The Damned Nile

The year is 2011.

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Hope was in the air. The Arab Spring had blossomed anti-government protests in Egypt. Demonstrations fruited Hosni Mubarak’s resignation and subsequent arrest, with democratic elections instituted and Mohamed Morsi becoming Egypt’s first civilian President in 2012. For Ethiopia, 2011 marked the beginning of the construction of what would become to be known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Costing around $4bn, it is the country’s most ambitious– and controversial– infrastructure project to date. 

Fast forward to 2020. 

For Egypt, a lot is left to be desired. Morsi was ousted by the military General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. For Ethiopia, following years of protests and unrest, Hailemariam Desalegn resigned both as Prime Minister and Chairman of the EPRD, an ethnic federalist coalition in Ethiopia.  Abiy Ahmed replaced him in both positions. With Ahmed came a range of economic and political reforms that won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, renewing hopes for a freer and prosperous Ethiopia. 

Throughout the tremendous political change that swept both nations, disagreement and animosity over Ethiopia’s plans for the GERD has remained constant. Years of negotiations have only produced further deadlock, with Egypt adamant that Ethiopia agree to a legally binding arrangement regarding the level of water that should pass through the dam – Ethiopia is reluctant to bind itself to any such document. 

Why is the GERD so contentious, and is there scope for compromise?

A Dammed River

To understand why the dam is so controversial, it is important to understand the geography of the Nile. With a total length of about  6,600 km, spanning from Uganda to Egypt, and through running through or along the border of 10 other nations, the Nile is the longest river on the planet. 

It has three main tributaries; the White Nile which flows from Lake Victoria in Uganda, the Blue Nile flowing from Lake Tana in Ethiopia and the Atbara in Sudan. 

The Blue Nile is the most significant water source to Egypt. Despite being shorter than the White Nile, the Blue Nile tributary accounts for roughly 56% of the water that reaches Egypt. When combined with the river Atbara (a tributary that connects with the White Nile in Sudan but originates from the Ethiopian highlands), the figure rises to 90% of the water and 96% of the mineral-rich sediment which fertilises the soil upon which farmers in Egypt and Sudan cultivate on. 

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is being built in the ‎Benishangul-Gumuz Region near the border with Sudan. Once completed, the dam will flood 1,680 square kilometers worth of forest, an area larger than that of London and about 4 times the size of Cairo, holding around 70 billion cubic meters of water – equal to the entire annual flow of the Blue Nile at the Sudan border. It is expected that the reservoir – which is the main source of Egypt’s concerns – will take 7 years to fill.

Go with the Flow

“The Nile is a question of life, a matter of existence to Egypt”

-President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi

Population density in Egypt.

Egypt is facing a crisis of water scarcity. A nation is said to be water scarce if its supplies fall below 1,000 cubic metres of water per person per year. Egyptian officials report that the supply of water per person is approximately 570 cubic metres. Nearly all Egyptians depend on the Nile for their supply of water, and the vast majority of the nation’s population lives in close proximity to the Nile. With a population of over 100 million and growing, the strain on water resources will only increase in the coming decades.

In addition to providing water to millions of Egyptians, the Nile contributes heavily to the economy, providing 65% of Egypt’s industrial water needs. Given the crucial role that the Nile plays in the functioning of the Egyptian state, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam could potentially pose an existential threat – a viewpoint that seems to have taken hold in Egypt. Though Sisi has ruled out the possible military action, he has sought every avenue possible within agreed international convention to have Ethiopia sign a binding agreement securing a specified amount of water to flow through the dam, particularly in times of drought.

Colonial… precedent?

Egypt has asserted that it has an “established [legal] right” to the Nile, primarily citing the 1959 bilateral treaty it signed with Sudan, which apportioned 66% of the Nile’s total flow to Egypt and 22% to Sudan. Furthermore, the 1959 treaty reaffirmed the 1929 Nile Agreement Egypt had with Britain, which recognised Egypt’s “historical and natural rights” to the Nile. Neither treaties included Ethiopia, despite the nation controlling the tributaries upon which the majority of Egypt’s water supply flows from. Ethiopia has been, to put it lightly, reticent to recognise the validity of these 20th–century treaties.

“The most absurd thing you ever heard”

Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopian Minister of Water, Irrigation
and Energy on Egypt’s claims that the colonial precedent is valid.

Bekele’s comments should not be controversial. The Anglo-Egyptian and 1959 treaties did not include Ethiopia nor other upstream riparian countries such as Uganda, Kenya or Ethiopia. The Anglo-Egyptian treaty in particular, is based off colonial precedent that disregarded completely the peoples of East Africa and instead sought to give the Egyptian state undue power over control of the Nile– the 1929 agreement gave Egypt the power to veto the construction of any dam that would reduce the flow of downstream water to Egypt.

De facto vulnerability

Both Egypt and Sudan have erroneously and unsuccessfully failed to enforce the validity of the treaties. All upper riparian nations in East Africa have vehemently rejected both 20th century pacts, arguing that they were not party to either of them. When upper riparian nations attempted to create a framework upon which the waters of the Nile would be shared more collaboratively through the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), both Egypt and Sudan refused to sign. They stated that the CFA failed to adequately protect their pre-existing rights to the Nile. 

