On the Brink of a Water War

Egypt relies on the Nile River for its survival, as it has for many centuries. More than 90 million Egyptians depend on the Nile’s water for their lives and livelihood. If Ethiopia has its way, however, the flow rate of this life-giving water will be reduced by up to 25% for years. The construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd), Ethiopia’s first major dam on the Blue Nile, is near completion. Ethiopia and Egypt have been at loggerheads over how they will define what constitutes “fair and equitable usage” once Ethiopia starts filling the giant reservoir, which will be used to power what would become Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam. Diplomacy has given way to accusations, recrimination and finally deadlock in recent weeks. Unless a way is found to bridge the divide between Egypt and Ethiopia, war appears almost inevitable.

The impasse between Egypt and Ethiopia over the equitable utilization of the water of the Blue Nile stems from treaty rights dating back to 1929, when the British and Egyptian governments finalized a treaty granting Egypt an allocation of 48 billion cubic meters of the Nile River’s 84 Bcm flow, and granted Egypt veto power over construction projects on the Nile, or any of its tributaries, that interfered with the flow of water into the Nile. Egypt’s neighbor, Sudan (at the time governed by the UK), was granted an allocation of 4 Bcm.

In 1959, Egypt and newly independent Sudan entered into a bilateral agreement that reinforced and expanded upon the 1929 treaty, increasing the water allocations for both nations. These two treaties, collectively known as the Nile Waters Agreements, did not make any allowance for the water rights of the other riparian states, including Ethiopia, whose headlands feed the Blue Nile River, providing some 85% of the Nile’s water.

The Nile Waters Agreements came under increasing attack from the nontreaty riparian states as unfairly restricting their use of waters originating on their soil for their own economic development. In an effort to stave off conflict and enhance cooperation regarding the use of what was termed “common Nile Basin water resources,” the riparian states came together in 1999 and formed what was known as the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). Through the NBI, the riparian states — including Egypt and Ethiopia — began working on a new treaty framework governing the allocation of the Nile water resources known as the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA). The CFA introduced two concepts into the overall discussion, namely “equitable water allocation” and “water security.”

By 2010, the CFA was presented for signature. All the riparian states signed the agreement save Egypt and Sudan, who argued that the agreement violated their “water security” by failing to protect their current uses and rights as reflected in the Nile Waters Agreements. Ethiopia, desperate for increased sources of electricity to power development and raise the standard of living of its population, refused to allow Egypt and Sudan to hold its development as a nation hostage. In 2011, it began construction on the Gerd. Almost immediately Egypt condemned the project, with then-President Mohamed Morsi saying that “all options were on the table” when it came to the protection of Egyptian water security.

In March 2015, the leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan met in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum to sign the Khartoum Agreement, which was intended to resolve the various outstanding issues surrounding the Gerd, which was still under construction. The Khartoum Agreement, while codifying Egypt’s recognition of Ethiopian rights to use the waters of the Blue Nile for its own domestic needs, left unresolved the exact definition of the equitable, fair, and reasonable allocation and utilization of the waters of the Blue Nile River. The two nations remained engaged in a lengthy negotiation to resolve their differences. However, in October 2019, as the Gerd neared completion and Ethiopia prepared to begin filling the dam’s reservoir, these talks broke down.

The US Tries to Break the Deadlock

The US stepped in with a series of talks hosted by the US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in January 2020 to put Egypt and Ethiopia on the path toward reconciliation. The main issue between the two nations was the so-called “fill schedule” governing the rate at which Ethiopia could divert the waters of the Blue Nile to fill the reservoir. Ethiopia had been demanding that the dam be filled over the course of three years due to its growing need for electricity.

Egypt, on the other hand, sought to reduce the impact of the diversion of the Blue Nile’s waters as much as possible, and proposed a filling schedule that stretched out up to 15 years. In the end, Ethiopia’s position was that flow would be limited to 31 billion cubic meters of water per year, while Egypt countered with a minimum of 40 Bcm. The US compromise position was a flow rate of 37 Bcm.

A signing ceremony was scheduled to take place in Washington, DC last month, but Ethiopia withdrew at the last moment, leaving Egypt as the sole signatory. Secretary Mnuchin, while remaining hopeful for an eventual agreement, warned Ethiopia not to begin filling the Gerd reservoir without a signed agreement. Egypt, for its part, echoed Mnuchin’s sentiment, and warned Ethiopia that Egypt would use everything in its power to protect its rights when it came to the waters of the Nile. In a last-ditch effort to resolve the differences between Egypt and Ethiopia, the US scheduled a new round of talks for early March. Ethiopia, however, pulled out at the last minute.

If Ethiopia were to begin filling the Gerd reservoir without an agreement, Egypt would be left with the option of either doing nothing, which would be politically untenable, or using military force to either destroy the dam or damage it so that the reservoir could not be filled. Egypt’s air force is more than capable of carrying out air attacks to accomplish this objective, but such strikes would expose Egypt to international condemnation and potential isolation. Another option would be for Egypt to expand its existing support for Ethiopian rebel forces, known as the Oromo Liberation Front, and direct these rebels to attack the Gerd.

Ethiopia’s motivation for disrupting the Nile River talks appears to be driven purely by domestic politics. After an investment of more than $4.8 billion, or around 5% of Ethiopia’s annual GDP, the Ethiopian government is under considerable pressure to bring the project to fruition rapidly. One of the goals of the Gerd project was to provide electricity to all of Ethiopia, spurring economic development across the country. Any failure to deliver on its promise of electrification would be a huge political embarrassment for the Ethiopian prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who took office in April 2018.

War between Egypt and Ethiopia is not inevitable, however. While Egypt’s position is starkly linked to national survival, Ethiopia’s stance is purely political and can be offset with the right package of economic incentives. The European Union has been approached to serve as an intermediary for determining the price tag for Ethiopia to agree to the compromise fill schedule negotiated by Mnuchin. Under this plan, the EU would work with Egypt to come up with a funding mechanism to pay Ethiopia. The EU plan would also require Egypt to make improvements in its water management to avoid the need for future adjustments to Ethiopia’s operation of the Gerd project.

But there is one major complicating factor — the coronavirus pandemic. With the attention of both the US and Europe fully focused on the economic and health emergency brought on by the outbreak of the coronavirus, there is little if any diplomatic bandwidth available to oversee the complex diplomacy required to bring the EU plan to fruition. Moreover, with the global economy in decline because of the need to isolate and quarantine national populations, the ability to generate the kind of funds needed to appease Ethiopia is in doubt. Void of any new diplomatic initiative, it looks as if Ethiopia and Egypt will be left to their own devices to resolve their dispute. One thing, however, seems certain — if Ethiopia opts to fill the Gerd reservoir without Egyptian concurrence, there will be war.


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