Looming Water War Over Dam Construction on the Nile River

12 July 2021

Egypt is threatening war with Ethiopia over management of Nile River water. The dispute has been going on since 2011, when Ethiopia began construction of its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Egypt has a much larger and better equipped military than Ethiopia and spends twenty times as much each year on its armed forces. That does not mean the Egyptian military threat to Ethiopia is decisive.

Invading Ethiopia is no easy matter. Many have tried and none have succeeded, at least not for long. Egypt made an attempt in 1874 and failed spectacularly. Italy did worse in 1895, when their better trained, equipped and prepared force thought they could overwhelm the Ethiopian defenders, which still depended on poorly armed (compared to Italy) tribal militias. The Italians were defeated and humiliated. They tried again in 1935, prepared more thoroughly and were briefly successful. Italy first established colonial governments in southern Somalia and Eritrea, both of them bordering landlocked Ethiopia, then negotiated agreements with Britain and France to support efforts to curb growing German military power in return for freedom to do whatever they wanted in Africa, where Italy had also colonized Libya. When it became clear that Italy was assembling 100,000 troops in Somalia and Eritrea supported by modern artillery, tanks and aircraft, there were international protests that did not stop Italy from advancing into Ethiopia in October 1935 without declaring war. The Italians planned to use surprise, speed and ruthless violence against any armed or civilian resistance they encountered. It took six months to defeat the Ethiopian military opposition and in early May Italy captured the capital, Addis Ababa, in central Ethiopia. The Ethiopian emperor and his family fled and Italy declared Ethiopia part of its East African possession which included Eritrea and southern Somalia. Armed resistance continued for another year and civilian unrest was not quelled until 1939. Over 350,000 Ethiopians were killed, most of them civilians. Italian losses were about 10,000 dead. The Ethiopian emperor made impassioned pleas for Western assistance that were not answered until World War II broke out in late 1939, with Italy now allied with fascist Germany.

Britain also held part of Somalia and quickly moved forces there to halt any Italian moves. By 1940 British forces had cut off Italian forces in Ethiopia. The exiled Ethiopian emperor helped organize a paramilitary force that, after the British invasion force neutralized the Italian defenders, escorted the emperor into Addis Ababa in May 1941, four years after he had fled to avoid capture by the advancing Italians.

After World War II, in which Italy switched sides in 1943 and joined the allies, Italy signed a reparations agreement, acknowledging war crimes in Ethiopia and paid $310 million (in current dollars) reparations. Italy used chemical weapons against the Ethiopians and massive reprisal attacks on Ethiopian civilians who continued to resist. The Italians destroyed 2,000 churches in Ethiopia, a majority Christian nation for nearly 2,000 years. The Italians also destroyed over 500,000 homes and 13 million cattle, sheep, horses and camels.

Egypt is mindful of all this and threats of war on Ethiopia over the GERD project probably does not involve an invasion of the entire country. It also does not include an attack on the nearly complete and partially filled reservoir of the GERD dam because that would cause an enormous flood downstream in Sudan and into Egypt. GERD is more important to Ethiopia than Egypt and is costing $5 billion, which is seven percent of Ethiopian annual GDP. With the completion of GERD and its electricity generating capacity, Ethiopia will finally be able to bring electrical power to over half of Ethiopians who do not have it. GERD will control the flow of the Blue Nile, the major tributary of the Nile, supplying 85 percent of the Nile River that supplies 90 percent of the freshwater for 140 million Egyptians and Sudanese.

War over how GERD will manage water flow to Egypt and Sudan is a threat to Ethiopia, but not a major one and Ethiopia knows it. Ethiopia is a difficult country to invade and even more so now that the Blue Nile water is in play. This has a lot to do with Ethiopian stubbornness in resisting Egyptian attempts to dictate terms on how the GERD will manage the huge quantity of water in its reservoir and when water is released. Military action by Egypt and Sudan is a threat but one that has costs for Egypt and Sudan in the long run. It’s one of those intractable situations that desperately needs a solution. There has been progress in working out a compromise but that has been slow going and unpopular in Ethiopia and Egypt. Sudan is caught in the middle because Sudan only recently overthrew a dictator who had ruled the country as an “Islamic state” that was backed by Iran. Sudan has patched up relationships with the West in order to get economic aid and some assistance in resolving the GERD dispute. The continued flow of Nile River water is a matter of life or death for Egypt, which finds its options seriously limited by practical realities.

Currently Egypt is trying to demonstrate some serious military threat capability against the dam, especially since GERD is located on the Blue Nile River that eventually flows through Sudan and is 20 kilometers, cross country, from the Sudan border. From the beginning of construction there has been a large military presence around the GERD and that force will apparently remain after construction is complete. While getting to GERD is easier than reaching Addis Ababa, the Ethiopians are aware of the vulnerability.

With that in mind, during late 2020 Egypt and Sudan participated in a week of joint military exercises. Egyptian Air Force aircraft and army commando forces are participating in the exercise. This military cooperation is all about the GERD project. A month earlier Egypt and Ethiopia and Sudan held peace talks but failed to agree on how to resolve their GERD disagreements. Egypt calls the dam a threat to Egypt’s existence.

Earlier in 2020 Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia thought they had reached an agreement on GERD operation and the distribution of Nile River water. A decade ago, Egyptian concern for its downstream water rights led to sharp diplomatic protests and war threats. The early 2020 agreement addressed issues like filling the GERD’s reservoir, policies regulating water release during droughts and procedures for handling emergencies related to the dam. The Americans held a meeting in the United States that they believed determined joint responsibility for managing drought crises. The U.S. has good relations with Egypt and Ethiopia while Sudan wants the U.S. to remove it from the Sponsors of Terrorism (SST) list, which was later done. This American brokered deal was described as final. That turned out to be optimistic. A couple of thorny issues remained unsettled. Ethiopia claimed Egypt dropped its demand that Ethiopia guarantee Egypt 40 billion cubic meters of water annually. Egypt claims it did not and could not drop that demand. The GERD reservoir’s fill rate is another issue. Egypt argues that if the GERD’s reservoir fills too quickly it will reduce the Nile River’s flow and thus limit the Egyptian Aswan High Dam’s electrical generation capability. Egypt wants seven years for the initial fill. Ethiopia wants to fill it in four years. Once filled, GERD’s reservoir will serve as a hedge against drought for all three nations. GERD will also supply electrical power to a region running from Kenya and Uganda through South Sudan, Sudan and Egypt.

Water Wars like this are threatened in many parts of the Middle East and Eurasia. This one, involving the Nile River and long delayed economic progress for Ethiopia is probably one of the worst of these disputes. Settling it peacefully will provide useful lessons for similar disputes elsewhere.

Source: Strategy Page