On Feb. 28, U.S. mediators announced they may have finally struck a deal among Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on a dam along the Nile River that has seized politics in the region and raised the specter of military action in one of the world’s tensest water conflicts.
Just a few days later, however, Ethiopia backed out, saying it needed more time to study the draft agreement. Egypt promptly accused Ethiopia of deliberately dragging out the U.S.-brokered negotiations and is now seeking the support of Arab nations to bolster its case.
It was just the latest setback in the long-running saga over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which will be the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa when it is completed. Construction began in 2011 and reports suggest it is 70% done.
The $4.6 billion dam has become one of the most contentious and consequential projects in Egyptian and Ethiopian history, but for different reasons. Ethiopia’s progressive prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, touts the dam as a symbol of the country’s modernization — a source of national pride that will not only provide badly needed electricity for the country’s 100 million people, but also potentially transform Ethiopia into Africa’s biggest power exporter.
But for Egypt and its 100 million people — who view the Nile as central to their national identity — the dam is an existential threat that could choke the downstream flow of the river, which provides the desert country’s with almost all of its fresh water supply.
Making matters worse, population growth in the region, particularly in Egypt, is fueling the demand for more and more water even as climate change and decades of mismanagement have depleted water resources.
An influx of refugees from various regional conflicts and migrants — often farmers whose lands have dried up as a result of climate change — are inundating Nile Basin countries, whose populations are projected to almost double to over 400 million by 2050, according to a Feb. 4 report in World Politics Review by Peter Schwartzstein.
At the same time, researchers at Dartmouth College published a study last year estimating that the flow of the Nile will regularly fail to meet demand, and between 20% and 40% of the population will face water scarcity even during “normal years.”
That’s why an agreement is so critical. Yet despite the urgency, Mirette F. Mabrouk, director of the Egypt Program at the Middle East Institute (MEI), said she’s “disappointed but not particularly surprised” by the latest diplomatic setback.
“These negotiations have been dragging for the better part of a decade. It’s only since the intervention of the U.S. that the issue has made international news,” Mabrouk told us via email. “Egypt has been requesting international participation since 2017 and Ethiopia has consistently refused, insisting that the negotiations remain tripartite. The only agreement that has been signed on this matter is the 2015 Declaration of Principles in which, in a nutshell, the participants agree to agree. It should not have come as huge surprise, however, since Ethiopia has shown a preference for unilateral decision-making in relation to trans-boundary water projects.”
She added: “There is no doubt that the dam might be an energy boon to the region, nor is there any doubt that it has the capacity to turn off the taps on Egypt, a desert nation which gets a mind-numbing 97% of its water from the Nile. Any claim that a dam that holds the entire capacity of the Nile Basin’s annual flow, if not managed responsibly and equitably, does not have the capacity to create untold havoc is simply disingenuous.”
Eleven countries, in fact, rely on the Nile’s waters: Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
But they all need the Nile for different reasons. While Egypt relies on the Nile for almost all of its water needs, Ethiopia — quenched by lakes and other freshwater sources — needs the Nile’s hydropower to satisfy its energy needs.
The current dispute centers around the critical Blue Nile tributary, which originates in Ethiopia, crosses Sudan and then flows north to the Mediterranean, leaving in its wake the fertile Nile Delta in northern Egypt. Almost 95% of Egypt’s population lives along this delta region, where two-thirds of the country’s food supply is cultivated, according to a New York Times report titled “For Thousands of Years, Egypt Controlled the Nile. A New Dam Threatens That.”
Egypt argues that the dam not only threatens its food and water supply, but also could potentially put millions out of work and jeopardize an already-fragile economy — a prospect experts fear could spark the type of instability that led to the 2011 Egyptian uprisings.
In a Nov. 15, 2019, article for Foreign Policy, Imad K. Harb, director of research and analysis at the Arab Center Washington DC, estimated that the dam could take at least seven years to fill, which would decrease the river’s flow by 25% for at least that period.
Never before has Egypt faced such a significant man-made reduction in the Nile’s flow, which is why it wants Ethiopia to slow the rate at which it fills the reservoir. Ethiopia claims Egypt is demanding that it be filled over a period of 12 to 21 years (a claim Cairo denies). Meanwhile, Ethiopia says it has already compromised by offering to fill the dam over four to seven years, as opposed to the two to three years it originally envisioned. Ethiopia has also balked at Egypt’s demands over how much water it should guarantee flows to Egypt.
But Mabrouk says the situation is more complicated than that. “This is not simply a case of a dam being built. While articles usually present the problem as a matter of the filling period for the dam, there are myriad factors: how long the dam would take to fill — the shorter the period, the less water available to the downstream countries — the time of year, which has to take agriculture into account, [and] what happens during times of shortage or drought, none of which Ethiopia wants to commit to, essentially asking that Egypt take it at its word that it will release water responsibly,” she explained.
Mabrouk argues that Ethiopia has refused to budge on the issue. “The GERD, built with Ethiopian money, is extremely important to Ethiopia, which has huge plans for a hydropower network extending past the region. Egypt, which has a more advanced power grid infrastructure, has offered to help but Ethiopia has not been receptive,” she said.
