Although for the 280 million people from 11 countries who live along the banks of the Nile, this mighty river symbolizes life, with the large hydroelectric dams representing green sources of electricity, they, as well, can cause environmental damage and water insecurity. Dams, especially the ones with large reservoirs could interrupt the natural cycle of flooding contributing to the change of rhythm of the native ecosystem. Moreover, scientists are warning nowadays that with the construction of the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam a further disruption to the Nile’s ecosystem could cause irreversible damage to the region. Nevertheless, for Ethiopia, a new dam holds the promise of much-needed electricity while for Egypt, it brings about the fear of a devastating water crisis. Given the fact that ongoing disputes over the filling and operation of Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam have, once again, threatened security in North-East Africa, we should necessarily examine if the tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia are about limited resources or regional influence and share of power?

The Nile’s water security agenda. Regional cooperation or conflict

During the Scramble for Africa, controlling the source of the Nile was a major colonial goal for the British. However, the regional hydrological system of the Nile basin lacks a comprehensive legal or institutional framework deemed acceptable by all Nile countries because of their conflicting outlook on the legitimacy of the existing agreements and international conventions. The 1929 and 1959 Agreements in specific divide the River Nile’s water according to the area of River Nile basin passing through the given country, and the contribution of each country to the river’s water yield. The Nile Water Treaties, as the agreements between the British (on behalf of its colonies, Sudan, Kenyan, Tanzania and Uganda) and Egypt, effectively prevent upstream countries from using the Nile’s water without the consent of those downstream. Consequently, the diplomatic spats between Addis Ababa and Cairo are not new. Since the early 1990s, the two countries have held various talks on the Nile but these usually end in a stalemate, having the Nile Water Treaties as the main sticking point in negotiations. Upstream states believe a new agreement must replace the Treaties, whereas Egypt insists that any agreement must recognize the treaties and that they continue to be binding. Simultaneously, Ethiopia asserts that there is no legal ground to stop Addis Ababa from equitably using the Nile waters.

In addition, the external powers play a crucial role in affecting international water interactions in the Nile basin, and carry out a motivating role for struggle. In Egypt, water security tops the national agenda and all countries of the Nile sources wish to follow Egypt’s example in terms of cultivating spacious irrigated agricultural areas, which requires expensive technical expertise. In this context, funding and technical assistance provided through investors, might have a hidden agenda, destabilizing some countries and creating tension in a way that impacts development plans. Given the aforementioned main factors affecting the Nile’s water security, the future of water in the Nile basin will likely be shaped according to the two alternative scenarios. In the case the scenario of optimization is implemented, the available opportunities for developing shared water resources and building a regional water system capable of securing the needs of the region’s countries without undermining the fixed historical and legal rights of some of the countries would be achieved. Otherwise, the variables motivating struggle will lead to raising chances of conflict of national interests in the Nile basin countries.

Here we should not neglect the rich historical background of the Nile River, as well as the numerous countries other than Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan with an interest in the Blue Nile River. The other interested parties are Uganda, Tanzania, the DRC, Eritrea and Rwanda. It is within this context therefore that Pretoria, as it took the AU chair in 2020, ought to pay great attention to this matter.

Contemporary perspective

It all began in 2011 when Ethiopia embarked upon a plan to boost the energy sector in line with a fast-growing economy. Despite the fact that the country was criticized that its dam would flood 1 680km2 of forest in northern Ethiopia and Sudan, that 20000 people were resettled for the dam project to take place and the budget earmarked for GERD was equal to Ethiopia’s annual budget, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia has stood firmly resolute in favor of the completion of the dream to build the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, known in Ethiopia as Hedassie, along the Blue Nile river. Ethiopia is currently in the process of completing the largest infrastructure project in the country’s history, serving two critical goals. The dam serves as both an emblem of Ethiopia’s development as well as a practical means to provide clean energy to its citizens. Yet for Ethiopia, the Nile and projects such as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam go to the heart of its aspirations as a rising African power. It not only represents a chance to develop the country’s energy network, but it also is a vital part of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s "Medemer" ("Coming Together") political doctrine. Despite Ethiopia’s efforts to invest in hydropower as a means of development, this project has severely soured relations with Ethiopia’s upstream neighbor, Egypt. The potential impacts of the dam have been the source of severe regional controversy.

