Background of the Nile dispute
The scarcity of water has been an increasingly worrying problem in Egypt that the government is yet to find a solution to, and Cairo has declared a state of emergency due to a decline in water flow from last year.
Now, Egypt faces an even further decrease in water from the Nile, that could lead to a drought, should Ethiopia go through with the planned construction of the dam on the river Nile. Hence, Egypt is blaming Ethiopia for the failure of the latest round of talks on the construction of a controversial Nile dam, a critical issue for Cairo as it seeks to protect its main source of freshwater for its large and growing population.
The construction of the $4.6 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, which is almost complete and promises to provide much-needed electricity to Ethiopia’s 100 million people, has been a contentious point among Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, the three main Nile Basin countries.
The result could be a dramatic reduction in the amount of water Egypt receives from the river. Economists estimate that the country will lose 10 billion cubic meters of water a year, out of an average of about 50 billion cubic meters annually that it was getting until two years ago.
Ethiopia sees the hydroelectric dam as a defining national development project; Sudan covets the cheap electricity and expanded agricultural production that it promises; and Egypt perceives the possible loss of water as an existential threat. Egypt is therefore very worried and tense about its construction.
No deal reached despite efforts
Despite efforts by Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and even US to reach a deal regarding the Nile dam, it appears no deal has been reached after this week’s attempts. The latest round of negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia ended with no agreement, according to Egyptian and Sudanese officials. “All of the efforts exerted to reach a solution didn’t come to any kind of result,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said on Monday in an interview with Egypt’s DMC TV channel. The talks were organized by the African Union.
The negotiations again foundered over the pace at which the country plans to fill the 74 billion cubic-meter reservoir, stoking Egypt’s concern that it will lose control over its water supply to a regional upstream rival. Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa had previously pledged to start storing water in the dam’s vast reservoir at the start of the wet season in July, when rains flood the Blue Nile.
Ethipia has asserted what it says is its right to fill the reservoir, which is associated with a 6,000 megawatt power plant, at its own pace. Egypt, however, regards an agreement as crucial before damming can begin. At the same time, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed stands to lose support at home if he doesn’t move ahead with filling the dam, which he describes as vital for the nation’s economic development. Egypt would see any unilateral filling as a threat to regional peace and security and is keeping all options open as to how it will respond, a government official from the country said, asking not to be identified. This possible response will be discussed further in the next section.
Years of talks with a variety of mediators have failed to produce a solution, with the latest round as mentioned earlier, being mediated by the African Union and observed by US and European officials, proving no different.
Although Sudan formerly favoured the construction of the dam, and opposed Egypt’s stance, partially because of the benefit from the project through access to cheap electricity and reduced flooding, it seems it has now changed its stance. Sudan warned in June that the filling of an Ethiopian hydro-electric Nile dam without an agreement with downstream countries would pose a risk to the country’s own dams, especially Alrosiaris dam, which is only 25 kilometers from the Sudanese-Ethiopian border.
This change in stance by Sudan only worsens the situation, as Ethiopia will have more pressure to strike a deal to at least regulate the flow of water from the dam in Sudan’s favour. It will definitely be harder to strike a deal, and as tensions rise, especially between Egypt and Ethiopia, both refusing to budge, things could turn for the worse.
Is war a possibility?
As another attempt at a deal between Egypt and Ethiopia has failed, both sides are increasing their frustrations, and tensions are increasing. Considering the importance of the project to Egypt with regards to its water inflow, and Ethiopia in generating electricity for its population, it seems that if a deal between the 2 nations is not reached, there is a chance of armed conflict. This was confirmed In an interview with Al-Monitor in September 2019, where Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said that “For Egypt, the matter of the Nile is a matter of life and death,” adding, “I don’t think anybody would agree that Ethiopian development should come at the expense of the lives of Egyptians.
Last month, in response to a statement by the Ethiopian foreign minister hinting war with Egypt, while inspecting Egypt’s Western Military Zone on Saturday, Egyptian president Sisi said, “The Egyptian army is strong, and is one of the most powerful armies in the region. But it is a reasonable army, an army that protects and does not threaten, an army that secures and is not the aggressor. This is our strategy, our beliefs, and our constant position. And I am sure that if we need you to do work and sacrifice [you will].” Sisi thanked the combat units of the Egyptian Air Force, saying: “Be prepared to carry out any mission on our borders or, if necessary, outside our borders.”
Egypt has clearly acknowledged the threat of war if the situation does not change, and has called for the UN security council to interfere. In a strongly worded speech last week, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said the Security Council’s involvement is “necessary,” because the “eventuality” of any unilateral action by Ethiopia to begin filling the dam without a legally binding agreement under international law “represents a serious threat to international peace and security.” The dispute could “provoke crises and conflict that [could] further destabilize an already troubled region,” he warned.
There have been signs that Ethiopia are planning to fill the dam whether a deal is reached or not. Experts fear that filling the dam without a deal could push the countries to the brink of military conflict. Interestingly, In the 1970s, Egypt’s then-leader Anwar Sadat threatened war if the dam was built, let alone filled.
The threat of war and military conflict is therefore a real one, and highlights the importance of reaching a deal in the near future, as time appears to be running out.