Such reasoning is fundamentally flawed because it fails to acknowledge the reality for both Egypt and Sudan that they are not in a position to dictate terms. It is the upper riparian states that control the sources of the Nile. Irrespective of what they believe is their “natural” claim to the river, the de facto situation is that upstream nations can harness the hydroelectric potential of the Nile should they wish to do so, and indeed they have. 

The construction of the GERD was perhaps the eeriest display of powerlessness that both nations have experienced in regard to control of the Nile. Despite Egypt and Sudan’s initial opposition to the dam, in 2015 both nations recognised for the first time “the significance of the River Nile as a source of livelihood and the significant resource to the development of the people of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan.”

Attempts to force Ethiopia to legally bind itself to a set amount of water have proven fruitless. Whether it be via the African Union, the United Nations or the US as an ‘independent’ mediator, Ethiopia has refused to budge. It views the construction and subsequent exploitation of the White Nile’s waters as an exercise of its own sovereignty– it neither feels obligated nor required to come to any accord with Egypt, especially if it were to unnecessarily slow the filling of the dam. 

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam: A statement of Ethiopian intent

“Eradicate our common enemy– poverty

-Simegnew Bekele Aynalem, former chief project manager of the GERD.

For most Ethiopians, the GERD represents a confirmation of their nation’s ascendancy from the destitution and turmoil of the late 20th century to the status of a middle-income country by 2025. Ethiopia’s economy has enjoyed strong economic growth, with GDP rising an average of 9.9% between 2007/08 and 2017/18, an impressive figure when contrasted with the regional average of 5.4%. Despite its incredible growth, it remains one of the poorest nations on Earth, with a per capita income of $790.

Projects such as the GERD will help to further accelerate that growth and change the lives of millions of Ethiopians. Only about 45% of Ethiopia’s citizens have access to electricity and the GERD has the potential to enable the country to be able to provide electricity to all. The GERD, alongside the Gilgel Gibe III Dam completed in 2016, will almost quadruple Ethiopia’s energy capacity and turn it into a net exporter of electricity, generating an eventual revenue of approximately $1 billion a year. 

The dam may catapult Ethiopia well and truly into industrialisation, and as such it is no surprise that it serves as a unifying cause for all Ethiopians. The dam was financed through donations from Ethiopians and the issuance of government bonds– with the country not taking out a loan from international development banks. The dam is more than another infrastructure project. To many Ethiopians, the GERD is a product of their own blood, sweat and tears, serving as a testament of the prosperity and triumph that awaits the nation. Therefore it is understandable as to why the government is protecting it with great zeal, vigour and ferocity.

Egypt: Genuine cause for concern?

Despite the… peculiar approach that the Egyptian government has adopted in its attempts to achieve a degree of water security for its people, Egypt does indeed have legitimate reasons to be worried about the future of its water supply.

Egypt’s climate is overwhelmingly desert. The country experiences very little rainfall, approximately 200 millimeters of precipitation annually. The Nile has given sustenance to some of humanity’s most emphatic civilisations– most notably those of Ancient Egypt, with structures such as the Great Pyramid of Giza erected by the Pharaoh Khufu being one of a plethora of examples. Farmers in Egypt have long depended on the floods that bring with them mineral-rich soil. 

The Nile is not merely a source of livelihood for millions of Egyptians. In many ways, the nation’s identity is synonymous with the river, its history and destiny intertwined with that of the Nile. In that sense, President Sisi’s fears of a dramatic fall in water flow to Egypt are real, and his concerns (when separated from his actions) are comprehensible. 

One only has to look at Kenya’s grievances with Ethiopia’s ambitions to understand why Egypt is so adamant of a binding assurance on Ethiopia to allow a minimum level of water to flow through the dam– even in times of drought. 

The construction of the Gibe III Dam by Ethiopia, with plans by the nation to build more along the Omo river, has led to the United Nations cultural agency (UNESCO) adding Lake Turkana in Kenya to its list of endangered sites. The Omo river provides 90% of the water to the world’s largest desert lake, the Turkana. The lake in turn provides water to roughly 300,000 people, and their access to water is greatly threatened by Ethiopia’s ever-growing number of dams.

Egypt cannot simply close their eyes in prayer and hope that the rains will forever remain plentiful; that it will continue to receive the same flow of water and everyone can live happily ever after. The reality is that the effects of climate change will result in the exacerbation of unusual weather patterns. There will be times when drought will plague the region, and in those times it will be essential that Egypt has a degree of certainty as to how much water its people will have access to, otherwise it will set itself up for a century of precarity and fragility. 

Is there scope for compromise?

“We are keen to reach a solution to the issue via negotiations”

– President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi

Water scarcity will continue to plague the Sahel region for the coming decades. Therefore cooperation is crucial for some level of sustainable use of water resources in the area. Both nations seem to acknowledge this. Ethiopia did sign and ratify the Cooperative Framework Agreement with other upstream African nations, while Egypt seems to have come to terms with the fact that it does not have an unqualified right to the Nile. 

As of July 21st Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan resumed talks on the GERD. Although there is a high degree of uncertainty as to whether the relevant countries can come to a definitive agreement, there is the desire– in principle, at least–  to not let the GERD, a symbol of hope for millions of Ethiopians, to directly be at the detriment of millions of Egyptians. Time will soon tell whether the nations will be satisfied with contention or will endeavour to follow the path of cooperation.

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