Relations Between Three African States Reached a Breaking Point due to Water Disputes

Viktor Mikhin
DAM35252Ethiopia announced that it had completed the second phase of filling its controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) nearly two weeks after it began the process. This second filling was accomplished despite the lack of a legally binding agreement with Egypt and Sudan’s underlying countries and the sharp disputes between the three countries.

Upstream Ethiopia has not announced the amount of water it has stored in the dam reservoir, amid media reports that Addis Ababa has failed to meet its target of 13.5 billion cubic meters of water, holding back only a few billion cubic meters due to technical problems. But Seleshi Bekele, Minister of Water, Irrigation, and Energy of Ethiopia said that the accumulated volume is enough to run two turbines of a hydroelectric dam that has been under construction since 2011 on the Blue Nile, the main tributary of the Nile River, the most crucial source of freshwater for Cairo and Khartoum.

Last summer, Ethiopia unilaterally stored 4.9 billion cubic meters of water in the GERD reservoir, which has a total capacity of 74 billion cubic meters. In early July of this year, Ethiopia began filling in for a second straight year without reaching an agreement with Egypt and Sudan, a move that both downstream states consider necessary to secure their share of the Nile River. Cairo and Khartoum agree on the importance of a legal deal guaranteeing binding rules for filling and operating the Ethiopian dam to not cause substantial harm to the Egyptian and Sudanese peoples, who rely on the Nile as their primary source of freshwater.

Ethiopia, which hopes the controversial multibillion-dollar hydroelectric dam will support its economic development goals, seeks to sign nonbinding guidelines for filling and operating the dam, which can be changed at any time at its discretion. The trilateral talks broke down earlier this year after Ethiopians refused to include other mediators, as Egypt and Sudan had requested, to help the African Union, the current mediator, secure the long-awaited deal.

Perhaps Ethiopia’s biggest misconception in this regard, the Egyptian Al-Ahram wrote, is its denial that the Nile River is an international waterway and considers the Nile a transboundary water source. There is a substantial legal difference between an international waterway and a transboundary water source of an upstream country.  The Nile, which runs through 11 countries, is an international river. A river basin is a hydrological unit that is indivisible, while a country’s source basin or transboundary river is treated as a lake belonging to an upstream country. The International River is subject to agreements concluded between its concerned states in accordance with international law and the acquired rights of each state.

International law does not allow dams to be built except with the consent of downstream countries. The 1997 UNECE Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes provide that when an upstream state intends to build a dam on an international river, it must obtain the consent of potentially affected states. If they refuse, construction of the dam should be delayed until they reach a consensus on mitigating its harmful effects.

In addition, one of the international legal guarantees makes the financing of these dams conditional on the fact that they do not harm other countries in the river basin. Regarding these safeguards, Ethiopia believes that by signing the 2015 Declaration of Principles on the GERD, Egypt changed the nature of the Nile from an international waterway to a transboundary water source. This is contrary to the facts of geographical resources and landscapes created by nature and cannot be changed by any agreement.

At the same time, Ethiopia resorted to religious myths that the Blue Nile, springing from Lake Tana in Ethiopia, was a gift from God. It had the right to do whatever it wanted with its water, selling it just as other countries sell their oil. In saying this, Addis Ababa ignores the fact that the Blue Nile is the original tributary of the international Nile, as is the White Nile, which originates in Lake Victoria in Tanzania and Uganda, which is the river’s main channel. In spreading this myth, the Ethiopian government used some government-loyal Islamic imams led by Sheikh Haji Omar Idris, the grand mufti of Ethiopia and the president of the country’s Islamic Affairs Supreme Council, who issued a religious decree stating that God had promised Ethiopia the Nile and that Egypt had no right to use water that did not come from its land. He also stated that Islamic Shari’a stipulates that a country in which water arises has the right to use it to meet its needs, and then it can provide it to its neighbors if it wishes.

Under these circumstances, Cairo and Khartoum appealed to the UN Security Council, which met on July 8 on the ten-year dispute but did not adopt the draft resolution submitted by Tunisia on behalf of Egypt and Sudan. The draft only calls for Ethiopia to negotiate in good faith with the two downstream countries and set a six-month timetable for reaching an agreement under the auspices of the African Union to fill and operate the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. A few days before the UNSC meeting, Ethiopia began a second filling of the dam reservoir without an agreement. Cairo and Khartoum are now telling concerned world capitals that this is the last filler Ethiopia can get away within the absence of a legally binding agreement.

The Egyptian, Sudanese, and Ethiopian delegations, the first two-headed by Ministers of Foreign Affairs and the second by the Minister of Irrigation, clarified their countries’ positions. The Egyptian Foreign Minister warned that Cairo would defend its share of the Nile water by any means necessary, stressing that the Egyptian government still hopes to settle its differences with Ethiopia through negotiations. The Sudanese Foreign Minister was belligerent, declaring that Ethiopia wanted to “weaponize” the waters of the Nile and establish “hegemony” over the Blue Nile springs. As for the Ethiopians, the remarks of their Minister of Irrigation were a revision of their prominent position, often repeated during the last ten years. However, these remarks were mainly intended for Ethiopian public opinion, not to discuss the remaining differences with the two countries below objectively and in a spirit of compromise.  Security Council members insisted that negotiations were the best possible way to resolve the differences between the three countries and favored the African Union continuing to push for a final agreement on the filling and operation of the dam.

In meetings with the European Union (EU) and UN Security Council officials, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry called on international bodies to fulfill their responsibilities and send clear signals to Addis Ababa that it must end its refusal to negotiate seriously. Informed diplomatic sources reported in Brussels that Shoukry clarified to his European interlocutors that Cairo would not be expected to continue conceding to Ethiopia’s intransigence. The Foreign Minister stressed that the GERD is an existential threat to Egypt without an agreement on its filling and functioning. He made it very clear that Egypt would do everything possible to defend itself when the decisive moment came. “We think the message is clear: We have been too patient for anyone to accuse us of taking measures to protect our survival,” the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram wrote. But all this has not affected the Ethiopian government’s determination, which has persistently declared for the past few months that it will not sign any full and legally binding agreement but will only sign a specific set of customary principles and rules.

Most experts and diplomats worldwide understand the gravity of the situation, which threatens to escalate into military action. Former US President Donald Trump wondered why Egypt allowed the dam to be built and why he “just didn’t tear it down.” Adding that, he wouldn’t blame the Egyptians if they did it. However, Egypt has decided not to go down this path, although it is more than capable of doing so effectively.  The Egyptian state chose diplomacy instead, given the striking quantitative and qualitative difference between the modern Egyptian army and the embryonic Ethiopian one. In addition, there are other aspects to consider if Egypt launches military operations in response to the GERD crisis. As President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said, war on this issue would lead to chaos in the region and eventually affect the whole world. A new war in the region, or even a limited conflict, could disrupt ship traffic through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal as long as military operations continue. In March of this year, the blockage of the Suez Canal resulted in a $9 billion loss in world trade, and that was just one week after the canal was closed. If a new war breaks out, these losses will be sustained over a longer period and will lead to a sharp rise in oil prices, as well as the cost of oil delivery, if the war drags on for a long time.