The Egypt-Ethiopia Nile Water Crisis: a Cause for Regional Tensions?

While the crises in Syria and Yemen continue to demand the attention of Middle East and world leaders, a series of events in the Nile River Valley bear witness to another important issue that threatens the stability of the river basin and the Horn of Africa. Since Ethiopia began construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in 2011, the country has been challenging the long-held power balance in the basin and, in the process, seems intent to replace Egypt as the dominant player in that part of the continent.

As the dam nears completion and Ethiopia finalizes plans to begin filling the reservoir behind it, tensions within the valley have increased and there have been threats of military action. Despite the heated rhetoric, however, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan have demonstrated a willingness to use negotiations to find a peaceful way forward. While GERD could indeed be a source of conflict in the basin, and while relations among Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan will remain unsettled for the foreseeable future, GERD also has the potential to encourage greater basin-wide cooperation.

Tensions within the Basin

Ethiopia began the GERD project on the Blue Nile in 2011 to boost electricity generation and support agricultural development by regulating the Nile’s flow. In a country where almost three-quarters of the population lacks access to electricity, the estimated 6,000 megawatts annually of electricity the dam is expected to generate would prove a huge boost to economic development and overall improvement in the quality of life for millions of Ethiopians. In addition, even if the dam produces closer to 2,000 megawatts annually, as some experts predict, Ethiopia hopes to realize up to $1 billion in revenues from annual sales of excess electricity to its neighbors. Ethiopia has received no external funding to meet the dam’s estimated cost of $5 billion, except for $1 billion from China to finance transmission lines. Instead, funds have come from the government’s budget as well as contributions from Ethiopian citizens—although there is some dispute as to how “voluntary” these contributions have been. The potential economic benefits of the dam for Ethiopia, however, come at a cost to Sudan and, to a much greater extent, Egypt.

Egypt has laid claim to the largest share of the Nile’s water and points to two agreements (made in 1929 and 1959) to substantiate its claim.

Egypt has long regarded any attempt to develop the Nile River outside the country’s borders as an existential threat that must be countered immediately and vigorously. Indeed, previous development schemes have prompted successive Egyptian regimes to threaten military action in order to guarantee the country’s share of the Nile’s flow. Egypt has laid claim to the largest share of the Nile’s water and points to two agreements (made in 1929 and 1959) to substantiate its claim to 55 billion cubic meters (BCM) of the average 88 BCM flow per year.

The reasons for Egypt’s concerns are easy enough to understand. Egypt’s population of almost 100 million is almost completely dependent on the Nile for its water. Moreover, almost 60 percent of the Nile water that reach Egypt come from the Blue Nile, on which the dam is situated. Since Egypt currently has only 660 cubic meters of water available to each resident a year (one of the lowest amounts in the world, and far below the estimated 9,800 cubic meters in the United States), any decrease in the Nile’s flow would have dire consequences for the country. In addition, almost all of Egypt’s population is concentrated within the Nile Valley and Delta, which account for less than four percent of Egypt’s total area. As the population continues to grow, valuable arable land is lost to construction, despite efforts by successive Egyptian governments to minimize illegal building and to reclaim land in the desert.

Against such a backdrop, Egyptian leaders since 2011 have concluded that the GERD project poses a particularly potent threat to the country’s security. In particular, Egypt worries about the huge reservoir behind the dam in Ethiopia and the impact it will have on the Nile’s flow. Some experts estimate that the reservoir could hold up to 74 BCM and would require from five to 15 years to fill. Regardless of the length of time Ethiopia takes to fill the reservoir, the flow to Sudan and then Egypt will certainly be reduced. A study by the Geological Survey of America estimates that flow could be diminished by as much as 25 percent, and Egypt could lose one-third of its power generation. Other studies estimate that 51 percent of Egypt’s farmland could be lost if Ethiopia rushes to fill the dam in three years; that loss could be 17 percent if Ethiopia took six years or more to fill the reservoir.

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has publicly announced that the issue of Egypt’s continued unimpeded access to the Nile’s water is a matter of life and death.

Additionally, Egypt argues that the environmental impact of the dam is still not completely understood and has made repeated demands for studies to examine the short- and long-term consequences of the project. At the very least, salinity levels in the Nile Delta are expected to rise due to the amount of fresh water that will be lost to evaporation. Studies by Cairo University warn that precious heritage sites in Egypt and throughout the Nile Basin could also be threatened. Addis Ababa insists that such claims are overblown and that the dam will have negligible impact on the basin’s environment.

