Nile River in Egypt. Photo credit: Islam Hassan

Who controls the Nile? Tensions between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt continue as negotiations reach a deadlock in water rights

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam triggers old colonial wounds and a deliberate struggle for political dominance.

Greek historian, Herodotus, summarized the importance of the river Nile by saying, “the Nile is Egypt and Egypt is the Nile.” Before Herodotus and on, the river, which is the longest known waterway, has played an enormous role in both Sudan and Egypt’s civilizations. For decades, it was the center of conflict that recently escalated after the initial stages of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) construction in 2011. 

“This dam is a legacy of Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s former prime minister, he is the one who built it,” Ethiopian-based journalist, Mekonnen Teshome Tollera told Ark Republic. Among the first people to cover the GERD story with the Ethiopian Herald press, Mekonnen explained that the government named it the millennium dam because it was launched at the beginning of the Ethiopian millennium in 2011. The name was later modified to GERD, a phrase to signify the revival of a nation. 

In addition, it was an acknowledgement to the principles of the African renaissance, an idea born from philosopher Cheik Anta Diop that African nations should come together for integration and collective development.

In early May, Ethiopia launched its third-stage filling of the dam, which caused concern for Egypt, a country that has been wary of the project. A report by Al-Monitor said a source claimed Egyptian officials have “yet to obtain official information from Ethiopia explaining its plan and the volume of water expected to be withheld during the third stage of the GERD’s filling in the upcoming rainy season.”

This is worrisome for the north African country due to the disruption of wheat, rice and other grains considerably stymied due to the Ukraine-Russia war. Al-Monitor’s source furthered that Ethiopia “impose[d] a fait accompli related to the filling and operation of the dam.” For that, Egypt sees these actions as violating “international laws related to transboundary water management.”

To intensify matters, negotiations between Ethiopia and Egypt are not in the foreseeable future, placing even more strain on pan-African relations during a time where the world is dealing with a dearth in resources.

The onset

On February 20, GERD – funded by Ethiopians at home and abroad – began power generation despite controversy with neighboring Sudan and Egypt. The 10 year development took place on the Blue Nile—also known as the gold of Ethiopia—from where 85 percent of the Nile’s water flows. 

To enumerate, Egypt and Sudan are downstream states whereby Ethiopia is an upstream state, nearer to the source in Lake Tana. In general, GERD accords Ethiopia control over how much water flows downstream, which raises  the stakes for all parties involved. 

Construction on the Blue Nile, which accounts for the majority of the Nile’s flow, means that Egypt loses a quarter of its water. Not only due to siltation, but also through the process of filling the reservoir over a short period. More problematic for the North African state, the Egyptian population is dependent on 90 percent of the river for transport and a fresh water supply.

According to Egyptian officials, Ethiopia’s dam plans aim to not only affect water shortages, but also power cuts and crop failures. Hence, it views it as a threat to their political and agricultural system. However, Ethiopian officials deny these claims and say that the dam generates electricity, not field irrigation. 

In 2018, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power. Early in his presidency, he traveled to Egypt. While there, he promised  their interests would avoid conflict of interests with Egypt. “Ethiopia’s main concern is to bring light to the 60 percent of Ethiopians suffering in darkness, ” he said, “to save the labor of our mothers who are carrying wood on their backs to get energy.”

Included, the dam’s 5000 megawatts production could mean enough electricity to export abroad.

“For Egypt, the main problem is trust. If there is a dispute, Ethiopia might block the flow of the Nile. Egypt also fears that Ethiopia will consume the region’s limited water supply upon completion of the dam.” Mekki Elmograbi, a press writer on African affairs from Khartoum told Ark Republic.

Elmograbi’s point on trust was heavily supported by Maha Salah Eldin, an Egyptian investigative and data journalist with Masrawy. According to her, Ethiopia does not abide by international agreements. A move reinforced by its continuous decisions. “The Abiy Ahmed Administration is as impulsive as teenagers, and does not calculate its steps well, something that may harm everyone, and Ethiopia first.” She told us.

She continues to declare that this government retracts its previous agreements and works to escalate without calculating the consequences.

