Ongoing talks between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan attempting to find a diplomatic and peaceful solution to the dispute over the Blue Nile Basin offer a unique opportunity for trans-boundary cooperation and have huge significance for a region dealing with multiple complex issues.
With trust clearly at a premium, the continuation of talks demonstrates good faith, but there is an urgent need to strengthen negotiations through all available diplomatic channels. The African Union (AU) is well-placed to continue mediating, but sustained high-level engagement is also needed from regional and international partners such as the EU and US, as well as multilateral support in terms of both financial and technical resources.
A tense history to overcome
At the heart of this dispute is the new Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) – set to become Africa’s biggest hydroelectric dam when complete. Egypt and Sudan, who lie downstream, fear that Ethiopia, as the dam builders, will effectively gain control of the flow of the Nile, a turn of events that radically changes the way that water resources have been shared in the region.
Egypt - widely described as a ‘gift of the Nile’ - is almost entirely dependent on the Nile to meet its various water needs, and is the major beneficiary of the 1929 and 1959 agreements on using the shared river’s water. The 1959 agreement gives Egypt a share of 55.5 billion cubic meters (BCM) annually out of 74 billion available, and a veto right over projects being developed upstream, while Sudan is allocated 18.5 BCM.
Crucially neither of these old agreements recognises the interests of other upstream countries on the Nile, some of which have asserted their own development ambitions on the river over the last two decades and pushed for a new agreement to enshrine equitable rights and harmonious use of the water.
One such country is Ethiopia where the Blue Nile River originates. The GERD is a central part of Ethiopia’s ambitions for economic prosperity. The dam, which is largely self-financed, will have a capacity of 74 BCM when completed, enough to provide abundant cheap energy to power both national and regional developments. Currently, more than half Ethiopia’s 110 million people do not have access to electricity, but demand is increasing by 30 per cent annually.
The unclear impact of the GERD – and lower volumes of water – on food security and agriculture complicate the negotiations. Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan’s populations are set to increase significantly in the coming decades and each are already dealing with significant challenges around food insecurity and nutrition, which in Egypt and Sudan, are partly exacerbated by the colonial-era agricultural structures set up to exploit cash crops.
Any change in water quality would have a huge impact on the 67% of Egyptian farm holdings considered as ‘small’ – the majority of which are on the banks of the Nile. And changes in water volumes might increase desertification and loss of livelihoods, potentially causing civil unrest if not addressed properly.
The environmental impact of the GERD on the complex Nile River system also raises concerns about the river’s ecosystem, the surrounding environment, and the river’s downstream course. Despite talks in 2015 leading to an agreement on declaration of principles, thorough technical studies have not been implemented.
Although there is little evidence that overall water levels in the Nile Basin have reduced in recent years, climate change is causing more variation in the Nile’s flow which increases the risk of flooding and extended droughts. Downstream states are also concerned about impacts from any breaches, damage or failure of the dam, including possible seismic activity.
Of course, the GERD also offers some added value to the downstream states. The dam can help manage floods in Sudan, reduce the significant water loss to evaporation - as in the case of Lake Nasser - and lessen the effect of sediment on downstream dams. In Sudan, where less than one-quarter of the estimated 70 million hectares of arable land is currently cultivated, any reduction in seasonal flooding would boost agricultural output and aid economic recovery. The dam will offer Ethiopia significant opportunities for the trade of cheap renewable energy to Sudan and neighbouring states earning it a possible $1bn a year in revenues. And adopting a more ‘basin-integrated’ management approach can be a springboard for enhanced regional cooperation between the three states.
But geopolitical tensions between the three have escalated since satellite imagery revealed apparent significant filling of the dam prior to reaching any agreement. Ethiopia has long said it would begin filling the dam during its rainy season, but insists the filling occurred naturally through June-July from rainfall and runoff and its first-year target of 4.9 BCM was reached without needing to close the dam gates. Egypt and Sudan have restated their calls for a binding legal agreement on the rules for filling and management of disputes.
Security response not the answer
Internal pressures are particularly acute, with all three countries experiencing public uprisings and regime change in the last decade, and current leaders are under pressure not to appear weak from influential sections of society pushing a hard nationalist line.
Hawkish elements in Egypt have long supported a more securitized response to any potential threats from the GERD, and the recent request from President Sisi that Egyptian air forces be ready to handle targets inside and outside of the country was interpreted as a threat to Turkey in Libya, and Ethiopia.
Egypt has also asked for the GERD to be discussed at the UN Security Council but Ethiopia’s Nobel peace prize-winning prime minister Abiy Ahmed, facing significant internal unrest himself, has made it clear that a costly confrontation is not in anyone’s interests. Meanwhile, Sudan’s transitional government - being jointly run by civilians and the military - is keen to assert its own interests on the Nile but has also played a conciliatory role with its neighbours. Increased engagement of Gulf states in the Horn of Africa and the impacts of conflicts in Libya, Yemen and Syria add more complexity to the overall regional picture.
Certainly none of the major parties sharing the river would benefit from a hard security response to the dam. For Egypt, such a move would torpedo its re-engagement in Sub-Saharan Africa under President Sisi and likely lead to its expulsion from the AU. For Ethiopia, overt conflict would be a huge setback for its development and regional integration ambitions. And Sudan’s nascent transition can ill-afford to be part of another regional conflict.
Thankfully, such an outcome is both highly unlikely and historically rare, and behind the scenes there has been significant progress. Some reports suggest a provisional agreement has been reached on the volume of filling required and the timeframe for the filling to happen. If so, most dispute now revolves around what to do in the event of a drought, provisions for information exchange, and how to translate all this into a binding agreement.
A two-phase approach, consisting of a short-term deal on filling and operating the GERD followed by discussions on future developments and allocation, could be the best way to reach a lasting settlement and replace the extremely outdated existing water-sharing agreements.
Reaching a successful deal between the three countries is not easy as it requires brave leadership and political goodwill, a de-escalation of long-standing rhetoric and brinkmanship, and a willingness to compromise on all sides to ensure the gaps between the countries’ positions are significantly narrowed.
What is required is a determined effort to keep the countries talking and provide the solutions which can bridge the parties’ differences, build confidence, and secure the vital diplomatic success so badly needed for wider stability and progress in the region.