Ethiopia and Egypt are heading for a water war. The background: the unresolved dispute over Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant on the Blue Nile.
Pharaonic structure in Ethiopia: the Renaissance Dam construction site, seen here at the end of 2019 Photo: Eduardo Soteras / afp
It is set to become the largest hydropower plant in Africa: the Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, with a capacity of 6,000 megawatts. For years, the giant structure has been the pride and joy of Ethiopia, whose population of 110 million people mostly lives in poverty and the majority has no electricity. But ever since Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that he would completely fill the reservoir within a month during this year’s rainy season starting in July, all alarm bells in the region have been ringing, as Egypt rejects the dam as a threat to its own water supply.
Abiy made the timing on April 1, the ninth anniversary of the start of construction. He wants to create facts after the failure of U.S.-brokered negotiations with Egypt. The Ethiopian government had rejected an agreement worked out by U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that Egypt agreed to Feb. 29. Sudan, which sits between the two giants of the Nile, had entered the fray as a mediator. The new interim government in Khartoum is closely allied politically with Egypt, but Cairo knows that the Ethiopian dam will benefit Sudan because it will make the flow more consistent and thus reduce the risk of flooding, not to mention possible electricity exports from Ethiopia.
The main point of contention between Cairo and Addis Ababa is how quickly the hydropower plant will be completed. The faster the reservoir fills up, the less water will be left downstream during this period. The lake holds 74 billion cubic meters of water and is already filling up. According to Ethiopian Energy Minister Seleshi Bekele, the entire hydropower project is three-quarters complete.
Ethiopia actually wanted a duration of 7 years; Egypt demanded a much longer period. The U.S. position was that there should be an agreement between the countries involved before completion. From the Ethiopian point of view, Washington thus gives Cairo a kind of veto power. Now, for their part, Ethiopian negotiators are boycotting further talks.
Egypt’s lifeline – Ethiopia’s chance of survival
The tension is rising. For Egypt, the Nile is the lifeline; the river supplies 90 percent of Egypt’s water. The Blue Nile, which rises in Ethiopia, provides 80 percent of the Nile’s water, and its seasonal fluctuations ensure the seasonal irrigation of Egypt’s farmland along the river. The dam in Ethiopia is expected to reduce the available water per capita in Egypt from 570 to 500 cubic meters per year.
Less water in the Nile also means more Mediterranean water entering the river system. The resulting salinization could halve Egypt’s agricultural output by 2060, the 2018 UN World Water Report has predicted.
Ethiopia counters that current water sharing is colonial in origin. In 1959, Egypt and Sudan had agreed among themselves that of the 84 billion cubic meters of water carried by the Nile, Egypt would receive 55 billion and Sudan 18.5 billion. They thus confirmed with increased quantities a 1929 agreement from the British colonial period. Ethiopia, the main source country of the Nile, was neither involved nor taken into account, nor were the source countries of the longer but less water-bearing White Nile, such as Uganda. The Egyptian-Sudanese agreement also states that constructions on the Nile in other countries require the approval of Cairo and Khartoum.
To date, there is no post-colonial agreement on the use of the Nile waters that includes all affected countries. The "Nile Basin Initiative" of all Nile Basin countries is supposed to achieve this, but Egypt backed out and insists on the 19 agreements.
During the talks in the USA, there were signs of a willingness to compromise: Egypt had agreed to a 40 billion cubic meter limit, Ethiopia had wanted to release only 31 billion; an agreement on 37 billion was within reach, but Ethiopia backed down, according to reports based on a leaked draft agreement.
Egyptian military base in Eritrea?
Now both sides are mobilizing. On the one hand diplomatically: Egypt has the Arab League behind it, Ethiopia the states of the southern Nile basin. But also militarily: Ethiopia’s government has assembled armored units around the dam. People in Addis Ababa remember well the year 2013, when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which at the time had Mohammed Mursi as its president, openly discussed destroying the dam, through air strikes or rocket fire. Egypt’s current president, Sisi, put an end to that, but mistrust remains.
Egypt is now considering military cooperation with Eritrea, which was in a state of war with Ethiopia for twenty years until Abiy took office in 2018. According to media reports, Egypt wants to establish a military base on the Eritrean island of Nora in the Red Sea. Eritrea is already cooperating with Arab countries in Yemen and has given a military base in Sawa to the Gulf states under a 30-year lease.
With a military presence in Eritrea, Egypt would have a military presence at both ends of the Red Sea and could block Ethiopia’s supply routes. Last weekend, Ethiopia’s government called the dispute over the Nile a "matter of survival."