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What’s at stake in the Egypt-Ethiopia conflict over the Nile?

April 21st, 2020
topic:Sustainable Consumption
by:Bob Koigi
located in:Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan
tags:Aswan Dam, environment, Nile agreement, River Nile, water conflict

The world’s longest river, the Nile, is at the heart of a protracted conflict pitting Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan who rely heavily on the water body even as mediated talks collapse and regional politics muddy the waters.

The world’s longest river, the Nile, is at the heart of a protracted conflict pitting Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan against one another. All three rely heavily on the river, even as mediated talks collapse.

The situation is exacerbated by the three countries’ belief that they are entitled to a bulk of the water’s share. While Egypt claims that it has historical right to the Nile having interacted the most with it, Ethiopia insists that the tributaries of the Nile and up to 85 percent of the water originate from the country. Sudan on other hand insists that it has equal claim to the water due to its strategic location between Egypt and Ethiopia. The colonial era agreements have further fanned the conflict. The Nile Agreement signed in 1929 between Egypt and Britain sought to give Egypt exclusive rights to the Nile waters and authority to inspect any water related projects touching on Nile upstream that would affect the flow downstream. In 1959 another agreement was enforced this time between Egypt and Sudan that allocated three quarters of the cumulative water volume to Egypt while leaving the remainder to Sudan. This allowed Egypt to build the Aswan Dam to generate electricity and for irrigation. But countries in the Nile Basin, led by Ethiopia later criticised these agreements arguing that they were enforced while they (the Nile Basin countries) were still colonised and therefore didn’t give them the legitimacy and chance to present their cases.

Now, the river that flows over 6,000 kilometres, passing through eleven African countries before ending in the Mediterranean Sea is redefining 21st Century conflicts which analysts have argued will be fought over water.

For a desert country, Egypt relies on the Nile for over 90 percent of its water needs. A cocktail of factors — among them a burgeoning population, unprecedented water shortages occasioned by climate change and human activities — are now threatening the future of the North African country. With the population currently standing at 100 million and increasing by one million after every six months, water demand for household, irrigation and industrial use continues to rise despite depressed volumes. The United Nations says that if current trends persist, the country will be out of water by 2025.

As water levels reach depressing limits, food production, that uses 80 percent of the country’s water supplies, is grinding to a halt forcing the nation to turn to imports that meets 60 percent of Egypt’s food needs . In fact out of the 18 million tonnes of grain that Egypt consumes each year, up to half is imported resulting in Egypt being one of the largest grain importers globally. Any more water diversions or shortages would bring the country’s economic activities to a halt, explaining why the country is prepared to go to war to guard the limited resource.

Ethiopia, on the other hand, has since 2011 been building a $4.5 billion hydroelectric dam dubbed The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, GERD, near the border with Sudan. Upon its completion it will be the largest of its kind in Africa and comes as the country looks to connect the more than 65 million people who have no electricity access to the national grid even as it seeks to export the surplus to neighbouring countries including Kenya and Uganda. After decades of economic slowdown and political turmoil, the dynamic regime of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is working to position the country as the East African economic dynamo. With a booming manufacturing sector and a growing economy, the government is looking to tap into energy to bolster more growth. The GERD dam is seen as a jackpot which upon completion will generate over 6,000 megawatts of electricity. Ethiopia is now looking to tap into the River Nile to fill the dam’s reservoir that is the size of London.

Egypt worries that Ethiopia is getting unfettered access to the Nile waters without consideration for the impact this will have on the economy of the North African country, with key sectors like agriculture and energy under threat. It therefore proposes a structured way of filling the dam which it says should take 12 years or longer. Ethiopia on the other hand wants to do it in four years and has vowed it will not be threatened and intimidated.

“No force could stop Ethiopia from building the dam,” Mr. Ahmed told Ethiopian parliament last year.

Over the years a host of African countries have tried to unsuccessfully mediate the dispute which has now gone international as the Trump administration last year stepped in to broker a truce. But the impasse persists with Ethiopia boycotting recent discussions insisting that a recent statement on the draft agreement released by US was ‘totally unacceptable’ and ‘highly partisan.’ The US refuted the accusations of bias. Sudan and Egypt are both members of The Arab League. The League has also traditionally supported Egypt in the Nile water wars, and was recently criticised by Sudan for releasing a statement which condemned “any form of infringement on Egypt's historical rights to the waters of the River Nile.” Sudan argues that the resolutions do not serve its interests and warned against internationalisation of the conflict which would otherwise threaten the already frosty relations.

“This conflict goes beyond the three countries. We are talking of an international security issue that is now redefining geopolitics and regional realignments as we know them. This is also as much a matter of leaders flexing muscles. Egyptian President Sisi who is known as a powerful military man doesn’t want to be seen as casual on matters that threaten Egypt’s security. On the other hand for Prime Minister Abiy, this project rubberstamps Ethiopia’s sovereignty considering it has been largely locally financed through the buying of government bonds. That, coupled with the upcoming elections puts him in a tight spot as he wants to win favour from the electorate. When such factors come into play they only seek to deepen an already dangerous situation,” said Jackson Mutiso from the University of Nairobi Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies.

Article written by:
Bildschirmfoto-2014-10-08-um-19.29.13
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Egypt Ethiopia Sudan
The Nile, is at the heart of a protracted conflict pitting Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan against one another.
The situation is exacerbated by the three countries’ belief that they are entitled to a bulk of the water’s share.
No force could stop Ethiopia from building the dam.