A new dam on the Nile could trigger a war over water unless Ethiopia can agree a deal with Egypt and Sudan.
Egypt and Ethiopia have a big disagreement, Sudan is in the middle, and a big geopolitical shift is being played out along the world’s longest river.
There’s been talk about a dam on the Blue Nile for many years, but when Ethiopia started to build, the Arab Spring was underway and Egypt was distracted.
For thousands of years, and more recently buoyed by British colonialism, Egypt has wielded political influence over the Nile.
But the ambition of Ethiopia is changing all that.
Yet despite its political challenges and its limited freedoms, industrial parks are being built as Ethiopia seeks to transform itself into a middle-income country, and so it needs electricity.
Africa’s largest hydroelectric power station and one of the world’s largest dams will do that, but with 85% of the river emerging from the Ethiopian highlands, Egypt is concerned its rival has the capability to control the flow of the river.
“It’s one of the most important flagship projects for Ethiopia,” says Seleshi Bekele, the country’s Minister for Water, Irrigation and Electricity.
“It’s not about control of the flow, but providing opportunity for us to develop ourselves through energy development. It has a lot of benefit for the downstream countries.”
And Sudan certainly welcomes it.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is just a few kilometres from the border and the pylons are already in place, waiting for the power generation to begin and for cheap, renewable power to fizz through the cables.
Dams also regulate the flow of the river.
At the moment the difference between high water and low water level in Sudan is 8m, and that makes its vast irrigation projects harder to manage.
With the dam in place, the difference will be 2m and the flow of the river will come year-round.
“For Sudan it’s wonderful,” says says Osama Daoud Abdellatif, the owner of the Dal Group which runs farms and irrigation projects.
“It’s the best thing that’s happened for a long time and I think the combination of energy and regular water levels is a great blessing.”
He understands that Egypt is worried, as the UN predicts the country will start suffering water shortages by 2025.
“The Nile is the lifeline of Egypt, so for them, I wouldn’t say they are paranoid, but they are very concerned about anything that you do with that water.”
Any threat to Egypt’s water is considered a threat to its sovereignty.
“It’s very much a game changer, a new order is beginning in the whole region now,” believes Rawia Tawfik, an Egyptian academic working in Germany.
“Ethiopia for the first time is combining both the physical power of being an upstream country that can in one way or another control the River Nile’s flow, and the economic power of being able to construct a dam depending on its own domestic resources.”
And Egypt’s minister of water resources and irrigation, Mohamed Abdel Aty, is extremely angry.
“We are responsible for a nation of about 100 million”, he says. “If the water that’s coming to Egypt reduced by 2% we would lose about 200,000 acres of land.
“One acre at least makes one family survive. A family in Egypt is average family size about five persons. So this means about one million will be jobless.
“It is an international security issue.”
Negotiations between Egypt and Ethiopia are not going well.
The discussions aren’t even at the stage of assessing the impact, but are still about how that will be determined.
Sudan and Egypt are also at loggerheads over how much water Sudan uses – and how that amount may increase when the dam is finished.
The irony is Egypt did in the 1960s exactly what Ethiopia is doing today, when it built the Aswan High Dam.
Ethiopia wants to pay for this project itself without international help.
Government workers are giving a month’s salary a year to the project – and not all are happy about that.
There is a lottery to fund the dam and bonds are being put up for sale.
The dam is impressive. After five years it is two-thirds finished – and it already crosses the river.
There is nothing Egypt can do about it, except take military action which would be extreme.
That is why diplomacy and collaboration are the only means of resolving this issue.
Now there is increasing pressure from members of the Nile Basin on the African Union to continue mediating in the dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), fearing external influence may derail the search for a deal.
So far, Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt have failed to reach a final agreement on how to utilize the dam without affecting the amount of water reaching the lower riparian states. But the three countries admitted they had reached “an understanding” on most issues.
At a meeting of the African Union Bureau of Heads of States on recently, President Uhuru Kenyatta said the three countries should continue working through the AU as each one’s interests will be assured.
“This process has vividly shown that ‘African solutions to African problems’ is the way to go. We can resolve our disputes through negotiations and mediation within the framework of the African Union,” the President said.
The Bureau, which is chaired by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, also includes leaders from Kenya, Rwanda, Mali, Egypt, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The polite diplomatic façade was maintained but the words of the Egyptian and Ethiopian representatives revealed a belligerence that was hard to disguise.
The recent meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss Ethiopia’s huge hydro-electric plant, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd), straddling the Blue Nile, was held by teleconference.
The social distance that the participants observed underscored the diplomatic gulf.
It is a gulf that threatens to sweep up the populations of the two countries into a nationalist fervour and mutual distrust.
