The world is rightly focused on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine because of the effect on its neighboring countries, and the Damoclean sword of nuclear war. What has not been given much attention is the effect elsewhere on the competition by the major global powers in other regions, and how a sub-regional proxy conflict could escalate into a wider and more disastrous conflagration. Riparian rights to the waters of the Blue Nile are potentially such an explosive issue.
The Nile has long been a point of contention between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan, with a history of past and present superpowers shifting allegiances at any given moment in time.
Whatever the outcome of the Ukraine war, the Russian invasion will affect Egypt, which is the world’s largest importer of wheat (12-13 million tons yearly), with well over 55% coming from Russia and Ukraine.
With food prices rising, bread shortages have triggered riots in Egypt before; and with worse agriculture possibly on the horizon due to water shortages, this could be an impetus for Egypt’s leaders to take matters into their own hands while other eyes are focused on Europe.
Background: How a dam on the Nile became a point of contention
The contentious hydroelectric dam on the Nile carries a name – the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) – that aptly reflects Ethiopia’s ambitions for it. The dam lies across the Blue Nile, which originates in Ethiopia and accounts for around 85% of the water that eventually flows through the Nile downstream in Sudan and Egypt.
The flare-up around the dam has its roots in a historical error made by the UK almost a century ago when the British did not take into proper account Ethiopia’s interests at the time.
Let’s take a step back in history to understand how it happened.
The problems can be traced to the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1929, to which the Ethiopians were not a party, and the United Kingdom negotiated on behalf of Ethiopia and several other Nile Basin countries.
Once Sudan gained independence in 1959 they agreed with Egypt that Sudan would annually be guaranteed over 18 billion cubic meters of Nile water and Egypt 18 billion cubic meters.
Ethiopia was not consulted and has long rejected both the 1929 treaty and the 1959 agreement.
In 2011 Ethiopia launched the construction of the dam known as the GERD project without consulting either Egypt or Sudan (or the Republic of South Sudan which was founded in July 2011), maintaining it was within Ethiopian sovereignty. The GERD ultimately would cost over $5 billion.
Realizing the need for some resolution going forward, in 2015 the three countries signed a Declaration of Principles (DoP) which recognized that Ethiopia might go forward with GERD, but with the proviso Ethiopia implement recommendations included in the final report of the Tripartite National Technical Committee dealing with different stages for the dam operations.
Key was the condition that an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) be carried out. A 1997 UN Convention on the Non-Navigational Uses of Transboundary Watercourses devotes 17 provisions to watercourse preservation and protection that cannot materialize without a transboundary ESIA. This was to be done before the dam construction should go forward and it sets rules for filling of the dam and the manner of its operation.
Ethiopia has continued to refuse an ESIA, a pivotal decision that has shadowed discussion until today. The Middle East Institute, a Washington-based non-partisan think tank, qualifies this Ethiopian refusal as a scandal in the strongest words:
“It is a travesty of unspeakable proportions that in the 21st century the construction of a mega-hydropower-generation project, the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)—whose reservoir can store almost all the annual flow of a transboundary river, the Nile—has been underway for over seven years without an independent, comprehensive transboundary Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) conducted first.”
And they conclude that this situation “continues in defiance of international norms governing interstate relations, international environmental law, human rights law and sustainable development customary law.”
The problem is that Ethiopia essentially rushed ahead to build the dam without even sending out the necessary prior notification to Egypt and Sudan, a fundamental legal requirement in the international community now that all major aid agencies have developed assessment procedures around any dam built anywhere in the world. The agencies in question include the World Bank, FAO, UNDP, IFAD, UNEP, UNIDO, ADB, AfDB, EBRD, IDB, and IFC, and every one of them has elaborated frameworks with rigorous requirements and processes, and detailed standards, for environmental and social assessments.
Current GERD Status
Egypt accepted the inevitability of the dam but had looked to the ESIA to address its technical concerns, namely that the initial filling of the GERD’s reservoir should happen gradually.
Egypt is essentially a sandy landmass that borders the Nile, its only significant source of fresh water. It sought a delay in full reservoir operation over 12-20 years so as to avoid a shock to its people and agriculture and give them time to adjust to a new water regime; by contrast, Ethiopians have pushed forward with rapid completion in order to generate power, a major preoccupation given that more than half of Ethiopia’s population has no access to electricity and to assist with its economic growth.
Egypt’s options are essentially limited to negotiation with Ethiopia agreeing to a stretch out of operations – or military action.
In February 2020, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan appeared close to negotiating their differences. However, Ethiopia backed out over concerns that its provisions would infringe upon the country’s sovereignty, that it was “not mandatory to reach an agreement” before the filling process begins, confirming that Addis Ababa would “commence the filling process in the coming rainy season.”
Egypt, calling on the UN Security Council to condemn these actions, argued that filling the GERD without an agreement “would represent an alarming attempt by Ethiopia to establish and exercise unfettered control over the transboundary river.”
The African Union (AU) subsequently resumed negotiations under its auspices, precipitated by then South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to engage the AU as the facilitator of the talks in the spirit of finding “African solutions to Africa’s problems”.
AU experts presented their report with options for resolving outstanding legal and technical issues to the Bureau and the three negotiating countries during another extraordinary summit held on 21 July. The Bureau urged the negotiating parties to expedite the finalization of a ‘binding Agreement on the Filling and Operation of the GERD’ and welcomed their willingness to reach a comprehensive agreement on the Blue Nile as soon as possible.
