Crisis on the Nile: Renaissance or Water War?

Construction employees hard at work building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
Construction employees hard at work building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

As the Renaissance Dam, Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam, nears completion this year in Ethiopia, tensions with other Nile-River nations have begun to intensify. Egypt, in particular, has stressed that maintaining its share of Nile River water is crucial to its national security and has demanded assurances from Ethiopia that the project will not harm the country.

The Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, recently commented on the issue during a major televised event, declaring that, “[Nile] water is a matter of life or death.” Despite this, the Ethiopian government has continued to push the project forward since its inception in 2010.

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The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, is an extremely important project for the Ethiopian government. The dam’s hydroelectric capabilities will more than double electricity production in Ethiopia, from around 3,000 megawatts (MW) now to over 6,500 MW when the dam is fully operational.

This will power an additional 6 million homes across the country and allow Ethiopia to begin exporting electricity to its neighbors. This is a major development for a country where roughly 57% of the population is still without basic electricity, and one-third live in abject poverty.

Aside from its important technical benefits, the dam will also serve as a monument to Ethiopia’s growth over the past 30 years. At 175 meters tall and 1,800 meters wide, the project is truly gargantuan and a source of pride for many Ethiopians.

The dam’s storage capacity is planned to be over 67 billion cubic meters, more than a year’s flow of river water to Egypt. Both symbolically and practically, Ethiopia is steadily emerging as one of the leading countries in Eastern Africa.

Overview of Dams along the Nile

Sudan has also become supportive of the project after Ethiopian authorities promised that the dam would allow the country to have a more manageable flood cycle. This will increase Sudan’s farming output tremendously, as the region’s intense flooding and storms make much of its potential arable land unusable.

Sudanese officials are hoping that the Renaissance Dam could turn the country into the breadbasket of Eastern Africa. It also helps that the dam is being constructed less than 24 kilometers from the Sudanese border, near the capital city of Khartoum. This has helped reassure Sudanese officials that their counterparts in Ethiopia will remain trustworthy.

However, Egyptians view the Renaissance Dam with much more apprehension. In Egypt, 95% of the population lives along the banks of the Nile, and a quarter of Egyptians directly utilize Nile water for use in agriculture. As a result, access to the river’s water and control over its flow is crucial to maintaining the country’s national security and sovereignty.

Concerns about the Renaissance Dam aren’t entirely unfounded either, as one study by scholars in Cairo claimed that the dam would lead to an overall reduction in water share to Egypt, a loss in power generated from the Aswan High Dam, and increased salinity in agricultural areas. Egyptian leaders have recognized this reality, responding with outrage from across the political spectrum.

But, the intense rhetoric from all the countries involved in the Renaissance Dam has toned down considerably since the project was first announced in 2010. Back then, military leaders in Egypt were openly considering a joint military strike with Sudan, in order to cripple the facilities being built along the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. Such a strike would have likely lead to outright warfare between the nations involved and would have destabilized the region as a whole.

Unfortunately, the situation is still a long way from being resolved. As a downstream nation, Egypt has very little leverage over officials in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. Instead, the Egyptian strategy has mainly relied on water treaties signed during the time of the British Empire to create a legal precedent for the countries’ water rights.

The first of these treaties, and also the most influential, was signed in 1929 between the Egyptian government and the British Empire, which was negotiating on behalf of its colony in Sudan. The agreement promised Egypt the lion’s share of Nile Water—approximately 48 billion cubic meters out of a total yearly output of 84 billion cubic meters.

In contrast, Sudan was only allocated 4 billion cubic meters of water a year. Egypt’s preferential treatment was largely a result of their usefulness to the British, though officials in Cairo also argue that they have a historical right to the Nile River.

In 1959, Egypt and Sudan bilaterally re-negotiated the terms of the first treaty. The new agreement increased both Egypt and Sudan’s total share of the water, though Egypt still received the majority. The agreements additionally gave Egypt the power to veto any projects along the Nile river that may impede its flow. This provision ultimately makes up the basis for their argument against the Renaissance Dam.

However, Ethiopia never signed either of those treaties and was excluded from the decision-making process as a whole. Because of this, officials in Addis Ababa argue that they aren’t bound to follow the precedent set forth by those treaties. The other eight nations around the Nile River basin have echoed similar sentiments. It becomes even harder to justify the fairness of the previous Nile Water treaties when you consider the fact that roughly 80% of the water for the river originates in Ethiopian highlands.

