Tensions rise on the Nile over Africa’s largest dam

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are engaged in last-ditch talks to resolve a dispute over Addis Ababa’s construction of a giant dam on the river Nile that Cairo fears could lead to damaging water shortages.

This month Ethiopia is set to start storing water in the vast reservoir of the $4.8bn Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, set to be Africa’s largest, and which it sees as a pathway to widespread electrification and a prosperous future.

But after almost 10 years of failed talks with Egypt and Sudan, the two countries with which it shares the Blue Nile, tensions are rising and mistrust prevails.

Addis Ababa has said it will start to fill the dam whether or not a deal is agreed. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president, previously said Egypt would take all necessary measures to protect its rights to the Nile water, while Abiy Ahmed, the Ethiopian prime minister, has said his country was ready to “mobilise millions” to defend the dam.

In May, Egypt called on the United Nations Security Council to pressure Addis Ababa to come to a deal. “The unilateral filling and operation of this dam, without an agreement that includes the necessary precautions to protect downstream communities . . . would heighten tensions and could provoke crises and conflicts that further destabilise an already troubled region,” said Sameh Shoukry, the Egyptian foreign minister, in a speech to the UNSC in late June. 

Both governments describe the issue as “existential” for their people. But despite the at-times aggressive rhetoric, “I don’t think there is any consideration of military action being taken seriously,” said Hafsa Halawa, non-resident at the Middle East Institute, a US think-tank.

A view of the construction works at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam © Eduardo Soteras/AFP/Getty

The hydropower project will have the capacity to generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity, making it Africa’s largest. The dam is seen by Ethiopia as a linchpin of its development plans, allowing it to bring electricity to tens of millions of its people.

Ethiopia has rejected the notion that Egypt has “historic water rights” or that “current use” can be used as a guide to how much water the downstream country should receive. 

But in Egypt, a country with a population of 100 million that is totally reliant on the Nile for water, there is deep alarm about future shortages as unfettered control of the flow of water passes to Ethiopia.

Cairo wants to seal a comprehensive deal to govern the filling and operation of the dam that would include agreed drought mitigation protocols. In February, Ethiopia rejected an agreement drafted by the US and the World Bank after talks in Washington. Ethiopian officials said the deal was biased towards Egypt.

Egypt also fears that without agreement on a binding dispute resolution mechanism — something that Ethiopia has refused — it will be at the mercy of its upstream neighbour. It is concerned shortages would damage its economy and destroy the livelihoods of millions of farmers. Some 86 per cent of the water reaching Egypt comes from the Blue Nile in the Ethiopian highlands. 

For its part, Addis Ababa insists it will adhere to commitments to “cause no significant harm” but will not be bound by agreements that could tie its hands in operating the GERD or building more dams upstream of it.

“Ethiopia feels no compulsion to sign anything that could potentially disadvantage it in the future,” said William Davison, Ethiopia analyst at the International Crisis Group, a think-tank. “Egypt and Sudan on the other side want something that is as detailed and as binding and long-lasting as possible.”

Map showing Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia and the Nile River

Addis Ababa says it has been frustrated in previous attempts to exploit the river because of colonial era agreements requiring Egyptian consent. It has long been angry about a 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan on the Nile from which it was excluded.

“Ethiopia is not asking too much; it is seeking to correct past injustices and share this precious resource in an equitable and reasonable manner, “said Taye Atske-Selassie, Ethiopia’s representative addressing the security council last week in response to Egypt’s complaint to the UN.

Egypt’s fear is that if Ethiopia fills and operates the dam without an agreement, other Nile basin states could follow suit. The White Nile, another tributary of the river, is shared by almost a dozen countries. “Egypt wants to prevent being put in this situation again to stop unilateral actions and developments upstream without a consultation process,” said Ms Halawa.