Navigating the Nile — a win-win for Egypt and Ethiopia
Amid the tumultuous landscape of African geopolitics, Egypt and Ethiopia find themselves submerged in a high-stakes struggle as the enduring consternation over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the largest hydropower project on the continent, continues.
The ripples from the dispute extend beyond only water rights; they threaten regional stability and raise questions not only about the Nile’s waters but even the future prospects for the integration of both countries within the BRICS — Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa — grouping of emerging economies. Egypt and Ethiopia were last month invited to join as the organization announced its expansion plans.
Understanding the complexities of this dispute might seem challenging in the face of lopsided transboundary water politics. Given what is at stake, however, and the shifting tenor of recent developments, are Egypt and Ethiopia potentially close to a win-win situation after all?
Despite seemingly endless negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over the contentious dam in various forums and formats at multiple levels, a breakthrough has so far remained as elusive as ever. Even during the most recent talks, hosted by Cairo last week, the Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation reported no notable change in the Ethiopian position. It was the first formal negotiations in more than a year, following stalled efforts led by the African Union.
Both Egypt and Sudan continue to express concern about the potential adverse effects of the dam, given their dependence on water from the Nile, while Ethiopia highlights its development goals and downplays their concerns.
For Ethiopia, a country with plentiful water resources but deficiencies in electricity supplies, the dam offers a historic opportunity to bolster its energy capabilities, reducing poverty and fostering developmental achievements. The dam is emblematic of its national pride and socioeconomic progress — but that is not all.
Ethiopia’s stance in the myriad negotiations suggests that its ultimate objective is not the efficient, sustainable generation of hydropower to advance its development goals. It also appears to be leveraging the dam as a tool for a pseudo “hydro-hegemony,” or domination of the waters of the Blue Nile.
This strategy presents Egypt and Sudan with a challenging predicament: Either they acquiesce as Ethiopia angles for greater control over the Blue Nile, or consent to an agreement that not only acknowledges but institutionalizes Ethiopia’s unrestricted rights to this precious riparian resource.
Both of these alternatives are simply not feasible, however, especially for Egypt, given its dependence on the Nile for water security. Therefore, Cairo naturally perceives the dam and Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to begin filling it as an existential threat.
Nile waters remain the desert country’s main water resource. It quenches the thirst of its population of more than 100 million people, and is the lifeblood of its agriculture industry. Therefore, the continuing tensions surrounding the operation of the dam and the lack of a binding resolution — or even a tenable compromise — only serve to heighten the perceived threat should the filling and operation of the dam not be judiciously managed.
There is also the wider threat to Arab water security, which is a ticking time bomb made all the more volatile by Ethiopia’s unilateral decisions about the dam. It sits on the Blue Nile, a tributary that provides about 86 percent of the Nile’s water, and any disruption it causes could reduce the flow of water to Egypt by a staggering 25 percent at a time when the country is already grappling with critical water deficits as a result of climate change, wasteful consumption, and exponential population growth.
Furthermore, Ethiopia’s unilateral actions could be seen by other nations as providing a green light to engage in similar maneuvering to seize control of precious shared water resources.
Cairo perceives the dam and Ethiopia’s unilateral decision to begin filling it as an existential threat.
In the absence of a mutually beneficial deal, the prospect of one state being allowed to control water flows to others would leave millions at risk. Moreover, power asymmetries among nations and the vulnerability of Arab countries to climate change, for example as a result of anticipated reductions in precipitation levels in coming decades, will turn inevitable disputes among riparian states into yet another threat multiplier in an already unstable part of the world.
The problems are well known, the risks are clear and all three countries involved in this particular dispute have demonstrated willingness to negotiate a solution. So, what stands in the way?
The main issue lies in the difficulty in reaching a comprehensive agreement on the operation of the dam that secures Ethiopia’s energy objectives while allaying Egypt’s water security fears. To impatient observers, the dam is effectively a fait accompli. The discourse therefore needs to shift from arguments about its existence and the timeline of its construction to discussions of its operation.
This creates an opportunity for multilateral diplomacy, and especially for BRICS to demonstrate its capability as an effective mediator and facilitator of critical dialogue. The group could moderate the negotiations, given its members’ relationships with, and ambitions for, both African countries.
However, the focus must be different than it was during previous interventions or mediation attempts that involved the US, Russia, Algeria, South Africa and the UAE.
Despite the so far intractable deadlock over the dam, history teaches us that from impasse, opportunities often arise. The leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan could perhaps reorient their approaches to this perennially thorny issue by focusing on common interests and shared benefits. The harnessing of Ethiopia’s energy potential without compromising Egypt’s water security will demand a nuanced, sustainable solution.
One promising proposition is that Ethiopia could sell the surplus electricity it generates to Egypt. This would partially offset the water flow impact of the dam and establish an integrated energy market. This is an appealing, win-win situation that resonates with the ethos of regional integration and mutual dependency, which are ideals endorsed by both Egypt and Ethiopia as BRICS invitees.
Another feasible compromise could entail Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan agreeing a data sharing arrangement to help manage water flows from the dam. Such a mechanism could incorporate stipulations about the guaranteed release of water during times of drought, thereby indirectly addressing Egypt’s desire for assurances about its water security.
The path forward seems straightforward enough. Curtail the unilateralism, foster a culture of shared responsibility, underpin the approach through science and mutual benefits, and what seemed like failures might swiftly begin to resemble stepping stones toward a lasting solution.
Moreover, the discussions must transcend simply the dam itself. There is an urgent need to talk about cooperative and sustainable management of the Nile Basin, incorporating issues such as climate change, population growth and water-intensive developments.
A comprehensive Nile Basin agreement should be seen as an invaluable opportunity rather than a challenge. The resolution of this dispute will undoubtedly set a significant precedent for similar conflicts related to transboundary water resources.
Experts posit that the best way to minimize the dam’s potential negative effects on Egypt and Sudan is through negotiation and agreement, which might be moving closer to happening given the agreement in July by Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to work toward finding a resolution within four months. During talks due to take place in Addis Ababa in September, both nations could strive for a win-win situation that addresses the thorny water-security implications and the regional complexities that surround the dam.
Therefore, there is yet hope that the leaders of both countries might pioneer a transformative water-cooperation model within the agreed four-month target, if they can turn the tide of negotiations in this direction. Ultimately, there are plentiful opportunities for Egypt and Ethiopia to reach a cooperative understanding over the operation of the dam that safeguards their respective national interests.
Once upon a time, Egypt was considered the “Gift of the Nile.” In the 21st century, we must amend this idea to reflect the fact that the Nile might be the gift that offers the resurgence of cooperation and integration, not only to Egypt and Ethiopia but potentially to all of the countries that share its precious, irreplaceable waters.
• Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, and the former adviser to the dean of the board of executive directors of the World Bank Group.