Searching for a Way Forward

Concerned about these possible repercussions of the GERD, successive Egyptian governments have at times threatened military action to stop construction from going forward. In a meeting that then-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi had with political and military advisors, several participants were overheard stating that Ethiopia’s actions were the equivalent of a declaration of war, and that Egyptian special forces should be sent to destroy the dam. Egypt’s current president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, has publicly announced that the issue of Egypt’s continued unimpeded access to the Nile’s water is a matter of life and death, although he has refrained from using the heated rhetoric of his predecessors.

Indeed, despite such dire predictions of conflict, military action has not materialized. Instead, the three riparians most affected by the dam—Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan—have explored non-military means to find a way forward. These efforts have not been successful so far.

There was some hope at first that the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) could serve as a mechanism for bringing the three countries together. Launched in 1999 by the basin’s riparian states, the initiative was intended to be a means for ensuring the sustainable development and management of the Nile’s water through the creation of a Cooperative Framework Agreement. In reality, however, the NBI has not proven to be the forum for fostering trust and cooperation among its members, as had been hoped; Egypt suspended its membership in 2010, and in 2011 Egypt, along with Sudan, refused to sign the Entebbe Agreement concerning a new distribution of Nile water.

A suggestion earlier in 2018 by Egypt to have the World Bank serve as an arbitrator was rejected outright by Ethiopia. In March, a US delegation headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Eric Stromayer traveled to Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan in order to find common ground among the three countries; to date, the visit appears to have had little impact in terms of identifying those common interests, let alone proposing possible solutions.

Ethiopia’s elevation to the leadership of the Nile Basin Initiative in October 2017 means it has yet another mechanism for wielding influence in the Nile Valley.

In addition to these external efforts, the three states have also engaged in a series of tripartite negotiations focused on the dam and its potential impact. Egypt’s Sisi, in particular, has worked tirelessly to craft some kind of agreement and has met personally and regularly with his counterparts in a number of the riparian states, including Ethiopia, Rwanda, Sudan, and Tanzania.

While many of these meetings have produced announcements about “breakthrough agreements” and hold out promises of moving forward, the fact is that progress has been limited. A much-heralded Declaration of Principles in 2015 has languished due to disagreements among the states about the terms of the environmental studies that were part of the declaration. Three-party talks in Addis Ababa in May 2018 did produce an agreement that such talks would continue to be held every six months; however, they failed to resolve long-standing differences regarding the environmental studies, nor did they reach an agreement about the pace for filling the dam’s reservoir. Leaders of the three countries continue to pledge their support for continued discussions, but there is little to date that suggests the riparians are close to an agreement.

Policy Considerations

As policy experts both within the basin and outside the region prepare for the time—possibly as early as July 2018—when Ethiopia begins to fill the reservoir behind GERD, several factors will influence any efforts to achieve an agreement. These factors, while seemingly separate and distinct, are often interrelated to some extent.

One is the growing importance of Ethiopia both within the Horn of Africa and the Nile Basin, while Egypt experiences a parallel diminution in influence. Despite its saber-rattling and diplomatic efforts, Egypt has failed to stop the construction of the dam. Long accustomed to dominating its neighbors, especially when it came to managing the Nile’s water, Egypt has had to accept the “facts on the ground” and watch as construction proceeded apace.

In addition, Egypt has failed to persuade other riparians to join it in opposing the dam. This is most evident with Sudan. While initially in agreement with Egyptian concerns about GERD, Sudan has subsequently been more supportive of Ethiopia’s position, induced in part by promises of access to the excess electricity generated by GERD and reassured by the prospect of more predictable flows of the Nile into Sudan. Indeed, relations between Egypt and Sudan are tense, as Cairo criticizes Khartoum for supporting Ethiopia’s plans for GERD, and Khartoum accuses Cairo of supporting rebel forces in Sudan. In January, Sudan recalled its ambassador in Cairo for consultations; it also asserts that a 2016 maritime agreement between Saudi Arabia and Egypt infringes on waters it claims as its own. Since 1929, Sudan has traditionally allowed Egypt to dictate the terms for how Nile water would be distributed and utilized; that traditional acquiescence seems to be giving way to a willingness to challenge its northern neighbor and pursue different goals.