At this point, Egyptian officials recognize that they aren’t going to be able to stop the construction of the Renaissance Dam, and have begun to take a more involved role in negotiations to ensure that the dam will have a minimal impact on the country. The sticking point in negotiations so far has been the rate at which the dam’s reservoir should be filled. Egyptian leaders argue for at least a 15-year filling period. Meanwhile, Ethiopian leaders would like to fill the dam in as little as three years.

The reason behind the rush is simple: an accelerated filling process would allow the Ethiopian government to reap the benefits of the project much sooner. However, an assessment performed by researchers at Cairo University estimated that a three-year filling period would deprive Egypt of 30 billion cubic meters of water.

A six-year filling period would reduce the losses substantially, but would still result in over 16 billion cubic meters of water loss. The study estimates that for every billion cubic meter loss, Egypt would lose 200,000 acres of agricultural land. In a country where roughly a quarter of the population is employed in agriculture, this would be disastrous.

In an effort to get negotiations back on track, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt formed a trilateral committee composed of the country’s water ministers, to determine the repercussions of the Renaissance Dam. In April 2015, the committee selected two European consultancy firms, BRLi and Deltares, to conduct technical studies on the environmental, economic, and social impacts of the dam.

After much deliberation, the committee agreed on the terms and methods for the studies and set the deadline for August 2017. However, problems plagued the firms throughout the entire consultancy process. Despite agreeing to a neutral third party investigation, all three countries involved made attempts to steer the outcome of the studies towards their own political goals.

Ethiopia and Sudan pressured the firms to portray the benefits of the Renaissance Dam for the entire region, while Egypt wanted the studies to prove that the dam would have a negative effect on the country’s water security. The constant interference eventually led to both firms missing the deadline for the completion of the studies, and to Deltares pulling out of the studies entirely.

According to officials at the firm, “conditions as imposed by the TNC [trilateral committee] and BRLi on how the studies should be carried out, did not provide sufficient guarantee for Deltares that an independent high-quality study could be carried out.”

Negotiations were further complicated by Sudan, which wanted to engage in detailed discussions on the technical mechanisms by which it would receive its share of the water. In general, the Sudanese are more positive about the outcomes of the Renaissance Dam and prefer to spend time negotiating the finer details of the project. However, Egyptian officials, frustrated by the inconclusive studies and Sudan’s apparent time-wasting, decided to leave the committee on November 2017.

From here, the future of the negotiation process is unclear. Egypt proposed returning to the table with Ethiopia, but preferred to exclude Sudanese officials from the process. It has also submitted complaints to the Arab League, World Bank, IMF, and the United Nations to try and reach an outside agreement. These have yet to materialize into any workable solutions, however, and it is unlikely that outside actors would be able to pressure Ethiopia into accepting Egypt’s terms.

For Cairo, this is about more than just the Renaissance Dam. Ethiopia has plans to construct more projects along the Nile in the future and has increasingly demonstrated a willingness to sidestep the concerns of other nations in pursuit of its own goals. By reaching a favorable outcome in this situation, Egypt hopes to set a legal precedent for future conflicts.

In the best possible case scenario, Cairo hopes to have a more defined role in approving projects along the Nile and a stronger guarantee of its right to Nile Water. Whether or not this outcome ever comes to pass is uncertain. Egypt has very little leverage over Ethiopia and is quickly becoming displaced as the most influential country along the Nile.

Ultimately, negotiation options for Egypt are limited. The Renaissance Dam is already over 70% complete and will likely be finished in the next year. Upon completion, Addis Ababa will immediately start filling the dam, regardless of the talks. When the project is completed, Egypt will also need to synchronize the operation of its Aswan High Dam with the Renaissance Dam to avoid critical water shortages.

To accomplish this, both countries will need to work closely together as the dam’s reservoir is filled. In other words, Egypt will be forced to come back to the negotiating table eventually, and the longer they prolong the issue the worse off they’ll be when they do return.

About Michael Incardona 5 Articles
A New York native who’s interested in finding solutions to real-world problems through political discussion and activism. Currently I’m studying Civil Engineering at Stony Brook University with a minor in International Relations. I’m also an avid traveler who loves to learn about the political systems and cultures of the places I visit. In the future I hope to join the Foreign Service or work in international development.

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