a women-empowerment initiative called “Genderless” in early 2020. Her research interests include international politics, middle-eastern conflict management, sustainability, and international development.