On July 8, a disagreement between three African nations that has been simmering for more than a decade reached the floor of the UN Security Council. The altercation concerns the vast dam being built by Ethiopia to create the largest hydroelectric generating plant in Africa.
Egypt’s social and economic dependence on the Nile has been well-documented from ancient times. It remains true today. Fly over the country and, amid vast deserts, the river and its cultivated banks appear as a narrow green ribbon snaking its way to the north, where it widens into a delta before reaching the Mediterranean. The vast majority of Egypt’s 94 million people live adjacent to this fertile belt, along which its main cities from Aswan to Cairo to the Alexandria cluster.
The Nile that enters Egypt is fed from two sources down in the south that meet at Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. The White Nile, which rises in the Great Lakes region of central Africa and flows through Tanzania, Lake Victoria, Uganda and the two Sudans, supplies Egypt with 15% of its water. The Blue Nile, whose basin is in Ethiopia, provides 85%.
It was in April 2011 that Ethiopia’s then-prime minister Meles Zenawi laid the foundation stone of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (or GERD as it is generally known). With a planned capacity of 6.45 gigawatts (the maximum power output it can achieve at any point in time), the dam will be the seventh-largest hydroelectric power plant in the world. Intended to relieve Ethiopia’s acute energy shortage, it will also allow for the export of electricity to neighboring countries. Some experts suggest the future involves integrating hydro, solar and wind power with the GERD operation in an East Africa-wide green-power strategy. Almost incredibly, GERD’s reservoir is estimated to take up to eight years to fill with water. In fact, with the dam now nearing completion, the reservoir began filling in 2020, and it is continuing to do so this year.
Just before the Security Council considered the issue, Egypt and Sudan issued a statement accusing Ethiopia of acting unilaterally, and suggesting the dam was being filled deliberately. But experts point out that filling up the GERD reservoir is not like filling up a bath. Ethiopia is not able to turn a tap on and off at will. The reservoir behind the dam fills naturally during the Blue Nile’s rainy season, which usually lasts from June until September, because more water is entering the dam site than the volume of water that can physically pass through the two open outlets in the dam wall.
Ethiopia says it will take up to six more years for the reservoir to fill to its maximum flood-season capacity. At that point, the lake created will stretch back some 250 km. (155 miles) upstream. The intention is that subsequently, between each flood season, the reservoir level will be lowered and the flow of the Blue Nile downstream enhanced.
EGYPT’S NEAR-TOTAL reliance on the Nile for water means it sees the GERD as potentially a threat to its very existence. While the GERD reservoir is in the filling process, Egypt can compensate for any loss of water by releasing more from its own High Aswan Dam. Its concern is about guaranteeing its supply once the GERD is fully operational. Ethiopia is reluctant to be tied to an amount that it must release, especially in periods of drought. Its priority is making sure there is enough water to operate what will become Africa’s largest hydroelectric plant.
At the Security Council on July 8, Egypt and Sudan urged the council to approve a Tunisian-drafted resolution. It required Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to negotiate, under African Union auspices, a legally binding agreement that ensures Ethiopia’s ability to generate hydropower, “while preventing the inflicting of significant harm on the water security of downstream states.”
But the council rejected the idea of involving itself in the dispute to that extent. It supported mediation by the African Union, and urged Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to resume earlier negotiations that had foundered.
This whole dispute is bedeviled by the fact that Egypt, together with Sudan and Congo, has been at odds with 10 other African countries over the issue of the Nile since 2010. Back in 1929, in the colonial heyday, Britain signed a treaty that gave Egypt a virtual monopoly over the Nile’s waters, with veto rights over all upstream projects. Under the provisions of this treaty, Egypt later signed a deal with Sudan that guaranteed the two countries’ use of 90% of the Nile waters.
But the eight other nations that shared the basins of the two Niles at that time viewed Egypt’s historic dominance of the river as increasingly untenable. All Egypt’s upstream neighbors were undergoing rapid socioeconomic development, and these emerging regional powers began to challenge Egypt’s control of what each regarded as its river.
The affected countries eventually got together, and after a decade of negotiations, finally, in 2010, six of the Nile Basin countries signed the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA): Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi, to be later joined by the newly-created South Sudan. The CFA was meant to replace the 1929 colonial agreement that gave Egypt absolute rights over all the waters of the Nile, and provide a mechanism for cooperation among all 10 member countries in managing the Nile basin water resources. However Egypt and Sudan rejected its reallocation of Nile water quotas, and Congo also refused to sign. The impasse persists.
Whatever sort of arrangement is finally agreed to regarding the GERD dispute, therefore, a large number of African nations through which the White or Blue Nile flows remain dissatisfied with the monopoly on their waters exercised by Egypt and Sudan. This dispute, too, awaits resolution.
Israel has so far avoided becoming involved in either altercation. But Egypt has acted as an honest broker in the Israel-Hamas conflict. Perhaps there is a case for Israel offering to fulfil a similar role over the Nile.
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020.