Aksel Isaksson is a third year War Studies & History student whose interests span hydropolitics, the North Africa region, and international politics.
For millennia the Nile River has been the site of civilisation, trade, and conflict. Freshwater collected in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa and the Ethiopian highlands stream through eleven countries before emptying into the Mediterranean, forming a river basin that covers ten percent of the African continent. The Nile is a rare source of freshwater in North Africa. Regional leaders have historically prophesied that the scarcity and indispensability of this commodity will inevitably lead to war. The current dispute centres around the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Since 2011, Ethiopia’s unilateral construction of the GERD has brought Egyptian water security into conflict with Ethiopian economic development. Hydro politics on the Nile challenge nationalist myths, signal a shifting regional balance of power, and reveal how climate change is becoming a matter of national security. As negotiations stall and the dam approaches its completion in 2022 the risk of conflict draws nearer. Against this backdrop, this article looks to history and geopolitics for answers.
Shared management of the Nile offers benefits to the whole region. When the GERD was announced in 2011, former Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, emphasised that “the benefits that will accrue from the dam will by no means be restricted to Ethiopia”. Sadoff and Grey – two leading experts on water security – emphasise benefit sharing on international rivers. Cooperation will likely benefit the river’s ecosystem, increase economic benefits through hydropower or irrigation, reduce costs associated with political tension, and may catalyse greater infrastructure and economic integration. The dam will decrease regional reliance on biofuels and studies already indicate that the GERD will also reduce sedimentation, which will improve the function of Sudanese dams downstream. From an economic perspective, cooperation allows Northeast African states to specialise. Through the GERD, Ethiopia is taking steps toward becoming a net exporter of energy. Likewise, cooperation will allow Egypt and Sudan to focus on their respective areas of comparative advantage – namely, industry and agriculture. As such, there are strong incentives for these states to avoid conflict and pursue cooperation.
However, there are serious obstacles to this. The Nile basin countries face different challenges that influence their policies on the Nile. Egypt, which has enjoyed relative water security since the construction of the Aswan High Dam fears that upstream development will threaten its energy and water security. Meanwhile, Sudan lacks sufficient infrastructure to effectively manage flooding and irrigation. Of the three, Ethiopia is the least economically developed. Therefore, Ethiopia’s main objective is rural development and food security for its growing population. Regional treaties and organisations do exist. The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), in which all eleven basin states are members, was formed in 1999 and aspires to “achieve sustainable socio-economic development through equitable utilisation of, and benefit from, the common Nile Basin Water resources”. However, there are internal disputes within this body, reflecting both the diverse priorities of member states as well as a departure from Egypt’s traditional dominance on the Nile. In particular, the 2010 Cooperative Framework agreement, signed by five upstream basin countries, has led to tension, with Egypt and Sudan showing reluctance to allow greater exploitation of the Nile upstream. Evidently, divergent national interests are a challenge to collaboration.
Nationalism presents an additional complication. The construction of the GERD has symbolic importance. Egyptian civilisation evolved along the Nile’s riverbanks and it occupies a central position in Egyptian national consciousness. The completion of the Aswan High Dam in the 1970s, became a patriotic symbol of Egyptian economic progress, but also a reminder of its hegemony on the river. Similarly, the GERD has symbolic importance in Ethiopia. As the name suggests, the GERD symbolises an Ethiopian national renaissance and an assertive step toward rebranding Ethiopia as a strong industrial economy rather than one of chronic dependency and poverty. The project does not simply incite national pride because it is a unilateral undertaking. More crucially, it defies Egyptian dominance on the river and affirms Ethiopia’s right to access the waters of the Nile. These nationalist undertones amplify the conflict.
Furthermore, a sense of historical animosity still taints interstate relationships. A series of agreements on the utilisation of the Nile have historically favoured Egypt. Beginning with the 1902 Anglo-Ethiopian treaty, Ethiopia agreed to refrain from any construction on the Blue Nile that might harm water flows to downstream states. Additionally, the 1929 Nile Water Agreement, which was revised in 1959, allocated a disproportionately large quantity of water for Egyptian use. This created considerable and lasting political tension with Ethiopia. The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs made reference to the 1902 agreement during the early stages of the GERD construction and President Mohamed Morsi threatened to use military means if Egypt’s water security came under threat. This follows a historical Egyptian approach, in which its regional economic and military dominance has been used to retain control of the Nile. As Anwar el-Sadat famously declared, “the only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.” A typical tactic has been to actively destabilise neighbouring states. For example, aid to Somali forces during the Ogaden War and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army in the 1970s and 1980s served the purpose of destabilising Ethiopia and Sudan. History reveals a deeply rooted conflict that has involved a military component in the past.
In the contemporary dispute, the prospect of climate change adds further urgency to the conflict. Water scarcity is exacerbated by climate change. Based on population growth alone, the per capita water availability per person per year is expected to drop by some 42 percent in Egypt and 58 percent in Ethiopia by 2025 compared to figures from 1990. On top of this, the rise of average temperatures mean that evaporation rates are expected to increase by four percent at the same time as crop water requirement increases by ten percent. Hydrologists already classify Egypt as a water scarce country, supplying less than 1 000 cubic meters of water per citizen each year. Clearly, there is a danger of a humanitarian crisis if no resolution is reached. Equally, these are conditions that increase the value of water as a commodity and by extension its importance to national security.
Securing access to water could potentially become an object of and justification for war. Dr. Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute in Oakland has developed a framework to determine when water leads to interstate conflict. He proposes four criteria: scarcity, extent of sharing, relative power of actors, and access to alternative sources. As previously discussed, water scarcity is an acute concern in both Ethiopia and Egypt. Additionally, the source of water is shared by the eleven countries in the Nile basin. Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia are all critically dependent on the Nile. Meanwhile, the relative power of the primary actors, Egypt and Ethiopia, is shifting. The power dynamic is no longer asymmetric as Ethiopia is taking advantage of its geographical position, economic growth, and influence in the Horn of Africa to challenge Egypt’s historical dominance. Today Egypt and Ethiopia boast two of the largest militaries in Africa. Finally, there is no viable alternative source, especially for Egypt, which receives 97 percent of its freshwater from the Nile. If Gleick’s criteria is to be regarded as a reliable indicator of imminent resource wars, the prospects for cooperation between Egypt and Ethiopia do not look favourable.
With negotiations currently stalled overt hostility remains a possibility. However, Gleick offers some words of comfort, stressing that “water-related disputes are more likely to lead to political confrontation and negotiations than to violent conflict.” As discussed, there is much to be gained for all parties if negotiations are fruitful. However, there is a risk of national priorities overshadowing interstate cooperation. Furthermore, history reveals that military threats and confrontations over the waters of the Nile are not only possible, they have happened before. What is clear is that a solution is urgent as climate change exacerbates an already precarious situation and the completion of the GERD approaches. It will be interesting to see if Nobel Peace Prize winner and Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, can negotiate with his Egyptian counterpart, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. If they can cut through collective nationalist sentiments and historic mistrust, they might still forge an agreement on the future of the Nile and half a billion people in the Nile River basin.
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