The longest river in the world, the Nile, spans a distance of over 4000 miles, passing through large parts of Africa including Tanzania, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, to name a few, and finally emptying into the Mediterranean Sea.
The Nile is a lifeline for Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, whose mutual relation took a beating when Ethiopia proposed to build the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD). The proposed dam would make Ethiopia the biggest exporter of electricity in Africa and give a boost to its growing economy.
However, this project invited furious responses from Egypt as Nile is deeply connected to the history of the country since ancient times. Also about 95% of Egyptian population resides along the banks of the Nile and are heavily dependent on the river for sustaining their livelihood. Building the large reservoir will deplete the water resources of Egypt which will threaten their livelihood.
The Nile is experiencing pernicious effects of escalating population and climate change and the United Nations has projected that it is expected to cause immense water scarcity by 2025. “We’re worried. Egypt wouldn’t exist without the Nile. Our livelihood is being destroyed. God help us” says Hamed Jarallah, an Egyptian farmer.
This 5 billion-dollar project was initiated in 2011, is capable of producing a whopping 6000 megawatts of hydro power and has a reservoir capacity of 74 billion cubic metres. This dam is projected to annually contribute over a billion dollars to the Ethiopian economy. It is alleged that Ethiopia has already started filling the reservoir despite the protests from other countries.
In 2015, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan signed a ‘Declaration of Principles’ which called for the equal water distribution. Despite more than five years of negotiations, these countries are still not able to reach mutually acceptable agreements. Earlier, Sudan supported Ethiopia’s dam proposal as it was promised adequate electricity at a cheaper cost. However, the failure to reach a conclusive agreement led it to oppose Ethiopian dam. Sudan has already gone ahead and notified the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), the dangers its people will face via a letter advocating them to step in.
When Egypt made a demand for GERD to release around 40 billion cubic metres of water every year, Ethiopia denied this suggestion while Sileshi Bekele, minister for water, irrigation and energy, called the volume of water ‘inappropriate’. Finally, in 2019, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi turned towards U.S President Donald Trump to settle this long dispute. “The Ethiopian side does not want an agreement and has not offered an alternative” says Egyptian minister Mohamed Abdel-Ati as Ethiopia retracted from the US-led conciliation over GERD.
Ethiopia further provoked Egypt when Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew tweeted that Ethiopia will have “all the development it wants” from the river and that the Nile is theirs. This was a strong posturing which sparked whispers of an apparent war between Egypt and Ethiopia. If it escalates into a war involving the military then Ethiopia might succumb to the powers of the Egyptian army. However, according to Sisi, military intervention is unlikely to take place as he believes negotiation is the best way to arrive at a viable agreement.
As these three countries march ahead in their task to find a middle ground, they should focus on ideas which would include potential for a ‘shared economic advantage’ and also include organizations like the World Bank which can provide financial backing for improvement purposes in such regions.