Bridging the Gap in the Nile Waters Dispute
Ethiopia is building a mighty dam on the Blue Nile, promising economic benefits for both itself and Sudan. But Egypt fears for its freshwater supply. The parties should agree on how fast to fill the dam’s reservoir and how to share river waters going forward.
What’s new? Ethiopia is moving ahead with construction of Africa’s largest dam, despite Egypt’s worry that it will reduce the downstream flow of the Nile, the source of around 90 per cent of its freshwater supply. It is crucial that the parties resolve their dispute before the dam begins operating.
Why does it matter? The Nile basin countries could be drawn into conflict because the stakes are so high: Ethiopia sees the hydroelectric dam as a defining national development project; Sudan covets the cheap electricity and expanded agricultural production that it promises; and Egypt perceives the possible loss of water as an existential threat.
What should be done? The three countries should adopt a two-step approach: first, they should build confidence by agreeing upon terms for filling the dam’s reservoir that do not harm downstream countries. Next, they should negotiate a new, transboundary framework for resource sharing to avert future conflicts.
The three-way dispute among Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over the sharing of the Nile waters remains deadlocked. An April 2018 leadership transition in Ethiopia eased tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa. But the parties have made little headway in resolving the crisis triggered by Ethiopia’s 2011 decision to build the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), expected to be the largest hydropower plant in Africa. Egypt fears that the dam will drastically reduce water flow downstream and thus imperil its national security. Ethiopia and Sudan assert their right to exploit the Nile waters to further develop their economies. The three countries need to act now to avert a graver crisis when the dam comes online. They should accede to immediate steps to mitigate damage, particularly during the filling of the dam’s reservoir, when water flow to downstream countries could decline. Next, they and other riparian states should seek a long-term transboundary agreement on resource sharing that balances the needs of countries up and down the Nile basin and offers a framework for averting conflict over future projects.
The stakes in the dispute are high. Egypt relies on the Nile for about 90 per cent of its freshwater needs. Its government argues that tampering with the river’s flow would put millions of farmers out of work and threaten the country’s food supply. In Ethiopia, engineers estimate that the GERD will produce about 6,450 megawatts of electricity, a hydropower jackpot that would boost the country’s aspirations to attain middle-income status by 2025. Authorities have sold the dam as a defining national endeavour: millions of Ethiopians bought bonds to finance its construction, helping implant the initiative in the national psyche. Fervent public support for the dam has recently cooled, however, following allegations of financial mismanagement.
Between 2011 and 2017, Egyptian and Ethiopian leaders framed the GERD dispute in stark, hyper-nationalist terms and exchanged belligerent threats. Politicians in Cairo called for sabotaging the dam. Media outlets in both countries compared the two sides’ military strength in anticipation of hostilities.
A recent rapprochement has quieted the row. Ethiopia’s new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, visited Cairo in June 2018 and promised to ensure that Ethiopia’s development projects do not harm Egypt. In turn, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said his country recognises that the dispute has no military solution. But despite the warming relations, there has been little substantive progress toward a resolution.
Political upheaval in all three countries complicates this task to varying degrees. In Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir, in power since 1989, is clinging precariously to his job amid the most sustained wave of protest the country has seen in decades. In Ethiopia, Abiy, while enormously popular with the public, is struggling to consolidate his hold on power. Egypt’s Sisi is relatively secure in his position, but his drive to extend his stay in office until at least 2034 has divided the military establishment, his key domestic constituency. These internal dynamics mean that the leaders dedicate less time to the Nile dam issue than they should. They could blunder into a crisis if they do not strike a bargain before the GERD begins operation.
Egyptian, Ethiopian and Sudanese authorities should consider a phased approach to agreeing on a way forward. Most urgent is the question of how quickly to fill the dam’s reservoir. At first, Ethiopia proposed filling it in three years, while Egypt suggested a process lasting up to fifteen. To achieve a breakthrough on this question, Ethiopia should fully cooperate with its downstream partners and support studies seeking to outline an optimal fill rate timeline. If necessary, the three countries should seek third-party support from a mutually agreed-upon partner to break the impasse. Ethiopia should also agree to stagger the fill rate so that it picks up pace in years with plentiful rains, which would minimise disruption of water flows.
To reduce mutual suspicion, leaders should take a number of confidence-building measures. Prime Minister Abiy should invite his Egyptian and Sudanese counterparts to tour the GERD construction site, thus highlighting Ethiopia’s willingness to address downstream countries’ concerns. Such a demonstration of Ethiopian good-will could afford the Egyptian authorities the space to make necessary adjustments, notably improving inefficient water management systems. For its part, Cairo should declare that it will not support armed Ethiopian opposition groups, to allay Addis Ababa’s fears.
Outside partners should encourage Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to approach the dispute not as an existential conflict but as a chance to establish a resource-sharing partnership.
Outside partners could help build confidence. The European Investment Bank, which the Ethiopians perceive as less pro-Egyptian than the World Bank, might offer Addis funding for the last phase of dam construction. Such funding could be conditional on Ethiopia cooperating on sticking points such as the fill rate. The EU should continue its talks with downstream countries on potential guarantees (including loans) and other instruments to support those countries in years in which drought or other shocks endanger food security. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as Qatar and Turkey, could offer bilateral or trilateral investment in agriculture in Ethiopia and/or Sudan that afford Egypt a discounted and reliable supply of staples, notably wheat and rice. The U.S. and China, which enjoy close ties to some Nile basin governments, could also encourage parties to resolve their disputes before the GERD is completed.
Next, authorities in Addis Ababa, Cairo and Khartoum should lay the ground for more substantive discussions of a long-term framework for Nile basin management to avert similar crises in the future. Egypt should rejoin the Nile Basin Initiative, the only forum that brings together all riparian countries and the best venue available for discussing mutually beneficial resource sharing. Such talks would consider Egyptian proposals that, in the future, upstream countries carry out major development projects in consultation with downstream nations. A permanent institutional framework could also help the countries prepare for challenges down the road, including climate change-induced environmental shocks, notably variable rainfall patterns, which could cause greater water stress.
Outside partners should encourage Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to approach the dispute not as an existential conflict but as a chance to establish a resource-sharing partnership. Delays in the GERD’s completion and the improved mood following Prime Minister Abiy’s ascent make this moment propitious for negotiating a way forward. Waiting until the dam is operational – when its impact on downstream countries is clearer – would raise the risk of violent conflict.
Nairobi/Abu Dhabi/Istanbul/Brussels, 20 March 2019