Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 123, 8 July 2020

Damming the Nile: Tensions escalate between Egypt and Ethiopia as talks stall
Rashmi B R

In the news

After two weeks of mediation by the African Union, the new round of talks in resolving the dam dispute on the Nile had resumed among Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. These talks have now been stalled owing to Ethiopia's refusal to enter into a binding agreement regarding filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). 

With the negotiations stalled, Egypt has stated that its delegation had assessed the situation before presenting a proposal that took all the three countries' interests into consideration. The Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources pointed out that it recognizes Ethiopia's need to generate electricity, and also places Sudan's concerns within the loop.

Issues at large

First, it is a long-standing dispute. History tells us that there are multiple claims on the Nile river. The issue surrounding the dam can be traced back to 2011, when the construction for the GERD began in north Ethiopian highlands. Egypt fears that the dam will be an impediment to its fresh water supply. Sudan, also dependent heavily on Nile waters, finds itself caught in the middle of the dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt. 

Second, the colonial legacy. The British aimed to control the source of the Nile river as a part of their colonial policies. Britain, on behalf of its colonial territories- Tanzania, Sudan, Kenya and Uganda, entered into Nile Water Treaties with Egypt. These treaties and agreements prevent the upstream countries from using Nile without the consent of the lower stream countries. Egypt, who stood to benefit from these arrangements, argues that they are valid to this day. The colonial legacy has therefore a role to play in the current dispute. 

Third, the need for development. All the three countries- Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt depend upon Nile waters for sustenance and developmental activities. Ethiopia aims to generate 6,000MW from the project, thereby becoming the largest power exporter in Africa. Egypt, on the other hand, is completely dependent on the Nile to meet its needs. The country already suffers from acute water scarcity, and the UN predicts that it could run out of the water by 2025. 

Fourth, the lack of trust. Each of these countries, particularly Egypt and Ethiopia do not trust each other's methods of dealing with the issue and the solutions put forth. There is a fear that each one could act against the interests of others and take unilateral decisions in the form of proposing agreements. This has pushed Ethiopia to not enter the agreement regarding filling of GERD. There is also mistrust among the lower riparian countries- Sudan and Egypt, regarding the share of water they would be receiving if the dam becomes operational. 

In perspective

First, the fallout of conflict has been its transition to other domains such as the use of technology by the warring parties as show of power and strength over the other. The tensions over the GERD are not limited to the negotiating tables. Ethiopia claimed that it successfully foiled several cyberattacks from Egypt in the backdrop of the water dispute. 

Second, a strong negotiating role of regional organization has helped in opening channels for water conflict resolution. Cairo knocked the doors of UNSC over the dispute. However, Addis Ababa strongly protested against this and with the help of South Africa, successfully moved the dispute to the purview of the African Union. South Africa, which is the chair of AU, is mediating among the three countries to arrive at a solution. This development reiterates that the regional organizations are better equipped to resolve regional disputes, rather than the Security Council which will have the interference of the P5 and other countries. 

Rashmi B R is a PhD scholar at the School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS

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