Ethiopia’s GERD project in 2016. The dam construction launched in 2011. Photo credit: Ana E. Cascão

On the other hand, even though it sees numerous future benefits, Sudan’`s concern is regulating the flow to its dams. Included, it wants Ethiopia to commit to a legally binding agreement, rather than guidelines, on the amount of water retained and the timetable for filling the reservoir. Finally, the country wants to map out clarity on how disputes will be resolved in the future.

Regardless, Emolgrabi says that apart from agriculture, Sudan anticipates many benefits. “Only 14 percent of Africans trade with each other. One of the main reasons is that we do not have the power to start serious manufacturing,”  he expounds. Due to this, Sudan has since warmed up to the dam, citing its potential to improve prospects for domestic development. Cheap electricity from Ethiopia–contrary to the expensive one purchased from Egypt–would mean that many African countries in the region would initiate industrialization then exportation. 

Nevertheless, Khartoum continues to fear that the operation of the GERD could threaten the safety of Sudan’s dams and make it much more difficult for the government to manage its development projects.Elmograbi claims that the Sudanese understand more than the Egyptians about Ethiopia’s intentions. “Some Sudanese citizens receive pressure from Egypt’s political elites,” he says.

To mitigate growing tensions, the United Nations, the U.S., and the African Union were mediators during the negotiations that bore no fruits. Be that as it may, the inability to reach a proper compromise may be blamed on possible future water shortages. Notwithstanding, there is more, a trip down memory lane to colonialism explains on this.

The history tree

Over the years, Egypt has used its extensive diplomatic connections and two  colonial-era agreements drafted in 1929 and 1959, to successfully prevent the construction of any major infrastructure projects on the tributaries of the Nile.

“The Egyptians are used to controlling it [both] culturally and politically” Teshome surmises. The  communications expert well-versed on the situation from the lens of Ethiopia continues to develop the narrative. “They believe that the Nile is a gift for Egypt, but it is not true because it originates from Ethiopia.”

Ethiopia defeated the Italians at the Battle of Adwa in 1896. The victory poised them to become the only African country to retain its independence during the “scramble for Africa,” or Europe’s colonial conquest of the continent. With this, Ethiopia was an independent state, while Egypt and Sudan got support from England. For the British, control of Egypt meant more profitable trade with India, its richest colony.

By the late nineteenth century, Egypt became  essential  to Asian wealth, so controlling the source of the Nile was a major colonial goal.

The 1929 agreement, signed between Egypt and Great Britain, also represented at the time, Uganda, Kenya, Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and Sudan. The document gave Cairo the right to veto projects higher up the Nile, a cause that would affect water share.

Later, the 1959 Nile water agreement signed between Sudan and Egypt remains to be momentous. This accord between the two, supplemented the previous agreement by giving  Egypt the right to 55.5 billion cubic meters of Nile water per year, while Sudan was allotted 18.5 billion cubic meters. However, no water was afforded to Ethiopia or any other upstream state.

Since, the full utilization of the Nile has been  for the benefit of the United Arab Republic, now named Egypt, and the Republic of Sudan. Subsequently, both nations require that they decide on the implementation of projects pertaining to the watercourse for its full control. Even more so, the increase of its water supply and the planning of new working arrangements on lines different from those followed under present conditions. Consequently, the treaty paved the way for the 1960s construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt and the Roseires Dam in Sudan. 

In the 1990s, Hosni Mubarak, a former Egyptian president, began to build the Toshka Canal, one of the world’s most expensive and ambitious irrigation projects. This plan would take 10 percent of waters from Lake Nasser to irrigate Egypt’s sandy Western Desert. 

In anger and disbelief, the then Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi protested. “While Egypt is taking the Nile water to transform the Sahara Desert into something green, we in Ethiopia—who are the source of 85 percent of that water—are denied the possibility of using it to feed ourselves.”

He then began plans for the Grand Renaissance Dam. These disagreements created political tensions among other Nile states, as Egypt resisted the calls for changes to the pact, considering them to still be valid. 

The Nile River Valley has been a critical source for food in all countries where the river flows. Photo credit: Jeremy Benzanger

Our people come first

For the past three years, Sudan oversaw a transition from dictatorship to democracy. While the two nations have agreed on control on the Nile, ironically, Egypt has been one of the states interfering in Sudan’s transition. Adding to its historical involvement in the country, Egypt once viewed Sudan as part of its territory.