But again Ethiopia withdrew and once again the negotiations failed to yield tangible results.
At the end of 2021, Ethiopian authorities announced that GERD was 80% complete with enough water to generate some power. From the Egyptian perspective, time is running out.
External Actors: China, Russia and the United States
Unfortunately, the GERD dispute is not circumscribed to the countries directly involved in the project and several major powers have been drawn in. The actions of major powers remind one of historic “spheres of influence” and proxy conflicts that characterized the Cold War. This time there are new State powers, with similar competition forces at play.
Described below is what we know now about all the countries involved in the GERD project – China, Russia, the United States with the proviso that the final outcome is no more certain than the Ukraine war outcome.
- China: Chinese companies have been central to the construction of the dam. Ethiopian Electric Power (EEP) contracted China’s Gezhouba Group for $40.1 million, expecting them to “work aggressively in partnership with other companies” to finalize the GERD on schedule; Beijing has provided significant funds for GERD related infrastructure, including making available US $1.2 billion in loans to build power transmission lines between the dam and local towns and cities; following a 2019 visit of the Ethiopian Prime Minister to Beijing, China promised an additional US $1.8 billion to expand Ethiopia’s renewable energy sector.
- Russia: Russia’s strategy has been to bolster its influence in the Mediterranean Sea, Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean, by maintaining good relations with Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia; since 2017, it has attempted to secure long-term access to Egypt’s Mediterranean naval facilities and it is in the process of finalizing a naval base agreement with Sudan; aware of Ethiopia’s ambitions to become a Red Sea power, Russia has upgraded its security cooperation with Addis Ababa.
- The United States: The Biden administration has adopted a more neutral role on GERD, given that both Egypt and Ethiopia are important U.S. strategic partners. Such efforts have been complicated by events in the Tigray region and elsewhere in Ethiopia; this has resulted in the signing of an executive order threatening sanctions against the Ethiopian Prime Minister and others responsible for the violence in Tigray; at the same time, U.S. assistance to Ethiopia resumed in 2020, which had been frozen under the Trump administration. Egypt has interpreted the sum and substance of Washington’s “neutrality” as supportive of the Ethiopian position.
On the International Scene
The various players involved in the GERD project can be seen to interact according to their own interests in the two major international fora that are involved and where meetings are planned: the upcoming second Russia-Africa Summit and the UN Security Council.
- Russia-Africa Summit: Ethiopia is preparing to host the 2022 Russia-Africa summit in October 2022 and supports an African Union-led resolution of the GERD crisis; negotiations are not likely to be easy since Sudan has endorsed Moscow’s GERD position, this did not sit well with Egypt.
- The United Nations Security Council: In September 2021 the president and all 15 Security Council members stated negotiations should resume at the invitation of the African Union’s (AU) chairman “to finalize expeditiously the text of a mutually acceptable and binding agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD, “within a reasonable time frame” but without specifying a deadline; and further, the Security Council calls upon the three countries to “take forward the AU-led negotiation process in a constructive and cooperative manner”; the five permanent members of the Council – the U.S., Russia, China, the U.K. and France – all endorsed the statement, reflecting to some extent a common cause of concern this could ratchet out of control, to no one’s advantage.
So where do the contenders stand now? It would appear that Egypt and Sudan continue to press for a legally binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam including an effective and binding mechanism for settling future disputes.
Ethiopia insists on an agreement that includes nonbinding guidelines.
Where does this go next?
On the good news side, none of the outsider powers appear to see much to gain from an all-out military conflict. For now, and as long as the Ukraine war is ongoing, it is clear that Russia is too occupied with its military operations in Europe and realistically cannot engage in a proxy conflict elsewhere in the world.
The bad news is for both Ethiopia and Egypt: The political costs of backing down are very high for two leaders who are not popular at home; also, they aren’t getting heavy pressure from abroad to prod them to resolve the conflict.
Moreover, the Ukraine war will affect both countries going forward.
In the short term, Egypt may find it very difficult to fill the wheat supply gap that is likely to occur as Ukraine cannot deliver. The situation is complicated by the fact that Russia, a major wheat exporter, is under sanctions. Moreover, both Ukraine and Russia’s ability to supply grains is threatened. The spring planting in Ukraine is particularly at risk as the major wheat production areas are in the Eastern part of the country, including the Donbas which has now, with Russia’s latest military pivot, become a major theater of war. Add difficulties in shipments from the Black Sea where major ports are blocked by war, and you have a perfect storm.
If the war continues over an extended period, Ethiopia may face difficulties in organizing the planned Russia-Africa Summit – and is it even likely? If it doesn’t take place under Ethiopian auspices, can the AU move in, and provide a way forward?
Nile riparian countries would do well to reflect on Lord Palmerston’s speech before he became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, in the House of Commons in 1848:
“We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”
The most important “interest” in this case is the welfare of all the populations living along the Nile: The Ethiopians need electricity to pull themselves out of poverty and achieve a decent living and Egyptian and Sudanese farmers and all the riparian people need water from the river to survive. That is what is at stake.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: GERD inauguration February 21, 2022 Source: Screenshot Reuters video