The Gerd, which sits on the Nile’s main tributary, is upstream of Egypt and has the potential to control the flow of water that the country almost entirely relies on.
For the Egyptian and Ethiopian representatives at the UN meeting, the very existence of their countries was at stake.
“A threat of potentially existential proportions has emerged that could encroach on the single source of livelihood of over 100 million Egyptians,” the country’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said.
Using similar language, Ethiopia’s UN ambassador Taye Atske-Selassie countered: “For Ethiopia, accessing and utilizing its water resources is not a matter of choice, but of existential necessity.”
When to fill up the dam
The rhetoric may disguise that after nearly a decade of talking, the two countries have managed to agree on a lot of things, but the crucial questions of how and when to fill up the dam, and how much water it should release, remain unresolved.
Years of bilateral and multilateral talks, expert commissions, an agreed Declaration of Principles between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, the third country affected, have still not settled these basic issues.
And now we are at a point where Ethiopia says it will unilaterally start filling up the dam in the next few weeks to coincide with the rainy season. It is a process that is expected to take up to seven years.
For Ethiopia, the construction and filling of the dam are not two separate events, one of the country’s negotiators Zerihun Abebe told the BBC.
“The Egyptians tried to confuse the international community” by suggesting that they are different things, he added, and argued that the 2015 Declaration of Principles allowed for Ethiopia to go ahead.
But this is not how Egypt sees it.
After the United States and the World Bank got involved late last year but failed to get Ethiopia to sign up to a document agreed with Egypt in February, the African Union (AU) has now said it will try and find a solution.
If the words of Egypt’s foreign minister are anything to go by then a deal is urgently needed.
“The unilateral filling and operation of this dam without an agreement that includes the necessary precautions to protect the downstream communities… would heighten tensions and could provoke crises and conflicts that further destabilise an already troubled region,” Mr Shoukry warned.
For its part, Ethiopia said it wanted to negotiate under the auspices of the AU, rather than the UN, but blamed Egypt for its “intransigence and its insistence on historic rights and current use”.
Those rights, as far as Egypt is concerned, go back to at least 1929, when the British government recognised the “natural and historical right of Egypt to the waters of the Nile”. It also granted Egypt veto rights on any projects upstream.
Then in 1959, Egypt and Sudan signed a deal in which the two countries agreed to share the Nile’s resources, with Egypt taking the biggest volume. No reference was made to any of the other nine countries in the river’s basin, including Ethiopia, the source of the Blue Nile.
The tributary, which merges with the White Nile in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, provides around 80% of the total flow of the river and Ethiopia sees it as a “historic injustice” that it is unable to take advantage of this natural resource, Mr Zerihun said.
If Ethiopia agrees to allowing a specific volume of water to flow to Egypt every year then this will “confirm a colonial privilege of the most downstream country, Egypt. It’s like neo-colonialism and that is unacceptable,” he added.
In essence, what Ethiopia is accusing Egypt of is wanting to maintain the flow that was guaranteed in 1959.
Ethiopia says that in the second year of filling it will release a minimum of 31 billion cubic metres through the Gerd, but beyond that it cannot be tied to a specific number.
Join Alastair Leithead and his team, travelling in 2018 from the Blue Nile’s source to the sea – through Ethiopia and Sudan into Egypt.
Maintaining the flow of a set volume of water to Egypt regardless of the rainfall pattern could mean that the Gerd will stop functioning during prolonged droughts.
While Egypt is alarmed by the prospect of not knowing how much water it is going to receive.
Nations united over the dam
The generation of so much heat after nine years of negotiations may reflect the fact that this is the diplomatic end-game rather than an unbridgeable gap and things will soon cool down.
But both Egypt’s President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed also have domestic political considerations and populations who have become heavily invested in the issue.
In Ethiopia’s case, people have literally invested in the dam. The $4bn (£3.2bn) cost of the project has been partly met by persuading Ethiopians at home and abroad to lend the government money by buying bonds.
While Mr Abiy faces political challenges that have dented his support, the Gerd is an issue that people can rally behind.
Some have taken to the video-sharing platform TikTok to illustrate the issues with cups and jugs of water. One that has been widely viewed shows a woman with a jug, representing Ethiopia, pouring water into two small cups and saying that her country is in control.
Egyptians have made their own videos, with one suggesting that the dam is vulnerable to attack.
In general, Egyptian media have been supporting the government in the talks over the dam, with some outlets accusing Ethiopia of being uncooperative during the crisis.
While the media in the two countries may want to up the stakes, it is the job of diplomats to try and calm things down.
It is still not clear, however, that those involved in the talks are doing this.