As the influence of Egypt diminishes, there appears to be a parallel rise in Ethiopia’s ability to shape events in the Nile Valley. As Harry Verhoeven, a professor of African politics, has argued, Ethiopia has been creating a “hydro-political offensive to reorder the region” and, by pushing forward with GERD despite the often-vocal Egyptian criticism, it has demonstrated an ability to advance its national interests and create alliances with neighbors in the process. Ethiopia’s elevation to the leadership of the NBI in October 2017 means it has yet another mechanism for wielding influence in the Nile Valley, while its willingness to share electricity from GERD with its neighbors will give it a potent source of economic influence.

As riparian states, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan need to recognize the importance of using the Nile’s water more efficiently.

A second factor shaping events in the region involves the role played by external players, particularly Turkey and the GCC states. Analysts worry that these external parties are treating the region as a proxy for the ongoing tension within the GCC itself and, in the process, exacerbating instability within the basin. Turkey appears to be looking for ways to project its influence in the Horn of Africa and the Nile Valley. During a visit to Sudan in December 2017 by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir agreed to give Turkey temporary control of the Red Sea port of Suakin. There was also talk during that visit of creating a bilateral strategic cooperation council and encouraging more Turkish investment in Sudan in order to expand bilateral trade. Egypt clearly views improved Sudanese-Turkish relations with alarm and has accused Sudan of working with Qatar and Turkey against its interests.

For their part, the GCC states—particularly Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—have considerable economic and financial stakes in the region and, between 2000 and 2017, invested up to $13 billion in a number of ventures. Initially, these investments focused on the agricultural sector, with Gulf countries buying substantial amounts of farm land, particularly in Sudan and Ethiopia, in order to enhance food security in the Gulf. In time, these investments have expanded and now encompass the construction and manufacturing sectors as well. The overall lack of transparency that characterizes these deals has contributed to concerns about the influence GCC states might have over these countries. As a recent study details, the investments—and the political maneuvering generally by GCC states—have the potential to exacerbate existing tensions in the region and could be a source of instability.

In addition, the three riparians need to recognize the importance of using the Nile’s water more efficiently; even if an agreement can be reached about how the flow should be allocated, the states must tackle the equally challenging question of how the water should be used. For example, growing water-intensive crops such as rice and sugarcane may no longer be viable. In addition, curbing water loss because of leaky, improperly maintained distribution systems will also be essential, as will encouraging more efficient irrigation techniques. Countries will have to consider other sources of water, such as desalination and treated wastewater. They would also do well to reconsider expensive, poorly conceived reclamation projects intended to turn large swaths of desert into land capable of supporting agriculture and planned cities.

Of course, many of these measures will be expensive and will threaten long-held practices and attitudes toward water usage, consumption, allocation, and conservation. Such steps will be essential, however, if these states are to achieve some modicum of water security—let alone reduce the potential for disagreement and conflict.

Finally, while there can be no doubt as to the strained state of relations among Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan, it is also true that each country appears committed to finding a negotiated settlement. Indeed, military raids have not been launched, bombs have not been dropped, and declarations of war have not been made. Rather, the countries have engaged in a series of protracted talks and meetings aimed at identifying common ground and achieving consensus around shared objectives.

This causes many observers to be cautiously optimistic that the Nile’s water could actually be a source of cooperation rather than competition. Ethiopia and Egypt, for example, could coordinate on the discharge from GERD and the Aswan Dam to maximize power generation and control flooding. Ethiopia will require a reliable regional power grid if it is to realize economic benefit from the excess electricity generated by GERD, and it could collaborate with its neighbors in the construction of such a network. Similarly, all the countries could benefit from more reliable distribution systems for the agricultural gains realized from improved irrigation.

There is no doubt that the completion of GERD will intensify competition for the Nile’s finite resources, thereby contributing to heightened tension and instability in the basin. While full-fledged military conflict is not likely, rivalries among the three riparians will continue, and each can be expected to jockey for any advantage that would strengthen its position. Nonetheless, these governments appear to be willing (at least for now) to build on the track record—albeit an imperfect one—of a negotiated way forward.

Daniel Stoll is a guest writer for Arab Center Washington DC. He focuses on issues of water and food security in the Middle East and North Africa.