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May 13, 2021

Nile Basin Water Wars: The Never-Ending Struggle Between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan

Blue Nile in Khartoum, cc FLickr Juri Knauth, modified, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

A Conflict through the Decades

Known for being the longest river on the African continent, the Nile River has served as a key source of water for all the countries residing in its basin, with Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan representing the three countries most reliant on this water source. This natural resource has been a point of conflict for over a century, often serving as the root cause for inter and intra-state wars, as political leaders and citizens fight for what they believe is inherently theirs. Dating back to 1821, this motivation to establish maximum control over the Nile pushed Egypt to invade Sudan and in 1875 led to the Egyptian occupation of Ethiopia, with the basin experiencing social and political tensions ever since. The histories of these three countries are filled with the development of several treaties between their colonial power-holders, including the building of dams and rights to minimum amounts of water, however most of these treaties gave preference to Egypt, as exemplified by the Nile Waters Agreements of 1929 and 1959. The struggle for Nile waters is also considered to be one of the most important causes of the proxy wars of the 1960s to the 2000s in and around Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan.

Another factor contributing to these countries’ inability to cooperate and negotiate equitable terms is the belief that each of them has a right to the majority of the water’s shares. Egypt, having the most ancient population of the three countries and therefore the longest record of usage, believes it has historical rights to the waters, while Ethiopia claims geographical rights, since 95% of the Nile waters run naturally through the Ethiopian wetlands. Sudan on the other hand claims it is entitled to the waters given its geographical location between Ethiopia and Egypt – stating that cooperation between those two countries, and in turn peace in the basin, is not possible without their involvement. As a result, these countries have been unable to negotiate fair and equitable terms as to how the water should be distributed, and therefore have been unable to ease tensions in the basin.

Despite the quieted nature of this conflict in recent years, the ongoing attempts to negotiate, and the development of treaties that failed to equally distribute the Nile’s waters have created permanent tensions between these three countries and continue to destabilize the basin, with the latest high-impact development being Ethiopia’s plans to build a multibillion-dollar dam, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Announced during the Arab Spring in the early 2010s, this dam was intended to secure the water that naturally flows through the country. Both Egypt and Sudan viewed the decision as a threat to their water supply, thereby escalating the conflict to near-violent levels, with Egyptian representatives publicly stating that if Ethiopia takes any action to block the Nile water, ‘there will be no alternative for us but to use force.’ Fast-forward eight years and the Grand Renaissance Dam is now 70 percent complete, having slowly but surely continued construction, despite opposition from Egypt and Sudan.

Aggravated Effects of Climate Change

Similar to other periphery or impoverished regions, the Nile Basin is not immune from the disastrous effects of climate change. As deforestation increases in Ethiopia and Sudan, precipitation rates are dropping, and in turn increasing the occurrence of droughts. High levels of deforestation are also causing more erosion, resulting in downstream sedimentation which decreases reservoir life, reduces the efficiency of hydropower production and irrigation, erodes stream backs, and damages habitats. As a result, Ethiopia, a country already at a high risk of famine, and Sudan, a country continuously plagued by political and social instability, are more at risk than ever of experiencing a humanitarian crisis as water becomes scarcer. Furthermore, all three countries are experiencing exponential growth in their populations and require more industrialization and development to accommodate the influx of people, leading to an increase in their need for water as current levels prove insufficient.

As the most developed of the three countries, Egypt is only starting to feel the brunt effects of these factors; however, the prevailing poverty in Ethiopia and Sudan is exacerbated due to their inability to expand economic activity and enhance growth and development in their rural-based agricultural economies. For Ethiopia and southern Sudan, the struggle for water is based on issues of accessibility, where the lack of infrastructure makes it difficult for these countries to access the waters that run naturally through their regions. For Egypt and northern Sudan however, the issue is one of water availability, in which being upstream from the river and variable precipitation rates result in low-levels of naturally available water. High vulnerability combined with a low adaptive capacity are resulting in human insecurity becoming more of a prevalent issue in the basin, and the sustainability of the current action-plan (or lack thereof) is being called into question by all parties.

State-Centric vs. Basin-Centric

Since the beginning of this conflict, the Nile Basin has been characterized by unilateral development of water related infrastructure and self-interest, which has exacerbated competition for scarce water resources. Rather than perceiving this water accessibility/availability issue as a basin-wide issue that requires cooperation, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan approach the Nile Water conflict through state-centered strategies, motivated exclusively by their own country’s specific needs, with little regard toward the needs of other affected states. Given each country’s vast history of civil war and political unrest, this state-centric approach makes sense, however as history has demonstrated, it is not effective in alleviating any of the tensions in the basin or providing sufficient water resources to each country in need. While historically Egypt has been favored, as exemplified by the 1929 and 1959 treaties, and the High Dam at Aswan, it now fears that hostilities from Ethiopia and Sudan have grown to the point that it will not receive a fair share of the waters, if they were to negotiate. Ethiopia and Sudan on the other hand, having been excluded from previous negotiating tables, fear a recurrence of this pattern, and are eager to negotiate in order to get the water resources they require.

At certain points it has seemed as though the issue could escalate to violent conflict, as insinuated by both Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed; however, at this current juncture, the escalation to violent conflict is unlikely. In order to stop the impact of the dam, Egypt would have to bomb it before its completion. In order to accomplish such a task, Egypt would require the use of Sudan’s air bases for refueling, something which is unlikely due to Egypt’s move toward a more secular military regime, and Sudan’s stronger alignment with the Muslim Brotherhood. Moreover, despite the rhetoric suggesting violent conflict, Egypt’s domestic divisions and instability make war financially unfeasible. Lastly, earlier this month, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed won the Nobel Peace Prize, and is therefore less likely to initiate or engage in violent conflict, in order to maintain his international reputation as a ‘peaceful’ leader.

In 1999 the ten Nile Basin countries established the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), with the goal of maintaining cooperation between the parties and a commitment to work for a joint initiative over the equitable utilization of Nile River water resources. This initiative however has ultimately failed insofar as it has not set specific goals or dates by which to achieve their objectives, nor has it been successful in changing the attitudes from state-centric to basin-centric. In 2018, the three countries reached a tentative agreement regarding how the first filling of the dam will impact each region’s water supplies; however, it remains unclear what will happen after the initial filling of the dam is completed, and how much of their water share each country is prepared to permanently sacrifice in order for the dam to be operational.

The most recent development in this conflict took place last month during the Sochi Summit, during which time Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed agreed to restart discussions regarding the Grand Renaissance Dam. The United States has also extended an offer for mediation to help with these discussions, and it is reported that a meeting between the three countries will take place in Washington on November 6, 2019. It is unclear who will serve as the mediator – or if one is to be present at all – however these leaders are encouraged to work toward developing programs that address the root causes of the conflict, as well as the issues of poverty alleviation and enhancing long-term economic development. Joint programs and basin-centric strategies are needed between the three countries, rather than a state-centric approach in order to establish coordinated efforts and benefits for all populations, and avoid sowing the seeds for prolonged conflict.

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