To that end, Ethiopia says it will start filling the dam this July, insisting that any talks can happen “in parallel” with the dam’s construction. Further complicating matters is the fact that Abiy doesn’t want to appear weak on the issue because in August, Ethiopia will hold national elections that will be a major test of Abiy’s sweeping reforms, which earned him a Nobel Peace Prize last year.
Drip Drip Diplomacy
But “talks” over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam have been anything but peaceful.
Egypt and Sudan initially greeted the GERD’s construction with dire warnings. Deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and other politicians at one point suggestedthe military conduct an airstrike or engage in covert tactics to halt the dam’s progress.
Abiy hasn’t hesitated to fire back, recently warning that “no force could stop Ethiopia from building a dam” and even suggesting that Ethiopia could mobilize “millions” of troops to defend the project.
Meanwhile, Sudan, which has historically sided with Egypt, withdrew its opposition to the dam after receiving assurances from Addis Ababa.
Increasingly isolated and pressed for time as construction plowed ahead, Cairo eventually pivoted from saber-rattling to dialogue and called for international mediation in 2017 — to no avail. Since then, the tripartite talks among Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have gone nowhere.
Last fall, Russia stepped into the fray to try to broker a solution, but when that failed, Egypt invited the U.S. to mediate the dispute. In November, President Trump, perhaps eager to prove his deal-making chops, agreed.
Despite some bumps, the talks — led by the U.S. Treasury Department with technical assistance from the World Bank — did yield significant progress.
A joint statement released in mid-January by all the parties involved “included three vital points: that filling would occur over stages and take into account the hydrological conditions of the Nile, that it would take place during the wet season, and that it would address Ethiopia’s electricity generation needs while providing for mitigation avenues for Egypt and Sudan in times of prolonged dry spells or drought,” Mabrouk wrote in a Jan. 21 MEI brief.
Then, on Jan. 31, ministers from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan met in Washington, where they said a final agreement would be signed by the end of February.
The next round of meetings, however, ended in stalemate on Feb. 13. In yet another blow, during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s visit to Ethiopia a few days later, Pompeo said it could take “months” to resolve the dispute and that “a great deal of work remains.”
But on Feb. 28, a major diplomatic breakthrough seemed imminent when the Treasury Department announced that the parties had achieved a draft agreement that “addresses all issues in a balanced and equitable manner,” according to a statement.
Egypt was ready to sign the deal. Ethiopia apparently wasn’t and skipped the next scheduled meeting. According to a statement from the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the text of the draft agreement “is not the outcome of the negotiation or the technical and legal discussion of the three countries.”
Ethiopian Ambassador to the U.S. Fitsum Arega was more blunt, declaring on Twitter that “Ethiopia will never sign on an agreement that will surrender its right to use the Nile River.”
According to Reuters, Trump told Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a close ally, that Washington won’t give up trying to find a resolution to the impasse.
But Ethiopia’s water and energy minister recently said Trump “was given inadequate and inaccurate information on some issues regarding our dam.”
Addis Abbas also rejected Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s statement that filling should not take place without an agreement, calling it “unacceptable and highly partisan.”
“The situation will only be solved via compromise and agreement,” Mabrouk told us. “There is absolutely no room for a unilateral decision here. Egypt, which has never objected to the dam but has insisted on an operational framework, has said that it has already compromised on various matters — which the U.S. and the World Bank appear to agree on, considering that they drafted the agreement Egypt has initialed, but neither Ethiopia nor Sudan have signed.”
Dammed If You Do…
Yet even before the most recent talks collapsed, Addisu Lashitew, a fellow with the Brookings Institution, warned that Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan should plan beyond a “rushed, Washington-brokered Nile Treaty” and negotiate a comprehensive water-sharing agreement for managing the Nile’s resources.
“The main problem is that this agreement is borne out of a rushed negotiation process and may carry unintended future risks,” he wrote in a Feb. 18 brief for the think tank. “One major source of risk is the lack of an independent, mutually accepted mechanism for monitoring and enforcing the agreement. Since any agreement on the GERD requires strong cooperation, it will have to be founded on strong buy-in from signatories to have any chance of success.”
He added that because climate change will affect the dam’s waters in ways experts can’t predict, “a binding agreement that does not have any exit options in the context of high uncertainty is likely to create a deadlock in the future.”
In a recent article for Foreign Policy, Lashitew also argued that the U.S. erred in supporting Egypt in the recent talks because “it has already thrown its weight behind a draft agreement that Ethiopia rejects. Ethiopia’s buy-in is crucial for the success of a Nile treaty, especially considering the difficulty of externally enforcing such an agreement,” he wrote, adding that “a Nile agreement will have to be a part of a cooperative framework for greater regional and economic integration.”
On that note, Lashitew suggested that the Nile Basin Initiative Comprehensive Framework Agreement, which has not yet been endorsed by Egypt and Sudan, could be modified to serve as a basis for a future agreement.
