Water is the new source of tension in North Africa
After nine years of arduous construction and at a cost of over US$4.8 billion, Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam is finally nearing completion, much to Egypt’s chagrin. Ethiopia is planning to start filling the dam in the next few weeks with the rainy season, which has infuriated Egypt as no agreement has been reached regarding water security in the region for the countries downstream. The dam will eventually compound an immense 74 billion cubic meters of water, and its 16 turbines will generate hydroelectric power to over 65 million Ethiopians.
Egypt’s position is that filling the dam’s reservoir without a joint accord would violate the 2015 Declaration of Principles, and would rule out a return to negotiations. Ethiopia is accusing Egypt of attempting to dictate and control future developments on the river.
Egypt is almost entirely reliant on the Nile for agriculture and drinking water, and has been clinging to water rights given to it under a 1959 colonial era treaty. But Ethiopia says that the dam is indispensable for its development, and insists that Egypt’s water share will not be affected. The Nile supplies water and electricity to the 10 countries that it traverses.
Egypt needs to work constructively with Ethiopia on getting assurances regarding the provision of water in times of drought. There is no point in Egypt continuing to link negotiations on water with colonial treaties. Taking the matter to the Arab League and involving its allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE is not going to resolve its insecurities.
Egypt had also referred the dispute to the UN Security Council, saying that it is likely to endanger international peace and security. Egypt also hoped the UNSC would convince Ethiopia to sign the draft agreement. But there is no appetite within the UN Security Council for the matter to be tabled and a resolution drafted. The position of the UNSC is that the matter should be resolved tri-laterally. The more Egypt commits to the trilateral process, then Ethiopia will be more confident that Egypt is a partner it can do business with.
Both Egypt and Sudan want a binding international arbitration process, whereas Ethiopia wants resolution to be found through a negotiations process, not binding arbitration. If such negotiations fail, Ethiopia has warned that it will withdraw from the process and fill the dam regardless of whether an agreement has been reached.
The US and World Bank had initiated a mediation process and come up with a draft agreement in February of this year, but Ethiopia rejected the draft agreement. While Egypt and Ethiopia had accepted US mediation, the process yielded no results. This was primarily because it objected to the drought mitigation proposals whereby it would be asked to make up for reduced water flow in drought years, by providing additional water in later years. Ethiopia does not want a situation where Egypt will be dominating in the future on this issue.
Sudanese President Abdalla Hamdok ended up playing the role of mediating between the Water Ministers of the three countries in order to get the trilateral talks resumed, which were subsequently restarted earlier this month. In early June ministers from the three countries held seven days of negotiations by video conference, but the talks ended with no deal. No date was set for a return to the negotiating table.
The International Crisis Group, which has been following this issue closely, has recommended a third party mediated process between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan that results in a non-binding agreement. The ICG believes this will provide for a long-term sustainable agreement. Ethiopia is in favour of an AU-led process, but Egypt does not want involvement by the African Union or the European Union.
Ethiopia has stressed that the dam will be a regionally beneficial project, and that it is an internationally responsible actor. Ethiopia’s intention is not to deprive neighboring states of much needed water, and the first filling of the dam was supposed to have taken place in 2015, but was continually delayed. The filling of the dam is also considered part of the dam’s construction, which is supposed to happen in parallel. The more water that runs downstream to Sudan and Egypt, the more electricity Ethiopia will be able to generate, and subsequently sell cheaply to its neighbors, so the dam is potentially a win-win situation for the region.
The dam is just 40kms from Sudan, and Sudan realises the potential benefits it will have for the country. The dam is expected to produce a huge amount of cheap electricity, which Sudan will be able to buy. Also, the Blue Nile is a seasonal river, and when it rains it sometimes leads to flooding in Sudan. The dam will be able to regulate the flow, ensuring an even flow of water. This will also mean increased irrigation for Sudan. Sudan merely wants to ensure that the filling of the dam will be properly coordinated with its dam, and that the structural integrity of the Grand Renaissance Dam is assured.
The only time when there might be an issue of water shortage is when the dam is being filled, particularly if there was to be a drought, but the reduced water flowing downstream would be a temporary situation. It is estimated that there is enough water in Egypt’s Aswan Dam to compensate for the shortage, especially if it is raining. One of the recommendations has been that Ethiopia should propose a generous non-binding drought mitigation scheme, where it proposes the amount of water it will allow downstream in the case of a drought. It should also specify what amount of water it would release from storage, especially if there were to be a multi-year drought.
There has been some concern as to whether the tensions around the filling of the dam in the absence of an agreement could lead to military confrontation between the parties. There has even been some concern as to whether Egypt would go so far as launching a military strike on Ethiopia, given that it perceives Ethiopia to “have its hand on the faucet.” But this is a very unlikely scenario even once the dam starts to be filled. Any military strike would not stop Ethiopia from proceeding with filling the dam, and it would only delay the completion of the project. Given that Egypt wants a sustainable long term deal, a strike means there would be zero possibility of that. Only through diplomacy will Egypt be able to achieve its goals.