Nile River Dam Raises Tensions Between Neighbors

Image: Reuters

by Julia Fine, ODP Contributing Writer

The largest hydroelectric dam in Africa, located in Ethiopia, is now nearly completed after nearly a decade of work, Declan Walsh reported in the New York Times this week. While many Ethiopian people are lauding the measure, Egyptian leaders have said the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) poses an “existential threat”. This dispute over control of the Nile is reaching a breaking point, as the latest effort at settling negotiations “ended inconclusively,” the NYT wrote.

While there is no immediate threat to water security in Egypt, the country is seeking “legally binding assurances that, in the event of a prolonged drought, Ethiopia will slow or halt the filling of the dam,” as well as input into Ethiopia’s building of more dams on the river. Ethiopian officials, according to Arab News, “insists the dam will benefit all Nile river basin states.”

Why This Matters: Last year, we asked, “Why isn’t climate change seen as a geopolitical risk?” The current tensions rising between Ethiopia and Egypt demonstrate yet again that it must be. The situation also shows, as Arab News pointed out, that such disputes are not only based on “technical matters.” Rather, they are also “legal, historical, and trust-related.” In order to get a tripartite agreement between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan, the historico-legal factors must be taken into account.

Whose Nile? 

Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan — three Nile river basin states — are “stymied by technical issues on how and when to fill the reservoir and how much water it should release, along with procedures for drought mitigation.” (The New York Times wrote a fantastic multimedia piece this past February about the conflicts arising from Nile River water management, we recommend you check it out for more context). 

As Mulugetta Ketema, managing director of the analysis center Cogent International Solutions told Arab News, “I am sure everybody is doing their best, but there is a historical issue also at play here. For centuries Egypt and Sudan didn’t have anybody saying they could do this or that… they have been using the river for their own advantage.” 

The tension over the Nile is coming to a head as the dam’s reservoir has started to fill, BBC reported. According to an analyst this filling is “likely due to seasonal rains instead of government action.” Still, as the AP noted, without a deal, filling the dam could “push the countries to the brink of military conflict.” 

It’s also worth noting that Ethiopia is desperate to build this dam to help bring electricity to all of its citizens. As CNN explained,  without electricity, many Ethiopians rely on shrinking forests for firewood, while the 40% of the country which is technically connected to the grid suffers from disruptive power cuts. 

On the other hand, most of Egypt’s 102 million people live in the narrow Nile valley, along the river, and depend on it for everything from drinking water to industrial use and irrigation. Egyptians worry that the dam will cripple its crops and jeopardize drinking water supplies at a time when climate change is already a looming threat to Nile River water.   

Future Conflict: While, according to Walsh, Western diplomats say that “veiled Egyptian threats of military action against Ethiopia are unlikely to be carried out,” Egyptian officials “refuse to rule it out.” The African Union is planning to convene an emergency meeting about the dispute next week. As the NYT noted, “Mediators hope that, with one final push, they can bridge the differences between Ethiopia and Egypt, before seasonal rains fill the gap for them.” 


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