There is actually no lack of water treaties in the region, but they all date to the colonial era and there is no comprehensive treaty that includes all the relevant parties. The 1959 Nile Waters Agreement between Egypt and Sudan entitles them to 100% of the Nile’s waters, but upstream countries like Ethiopia (whose highlands supply over 80% of that water) reject it because they were not party to it.
The 1959 agreement is based on a previous 1929 version signed by Egypt and Great Britain that “gave Cairo the right to veto projects higher up the Nile that would affect its water share,” according to Reuters. Cairo has sought to maintain that veto ever since.
The Nile Basin countries established the Nile Basin Initiative in 1999 to manage disputes such as the current one between Ethiopia and Egypt, but the dialogue group has been rendered impotent by Egypt’s insistence on retaining its veto from previous agreements, according to Lashitew.
The initiative now largely serves an information-sharing function, generating water management best practices and helping member states “identify and prepare investment projects,” according to its website.
But Lashitew told us that the initiative could lay the groundwork for future comprehensive agreements on managing and developing the shared resources of the Nile, including the GERD. He pointed out that it is Egypt that has “pushed for more discussions about the long-term operations of the dam.”
So, in theory, given Egypt’s lack of success in altering the trajectory of the Nile Dam, Cairo may finally be motivated to drop its opposition to expanding the mandate of the Nile Basin Initiative.
But it is Ethiopia that may have more leverage over any future treaties. After years of political and economic decline, Cairo is no longer the regional heavyweight it once was, whereas Ethiopia is a rising power eager to make up for decades of Egyptian dominance of the Nile.
Further complicating the prospects of an agreement over the dam is the fraught history between Egypt and Ethiopia, two of the region’s most powerful and populous states. As Lashitew points out in his Brookings report, Ethiopia’s former prime minister, Meles Zenawi, announced plans to build the GERD in 2011 — when Egypt was engulfed in turmoil following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak at the height of the Arab Spring.
Meanwhile, Ethiopian officials have accused Egypt of lending support to ethnic groups that fueled various sectarian conflicts in the country, including unrest in 2016 that killed an estimated 500 people.
The current dispute also tugs at national pride. For Egypt, the dam threatens its supremacy over the Nile, which has been quintessential to its identity and livelihood dating back to the Pharaohs. For Ethiopia, which for years was widely associated with poverty and misery, the dam represents an opportunity to become an energy exporter and assert itself as an influential player in the geostrategic Horn of Africa. It also sees the dam as a course correction after colonial-era agreements favored Egypt at the expense of other Nile Basin countries.
Meanwhile, climate stressors are exacerbating these longstanding regional rivalries, as populations are expected to surge while water resources are expected to dwindle, a recipe for competition and conflict.
But Lashitew told us that “a direct military confrontation is unlikely,” although tensions are likely to remain high, even if an agreement is eventually signed.
He added that if a comprehensive agreement is ever reached, ideally it would find “a more optimal way of using the resources” of the Nile.
On that note, many experts suggest that while policymakers should focus on preventing an escalation of tensions, they need to be more concerned about the long-term health of the Nile itself.
For decades, Egypt, Sudan and the other Nile Basin countries have stressed the Nile’s resources with water-intensive farming and ambitious megaprojects that have diverted the river’s water. Egypt itself built the first major dam along the Nile at the start of the 20th century — the Aswan Low Dam — to control seasonal floodwaters and provide year-round irrigation. More recently, Egyptian President el-Sisi has proposed a multibillion-dollar scheme to build a new administrative capital in the desert outside Cairo that would further suck precious water from the Nile.
Climate change will also have a perverse effect on Egypt’s portion of the Nile. On the one hand, hotter weather and reduced rainfall will lead to drier conditions that could cripple Egypt’s agricultural productivity. On the other hand, rising seas will also hurt agricultural production because it will push saltwater into the Nile, killing crops along its fertile delta.
Ethiopia in fact argues that because the Blue Nile’s flow is dependent on a brief and increasingly unpredictable rainy season and thus prone to heavy flooding, the dam could benefit Egypt by regulating the flow of water downstream.
At the same time, the rainy season’s newfound unpredictability due to climate change could lead Ethiopian farmers — who rely on rainfall, not the river — to demand access to the Nile’s waters if their crops are threatened, shortchanging Egyptian farmers downstream in times of scarcity.
The problem is compounded by pollution. In Khartoum, factories dump toxic waste into the river. Cairo’s surging population stretches the government’s waste management capacity to its limit, leading to the short-term “fix” of using the river as a sewer. Urban sprawl in every major city along the Nile sends litter into gutters that eventually finds its way to the river.
So while there is less and less water to use because of climate change, there is even less of what’s left that’s clean.
Because all of the Nile Basin countries have contributed to the Nile’s demise — and all are feeling the effects — ultimately everyone will have to work together to keep their shared lifeblood alive. This basic truth offers a spring of hope that Egypt and Ethiopia can overcome their differences, if for no other reason than sheer self-preservation.
But, as the famous British novelist William Golding wrote in “An Egyptian Journal,” a travelogue of his 1985 journey down the river, “He who rides the sea of the Nile must have sails woven of patience.”
About the Author
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat. Ryan R. Migeed (@RyanMigeed) is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.