July 20, 2020

Negotiations between Cairo and Addis Ababa on sharing the waters of the Nile have yet again broken down even as the rainy season has begun in Ethiopia. This is already swelling the waters of the Blue Nile, allowing Ethiopia to begin part-filling the vast reservoir behind the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) it is building 10 miles from the border with Sudan. To hit the 2023 deadline for Africa’s largest dam to begin producing hydroelectric power, Ethiopia has to part-flood the reservoir this summer in order to test two turbines. The rainy season lasts only about four months and delay would push the entire project back.

The Egyptians are furious that Ethiopia plans to go ahead without their agreement. For them, the Nile is a matter of life or death. Egypt is mostly desert and so 95% of its 85 million-strong population lives along the river’s banks and delta. Cairo argues that if the GERD operates according to Ethiopia’s plans it will put five million farmers out of work, cut agricultural production by half, and further destabilise a country fighting against an Islamist insurgency. Its sugar cane rice plantations are expected to be hard hit and the northern delta areas, already damaged by saltwater intrusion from the Mediterranean, may suffer greater salination.

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This is for Egypt an existential matter: it’s not that Ethiopia intends to completely cut the flow of water into the North African state, it’s that they will have the power to do so. Cairo insists that Addis Ababa comes to the table and signs a treaty agreeing an equitable sharing of the life blood of the Egyptian nation. Ethiopia sees things differently and crucially it has geography on its side. As the upstream nation it is the dominant party in the dispute, and given that the project looks destined to provide desperately-needed power to all of its 110 million population it is not about to back down.

The dam will create so much energy that Ethiopia will be able to export the surplus to Sudan. Eventually the $4.5 billion project may fuel greater economic success for the country as it becomes an even more attractive investment opportunity for international companies. China, the USA, Turkey and the Gulf States are all big players in a country which may soon have the energy supplies to help build joint venture infrastructure projects.

The passions on each side are understandable. Upstream, Addis Ababa says too many of its regions have to rely on rain-fed agriculture which, given periodic droughts, leaves millions of Ethiopians vulnerable to food shortages. The GERD has become a national symbol of Ethiopia’s resurgence from being the starving and poverty-stricken nation of the 1980’s to East Africa’s economic powerhouse. Many Ethiopians have no time for Cairo’s stance on water flow, viewing Egypt as a colonial power that helped the slave trade, attempted to invade them, and still contributes to poverty in their country.

The negotiating starting points are the colonial era agreements, along with the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty that gave Egypt an annual allocation of water, plus veto over any attempt by an upstream state to construct dams along the river. Ethiopia, which remained independent during the colonial period, argues that it is not bound by pre or post-colonial agreements it didn’t sign.

This spring the squabbling between them heated up. Egypt’s President Sisi said he would use “all available means” to defend Egypt’s interests, fighting talk that led many analysts to speculate that a major “water war” was on the cards. That can’t be ruled out, but there are many things constraining the Egyptian military.

Here again, geography favours Ethiopia. It is land locked, so reaching it means going through either Sudan or, after a journey down the Red Sea, through Eritrea. Neither option is attractive. The top brass in Cairo know the history of their military expeditions well enough: Egypt’s disastrous attempted invasion of Ethiopia in 1874/5 is a reminder of the dangers of taking on the only African nation not to have been colonised. More recently, its involvement in the Yemen War in the 1960s saw 70,000 Egyptian soldiers head across the Red Sea, but only 60,000 returning alive.

The option of an air assault on the dam will have been considered, but probably not for long. Hitting it when the reservoir is full risks flooding Sudan and causing international outrage. So the window on that option is closing, and besides, the Egyptian F-16s and Rafael jets are thought not to have the refuelling capability to get them back home — if they survived the attack.

This spring Ethiopia’s senior command visited the missile defence systems surrounding the thick reservoir walls and vowed to “retaliate if there are any attacks”. This tough talking is not a surprise given that this is election year in Ethiopia and the Government has an interest in holding firm on what is a cause célèbre in the country.

Egypt probably cannot afford to risk a conflict. Its military is conducting huge exercises on the Libyan border and warning that it is prepared to invade the country. Cairo has said it will go in to support opposition forces if the Turkish-backed government army crosses Egypt’s red lines and attempts to take Libyan oil facilities currently held by the opposition. Given this crisis to Egypt’s west, Addis Ababa does not expect that Cairo would risk a shooting match to its south. President Sisi has not shown himself to be much of a gambler, and in his part of the world fighting a war risks not just losing it, but losing your grip on power, and even your life.

Another restraining influence is diplomacy. The Saudis and the UAE have substantial investments in both countries and do not wish to see them undermined by conflict, while the African Union (AU) is still trying to get the two sides to negotiate, and American diplomacy, which failed earlier this year, is still involved.

So, the likelihood is that Ethiopia will begin to part-fill the reservoir this year to a depth allowing them to test the first two turbines, top it up again next year to test the remainder, and then fill it to the 74 billion cubic metres (bcm) of water capacity by 2025. It says the Egyptians will come to see that this will not have a significant impact on their supply.

Egypt proposes a 10- to 15-year filling process, and a reduction in both capacity and the dam’s height to give it time to switch some of its agricultural sector to products which are less water intensive. Ethiopia responds that these ideas are a non-starter, but has offered  to guarantee Egypt 31 bcm a year. Egypt insists on 40 bcm.

Alarm bells rang a few days ago when satellite images showed that the waters in the valley behind the dam had risen considerably but eased slightly after experts said this was probably due only to increased rainwater and not because the dam’s gates had been closed. Initially Ethiopia plans to hold back approximately 10% of the Blue Nile’s annual flow, meaning it will take until at least 2025 before the reservoir is full, at which point it could stretch back about 150 miles.

The way ahead may be for the AU to get Prime Minister Abiy and President Sisi around the same table to agree a compromise, including promises from Ethiopia not to use upstream-stored reserves for irrigation. The Egyptians are open to the idea of a mini-summit hosted by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is the current AU chair. Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told state TV that “the desired goal is to always reach an agreement and it is the thing we are trying to achieve.” So, even as the window for military action closes, the door has not closed on diplomacy.

Water is a matter of national security for all of the countries which rely on the Nile river system. Burundi, Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda all monitor the flow of the river through their borders, but none are as at risk as Egypt, and none are less at risk than Ethiopia; 80% of Nile water originates in the Ethiopian mountains.

These facts mean that the Egyptians are going to have to compromise and get used to the idea that after millennia of being the pre-eminent Nile power, times have changed. The Greek historian Herodotus described Egypt as the gift of the Nile — but what the Nile gives, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam can take away.