This past week, Ethiopia opted to skip what was billed as the final round of talks in Washington to resolve the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Resolving the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has been more challenging for American negotiators than they appear to have anticipated, as this was the second missed deadline for resolving the dispute. Despite claims that a fill schedule had been agreed on and an agreement would be signed by the end of February, Ethiopia skipped, derailing any hope of signing an agreement and entered into a war of words with the U.S.. Following Ethiopia’s decision not to attend the negotiations in late February, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin issued a statement insisting Ethiopia shouldn’t begin filling the dam’s reservoir until an agreement had been reached. Ethiopia rejected this and called on the U.S. to “correct” its statement, with Ethiopia’s foreign minister Gedu Andargachew referring to it as “undiplomatic.”
While there was reason to hope that high level foreign mediation could help the parties arrive to an agreement, the latest developments raise serious concerns whether this dispute will be resolved amicably. The implications of this dispute are substantial and wide-reaching. The disagreement over the GERD has origins that date back several decades and Egypt’s concerns about water extend far beyond a single dam.
Resolving the issue is pressing for all parties. Egypt has reason to be alarmed. While Ethiopia had insisted that the long-term flow of the Nile would return to normal once the reservoir is filled, reports indicate that Ethiopia seeks to reserve the right to ultimately curtail the flow in order to protect the pace of hydropower production. Even a short-term reduction in flow will likely contribute to the desertification of arable land in Egypt, not only because of less water reaching the Nile’s banks in Egypt, but also because less water pushing back against sea water from the Mediterranean will accelerate the salination of farmland already taking place in the Nile Delta. Without the dam, Egypt is already estimated to currently have a 7 billion cubic meter annual water deficit while its birthrate in the past decade has been on the rise.
Egypt’s stakes its claims to the bulk of the Nile’s water date based on the colonial era Nile Water Agreement, first in the form of an exchange of letters between the Egyptian and British governments in 1929 and supplemented 30 years later with a more formal treaty. The Nile Water Agreement of 1959 gives Egypt and Sudan the rights to all water that flows through the Nile. According to the agreement, Egypt is to receive 55.5 billion cubic meters of water annually while Sudan is allotted 18.5 billion cubic meters. Excess flow is then split between the two countries equally. The original 1929 agreement gives Egypt and Sudan veto power over any upstream projects that compromise the flow of Nile waters to them.
Egypt has been adamant that the treaties are legally binding and has used it to block upstream projects in the past. Ethiopia, however, was not a party to the treaty and alongside many riparian states does not recognize the treaty as legitimate, dismissing it as an antiquated colonial imposition. In 2013, Ethiopia and five other riparian nations ratified a new agreement entitled the Nile River Cooperative Framework Agreement. This agreement paves the way for other upstream nations to build dams of their own in the future.
While Ethiopia doesn’t recognize the 1929 and 1959 agreements, Ethiopian officials have feared that international financial institutions would insist on consultations with downstream countries affected and that Egypt would be able to pressure them into delaying financing. As a result, the government chose to self-finance, drawing a large sum from Ethiopia’s relatively poverty stricken economy. Ethiopians, as well as local banks, were forced to buy bonds issued to finance the dam. However, some economists have feared that by taking this route, the government had drained the economy of scarce capital needed to continue to grow.
By self-financing, Ethiopia significantly limited any external leverage Egypt could have over the dam’s construction. Ethiopia chose to build facts on the ground, forcing Egypt to accept that it would eventually be built and operational, immune from an outright Egyptian veto. In a 2010 interview, Ethiopia’s then-Prime Minister Meles Zenawi accused Egypt of backing rebels to destabilize Ethiopia and disrupt its plans to build the dam, a charge that Egypt has denied. However, leaked documents have corroborated claims that Mubarak was considering military options if diplomatic channels failed to stop the the dam’s construction.
During Morsi’s presidency, rhetoric was somewhat heightened over the dam and a meeting thought to be secret was broadcast live. During this meeting some raised the idea of using force to stop the dam from being completed as well. A few weeks later Morsi was overthrown.
Egypt’s current president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi has struck a more conciliatory tone with Ethiopia. He has consistently insisted that diplomacy will lead to a resolution and while hosting Ethiopia’s current Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in 2018 asked him to “swear to god” that he would not harm Egyptians.
Earlier in the process, under President Omar al-Bashir, Sudan sided with Ethiopia. This was likely motivated by existing tensions with Egypt as well as the prospect of better regulated Nile flows that might assist in developing Sudan’s underutilized (but growing) agricultural sector. As things stand, Sudan does not use its full share of Nile water, allowing billions of cubic meters from its quota to flow north to Egypt. At one point during talks, al-Bashir offered to “donate” a share of its water to Ethiopia to facilitate filling the reservoir. Since al-Bashir’s overthrow last year, Sudan has moved to a more neutral position as relations between Cairo and Sudan’s new transitional government improve.
While official rhetoric has been more positive in recent years, little, if any, progress was made. Neither party has any direct leverage over the other. While Egypt has avoided any official military threats to Ethiopia it has acquired fighter jets with longer ranges that place the dam within reach. Egypt has also opened a large new air base on its southern Red Sea coast. Shortly before the U.S. agreed to mediate talks, an uptick in bombastic rhetoric over the dam on Egyptian television, likely as part of an effort to distract from recent anti-regime protests, led Abiy Ahmed to respond saying that while war is not in anyone’s interests, “if there is a need to go to war, we could get millions readied.”
For years, Egypt has called for foreign mediation to resolve the dispute. However Ethiopia long refused, believing external mediators were more likely to aid Egypt and introduce new leverage over Ethiopia in the talks. Ultimately, after this latest flare-up in rhetoric, Cairo succeeded in securing talks hosted by U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, with the World Bank acting as an observer. However, reporting by Mada Masr indicates that Egypt hasn’t gotten the support it was originally hoping for, neither from the U.S. nor from its allies in the Gulf who themselves have interests in the Horn of Africa. Instead, the U.S. appears to be pressing Egypt to make concessions it’s averse to. It also appears that U.S. President Donald Trump is in a hurry to have all parties sign a deal he can take credit for brokering and claim a diplomatic victory.
Egypt’s population is growing quickly while its water resources are fixed and may be about to shrink. Arable land also shrinking which means intensifying water scarcity and food insecurity is in Egypt’s future. Egypt is also concerned that other riparian states will view Ethiopia’s success as a model to emulate and pursue their own upstream projects that could further disrupt and reduce the Nile waters reaching Sudan and Egypt. Even without these external threats to Egypt’s water resources, governance failures, waste, pollution and poor agriculture planning all contribute to a growing crisis that the government must quickly move to address.
For Ethiopia’s part, it is under pressure to get the dam’s turbines operational as soon as possible. Millions of Ethiopians are literally and figuratively invested in this project which has already been marred by cost overruns and a series of delays. Beyond the planned export of electricity, 70% of Ethiopians currently live without access to electricity.
Beyond water, there has been a large buildup of foreign military bases in the Horn of Africa which makes averting conflict all the more pressing. While the likelihood of war is low, it cannot be dismissed outright. Moreover, if the GERD talks set a precedent that opens the gates for a more persistent threat to Egypt’s access to the Nile water, it’s likely that conflict will have only been delayed rather than averted. A sustainable orderly model for managing Nile water must be developed. A future in which states unilaterally pursue projects as they please until a crisis is reached is a recipe for disaster and, possibly, military confrontations.