With the Western world fixated on the crisis in Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, tensions along the River Nile have escalated, re-igniting fears of a war over water between the United States’ allies in Africa.
On February 19, Ethiopia started generating electricity from one of the 13 turbines in its ongoing dam project along the Nile, producing a capacity of 375 megawatts. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed inaugurated the event.
“From now on, there will be nothing that will stop Ethiopia,” AP News quoted Ahmed as saying.
Citing the alleged benefits, Ahmed added, “We want to export our pollution-free electricity to Europe through Sudan and Egypt, so the way forward is cooperation among us. Ethiopia doesn’t want [or] intend to harm anyone else.”
The dam’s project manager, Kifle Horo, added, “We just started generating power, but that doesn’t mean the project is completed . . . . It will take from two and half to three years to complete it.
However, Egypt and Sudan warned that its completion would threaten their own access to the Nile’s waters. Cairo’s Foreign Ministry warned that Ethiopia’s actions are a further “breach” of a 2015 agreement over the Nile between the three countries.
Egypt and Sudan warned the dam’s completion would threaten their own access to the Nile’s waters.
To counteract Ethiopia, Egypt has started deepening its ties with Sudan, including military cooperation and joint training. On March 16, Egyptian Military Chief of Staff Osama Askar met his Sudanese counterpart, Mohamed Othman al-Hussein, during the eighth meeting of the Egyptian-Sudanese Military Committee.
Ethiopia began constructing the $4.6 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in 2011, which started the dispute with its neighbors downstream. Upon its completion, the dam will produce a total of 6,500 megawatts from its 13 turbines. The lake within the GERD has held around 7.2 billion cubic meters of water since 2020. Ethiopia expectsthe dam will provide electricity to over 60 percent of its 110 million population.
Parts of the Nile which run through Ethiopia, including the Blue Nile, provide the Nile with over 85 percent of the water that flows into it. Thus, Ethiopia’s dam construction would certainly create restrictions for both Egypt and Sudan.
Despite this critical situation, mediation efforts have fallen flat as Ethiopia has clearly indicated it seeks to ensure the project’s success. The African Union (AU) has failed to resolve the dispute, as its mediation efforts in April 2021 were halted after it was unable to find a mutually beneficial solution to the GERD.
Mediation efforts between Ethiopia and Egypt and Sudan have fallen flat.
In summer 2021, Cairo and Khartoum lodged their concerns over the GERD to the UN Security Council. Later, the council issued a statement calling on the three countries to pursue negotiations under AU guidance. Yet as the AU has shown its impotence over the GERD disagreement, the international community is evidently neglecting this critical dispute.
Arguably, Ethiopia’s pursuing of the GERD is the greatest threat to long-term peace over the Nile, given the security and economic threats that both Egypt and Sudan face. Its plans to complete the third-stage filling of the dam by the end of summer 2022 could add further fuel to the fire.
Sisi Seeks African Support
Aside from Sudan, Egypt has tried to strengthen relations with other African countries, following a repeated AU failure to help broker a settlement to the dispute. On March 26, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with his Rwandan counterpart, Paul Kagame, to discuss strengthening the two countries’ relations. Both Egypt and Rwanda signed a memorandum of understanding to boost cooperation in diplomatic training, youth and sports, museums, and information technology.
Egypt has also tried to boost its ties elsewhere in East Africa to rally support for its case on the Nile. On February 7, Djibouti’s President Ismail Omar Guelleh visited Cairo to meet Sisi, and both presidents announced the creation of a free trade zone, with the promise of increasing Cairo’s investment and trade volume in Djibouti.
Clearly, Sisi is trying to take a leadership role in the AU and push its case over the Nile. In 2019, Egypt was the leader of the AU, and at the time, Cairo took inspiration from its role, speaking on behalf of Africa. Now, Cairo is trying to achieve this same level of authority through other measures, such as chairing the upcoming United Nations Climate Change Conference 2022 (COP27), in which Sisi is expected to take a central role in addressing the needs for Africa.
Sisi is trying to take a leadership role in the AU and push its case over the Nile.
Although Sisi evidently seeks to win the support of Africa, this would be insufficient in swaying Ethiopia. After all, Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa, has shown its determination to proceed with the GERD and secure its perceived access to the Nile’s waters.
Regional and international powers have tried to exert influence over the Horn of Africa and the Nile country, and this could have mixed results for the GERD issue. Ultimately, it may even worsen hopes for diplomacy, particularly as such powers have somewhat sided with Ethiopia.
On March 12, China’s special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Xue Bing, landed in Ethiopia as part of an African tour that month. Xue’s tour included Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, and South Sudan.
Per its expansion into the African continent, China has adopted a stance of non-intervention in countries’ domestic affairs, such as its veto of a UN Security Council resolution for investigating Ethiopian abuses in the country’s Tigray province. However, aside from refraining from taking sides in the GERD dispute, Beijing has also contributed to financing the dam.
Moreover, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, two key regional players in the Horn of Africa, have failed to provide an effective solution to the GERD dispute, despite their mediation attempts. From Cairo’s perspective, Abu Dhabi has even subtly sided with Ethiopia, despite its traditional alliance with Sisi’s Egypt.
As these influential actors have apparently bolstered Ethiopia’s aspirations with the dam, and with the collapse of AU-backed negotiations, the situation along the Nile has only become more tense. While the West could take a more proactive role in engaging with the Nile countries, European and US negotiators could also actively engage in AU-led efforts to find a solution. However, while there is limited pressure on Ethiopia to accept a compromise, the chances of a spiraling dispute in the future could be very real.