The Hala’ib Triangle is an area of land of just under 20,500 square kilometers on the Egyptian-Sudanese border, which both countries have claimed since Sudan gained independence from Britain in 1956. In the 1990s, Egypt deployed its military in the territory, but, in the following two decades, the dispute was somewhat frozen. In 2016, it flared up again.

At the beginning of the year, Protesters in Sudan blocked the Sheryan al-Shimal road between Sudan and Egypt in protest of what they called the Egyptian government’s support for the military takeover in Sudan. In a previous Ark Republic article, Sudanese diasporans alleged that Egypt facilitated a human trafficking network transporting Sudan’s citizens. They claimed the men were used for its military endeavors, while the women were forced into sexual servitude.

Apart from this, the ongoing war in Ethiopia has been connected to the GERD dam. In 2013, Ethiopia announced that it was diverting the river’s course immediately after a meeting between Ethiopia’s former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, and Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi. This angered Egyptian officials.

Thinking that Egypt was conspiring in secret, the politicians hatched plans to arm Ethiopian rebels. “The country,” Morsi told a crowd of supporters during a speech, “is ready to sacrifice blood to ensure that not one drop of the Nile is lost.”

According to a top Ethiopian diplomat, “the Egyptian government has been stepping up its long-standing policy of destabilizing and weakening Ethiopia, by providing anti-peace elements, and pitting neighbors against it.” 

The diplomat said that for more than half a century, the Egyptian establishment has been providing financial, military and diplomatic assistance to armed and unarmed Ethiopian forces. A bid to destabilize and utilize the resources of the Nile River.

The violence in Benishangul-Gumuz – where the dam is located – is separate from the war in Tigray. The armed Gumuz militia has been unleashing brutal ethnic attacks on minorities in Ethiopia’s western Benishangul-Gumuz state. From the onslaught, hundreds of civilians have been massacred and tens of thousands displaced.By 14 March, at least 53 people died in the region after an unidentified armed group attacked a civilian convoy and its military escort. 

President Donald J. Trump, joined by Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin, meets with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Sudan Asma Mohamed Abdalla, left, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Egypt Sameh Shoukry, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Gedu Andargachew, in the Oval Office of the White House Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2019, where President Trump expressed his support for Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan’s ongoing negotiations to reach a collaborative agreement on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Photo credit: Official White House Photo/Shealah Craighead)

To reach an alliance or to maintain the fracas?

In reality, there are many quick fixes to the dam dispute.

Mekonnen from Ethiopia says that the three states need to cooperate. “There is no need to rush dominance,” he insists. “The Egyptians are trying to maintain a historical legacy, as they believe that [the Nile] is their property.”

In his words, there are 11 rather than three countries on the Nile basin—Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “We strongly encourage the Nile basin’s initiatives. So, the Nile is not about Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt. We believe it should benefit all the countries involved.” 

As one who also covered the story “washing away the blue gold of Ethiopia,” he believes that Egypt and Ethiopia need to find new ways to prevent the soil from going to downstream countries hence causing siltation.

On the contrary, Egypt maintains that the solution is to stop everything about  the Renaissance Dam. “Ethiopia needs to sit at the negotiating table and abide by what is agreed upon. At that time Egypt may be Ethiopia’s biggest supporter,” Eldin from Egypt suggests.

Finally, Elmograbi refers to Egypt as a colonial master and specifies that “we wanted Egypt as a big brother and not a ruler.” He discloses that Egypt should practice cooperation with the neighbors rather than preeminence. In like manner, he insists that Ethiopia should not conduct the project in secrecy in order to initiate collaboration.

There have been opinions coming from outside the contentious situations. When all three countries brought the issue to the White House during a 2016 Donald Trump Administration, he encouraged them to reach a collaborative agreement. In September 2021, the Security Council Report suggested an “AU-led negotiations to reach a ‘binding agreement’ on the dam’s filling and operation,” after an extensive investigation.

All in all, Ethiopia looks forward to the dam’s completion in early 2024. Also, as a sign of collaborative effort to curb erosion, it started annual tree planting projects whereby 4 billion tree siblings were planted last year. On the whole, Sudan is trapped between two regional giants who appear to be longtime foes. In a nutshell, the kick start of power generation means a different tone and strategy for negotiations. As other neighboring regions look forward to the possible advantages, the world awaits for Egypt to find its position.

Nyawira Mithayo is a Journalism graduate with an interest in community activism.

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