Gift of the Nile: How Can the Dam Dispute be Resolved? by Omar Khan
Imagine a world war fought over water. Now turn to north-east Africa where one may well happen. Egypt. Sudan. Ethiopia. Total population: 261,000,000 – if you want to know how important this issue is, that is how many people stand to be affected. But what exactly is the dispute? Why have diplomats been unable to agree? And will there be a peaceful resolution?
There is an old Arab proverb that if you throw a lucky man into the Nile, he will surely come back up to the surface with a fresh fish in his mouth. Magnificent, dangerous and resource-plenty, the Nile has captivated and helped humans for centuries.
Unfortunately, as is the story with most resources, people did what they tend to do – we fought over it. Today this has manifested as a decade-old dispute primarily between Ethiopia and Egypt over the former’s Grand Renaissance Dam, which will be the continent’s largest hydroelectric power station.
So what’s the problem? 85% of Africa’s longest river emerges from the Blue Nile in the Ethiopian highlands – the 155 m tall dam built across it aims to produce 6,000 MW of electricity (equivalent to six nuclear power plants) and provide 65,000,000 people with energy. Egypt, however, argues that the dam threatens its water supply and considering it receives 90% of its freshwater from the Nile, you can understand why President el-Sisi called it “a matter of existence to Egypt”.
Now for the scientifically minded reader, you may ask how a dam could threaten water supplies when it doesn’t consume any water? Well, the answer is in how quickly it takes to fill up the 2,000 km2 reservoir behind it (roughly the same size as 30,000,000 Olympic swimming pools). The faster it takes, the greater the risk of shortages, and it is the filling timetable that lies at the heart of this dispute.
Seleshi Bekele, Ethiopia’s water minister, has highlighted that there is a “lot of benefit for the downstream countries”, with which Sudan and Egypt generally agree. Still, as Yasser Abbas, the Sudanese irrigation minister, said: those benefits could “turn into risks” if an agreement is not reached first. After several years of talks which achieved some progress, this January saw US-brokered talks during which Ethiopia presented its plan to fill up the reservoir over five to seven years – Egypt responded with its own proposal of 12-21 years. “I don’t think…the Egyptians came here…ready to reach an agreement,” Mr Seleshi remarked, though nevertheless, the Trump administration pushed a draft deal through, which excluded a timetable so naturally fell apart the following month.
Since water disputes are as old as diplomacy itself, you’d be right to think that there have been agreements in the past about rights over the Nile. So why are we still arguing? Colonialism, once again, is an obvious culprit – in 1929, Britain recognised its former colony, Egypt’s sovereign right over the river and in 1959, a treaty with another former British colony, Sudan, was signed agreeing to share the water, but crucially ignored the nine other riparian states. Ethiopia, somewhat justifiably, argues that these antiquated treaties do not apply to its electrical ambitions.
“[Egypt]’ll blow up that dam,” declared President Trump in October in a shocking turn from wannabe peace-maker to full-time warmonger. As Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed boldly proclaimed that his nation “will not cave into aggression of any kind”, Egypt reinforced that “all options remain on the table”, notably including military ones, leaving the African Union failing to avoid a conflict between two of the biggest heavyweights in the world. So how did things escalate from peace talks in Washington to threats of bombings in just ten months? The short answer is rain.
Ethiopia’s rainy season lasts from about June to September, and three months ago, the dam began to fill up naturally. However, whether the Ethiopians artificially sped up the process remains unclear. After celebrating reaching its first-year target of retaining 4.9 billion m3 (enough to test the first turbines), Ethiopia was rebuked by Egypt for violating the 1997 UN Watercourses Convention. Tensions significantly rose after Sudan reported a drop in water flow in its section of the Blue Nile. Despite this, Ethiopia seems to be on course to achieving its maximum 74 billion m3 capacity in the next five to seven years with Egypt prepared to resort to drastic measures to prevent it. But what are the main issues driving both sides of the dispute? In brief, nationalism and poverty.
This is about more than just water. As far as Egyptians and Ethiopians are concerned, this is about national pride. If you’re not convinced, consider Simegnew Bekele and Sherine Abdel Wahab. From the time of pharaohs, Egypt has been defined by the Nile – if the river changes, everything changes. Sherine, a famous singer in the North African nation, was fined and sentenced to six months imprisonment after saying that drinking water from the Nile could give you parasites, reinforcing a powerful nationalistic message: insulting the river, insults the whole of Egypt, and the so-called “people of the Nile” are not about to let an upstream state dictate how much volume flows through their country.
Similarly, on the Ethiopian side, the Grand Renaissance Dam represents all its ambitions for this century – to become a middle-income nation by 2025, to supply electricity to 65,000,000 people previously living off-grid, and to unify an often divided population. When Simegnew Bekele, the humble engineer who became the face of the dam project was found dead in Meskel Square, Addis Ababa, thousands came to the streets calling for his killers to face justice. “He gave his life for the dam,” said the BBC’s Tibebeselassie Tigabu. Mr Simegnew was hailed as a national hero fortifying the importance of the dam to the Ethiopian people, a project that stretches across ethnic lines and could come to define the whole nation. So, as you can see, this is definitely about more than just H2O.
But, despite the emotive nationalism driving a wedge between the two nations, a far more powerful motivator is at play. One whose cause is too difficult to isolate but harms the innocent indiscriminately: poverty. Water scarcity is officially defined as when there is less than 1,000 m3 of freshwater per person per year – Egypt only has 550 m3. “The Ethiopians refuse to believe that without the Nile we would die, literally,” stresses Imad al-Din Humayd in the Shorouq newspaper, referring to the dependence of the economy on a single river. That 90% of the country’s 100,000,000 people live in just 6% of the total area, all by the river that already struggles to sustain them is the gut-wrenching fact that can justify Egypt’s aggressive approach. On the other side, a COVID-struck Ethiopia has seen extreme poverty rise with sharp inequalities becoming more visible. “This is not life”, domestic worker Amsale Hailemariam tearfully declared. Significantly, Ethiopia is proud to have funded the dam project independently with the people donating and buying bonds. Government workers giving up parts of their salary to pay for it – as 8,500,000 people were found to be highly food insecure in July, it is easy to understand why so many are so desperate to see the dam succeed; they have given their livelihoods for it, hence the Ethiopian government’s absolute determination to see it through.
Ultimately, both Cairo and Addis Ababa want the best for their people. But with Egypt accusing the South African-led AU of being biased towards the latter, China and Russia (each having their river disputes with downstream neighbours) paralysing the UN Security Council, and fears of a civil war in Ethiopia between the government and Tigray region, what hope for a peaceful resolution is there?
The first step would be to remind all parties of the possible benefits of the dam: consistent water regulation, removal of 86% of silt and sedimentation for Egyptian and Sudanese farmers, and the supply of power to the entire region, to name a few. Then, international mediation is required – perhaps recently-elected Joe Biden could provide fresh, impartial assistance or the EU could present a unified front to aid its African counterpart. No matter what happens, a conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia would change the world forever; primarily one fought over water, therefore, must be avoided at all costs.
There is an old saying that blood is thicker than water, but personally, I don’t want to find out for sure.