The Government of Egypt, a country that relies heavily on the waters of the Nile, has demanded that Ethiopia cease construction on the dam as a precondition to negotiations. However, other nations in the Nile Basin Initiative have expressed support for the dam, including Sudan, the only other nation downstream of the Blue Nile. Sudan has accused Egypt of inflaming the situation. Ethiopia denies that the dam will have a negative impact on downstream water flows and contends that the dam will, in fact, increase water flows to Egypt by reducing evaporation on Lake Nasser. In October, 2019, Egypt stated that talks with Sudan and Ethiopia over the operation of a $4 billion hydropower dam that Ethiopia is building on the Nile have reached a deadlock. Beginning in November 2019, US Secretary of the Treasury Steven T. Mnuchin began facilitating negotiations between the three countries.

During the talks in Washington DC, it was announced on February 26th that Ethiopia would skip that round of talks(the third in the process) as it was still consulting with relevant parties in Ethiopia on its position. Indeed, while there was hope that a deal could be reached as early as this February, these expectations waned after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated during a visit to Ethiopia that “a great deal of work remains”. The United States had crafted a draft deal after more than four months of talks on the filling and operation of the dam, and said the final testing and filling of the dam "should not take place without an agreement". Egypt signed the draft and urged Ethiopia and Sudan to do the same, describing it as and in the "common interest of the three countries". Ethiopia dismissed the deal, and is now drafting its own proposal claiming that US President Donald Trump is favoring Egypt in the dispute.

Additionally, after years of negotiations, Egypt has written to the UN Security Council about what it considers to be Ethiopia’s failure to reach an agreement over the filling and operations of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The United States, Russia, and the World Bank, among others, have attempted to mediate the dispute. However, the apparent absence of the African Union (AU) leadership in the negotiations reduces the AU’s credibility. The AU’s absence in the GERD negotiations is not congruent with its Agenda 2063. This strategic framework aims to deliver collective prosperity and sustainable development. It could be that the AU lacks the political will and technical background to deliver in the GERD negotiations, and in fact prefers to remain on the sidelines. But one is for sure, one of the thorniest issues South African President Cyril Ramaphosa will face as the chair of the AU in 2020 is the prospect of conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt.

Moreover, the fact that Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have chosen President Donald Trump as the mediator for the GERD matter implies that it is not just a race between the countries most in need of water resources. It is also rather apparent that both countries are competing for a higher diplomatic status.

Why a giant hydropower dam in Africa worries the US and China

Given this critical stage and tense atmosphere of the project and the careful diplomatic threads involved in the negotiations over the Nile flow where does China stand on the issue? China is currently heavily invested in Ethiopia. While China is not directly funding the dam’s construction costs, Chinese companies have been brought in for much of the construction work drawing on Chinese expertise in the hydroelectric sector. While China has so far avoided being drawn into the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia and is playing no official role in the US-led talks, it remains to be seen how much longer China can distance itself from the dispute. As a major construction partner for the dam as well as a significant source of investment in the Egyptian economy, Chinese interests are closely intertwined with the project’s successful and timely completion as well as maintaining its economic and political relations with both Ethiopia and Egypt. The project’s success will be an important marker for future Chinese investment in Africa’s energy infrastructure, especially in the hydropower sector where it is financing or constructing the dams in 22 African countries.

It should not be underestimated that Beijing is a crucial military-technical partner of Cairo. In recent years, after the "June 30 Revolution" in 2013, cooperation between the two countries is growing. The revival of relations began with the visit of the President of the ARE, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to China in December 2014, which opened an entirely new page in the interaction between the two states. Since then, the heads of the Egyptian and Chinese states meet every year, sometimes several times a year. Also, the parties confirmed their mutual interest in the development of the Chinese project One Belt, One Road. Summing up the results of recent years of cooperation, the successful implementation of the New Suez Canal project with the participation of China should be mentioned, as well as the modernization of Egypt’s infrastructure and the preparation for the launch of a large industrial project — an economic zone in the Suez Canal area. Despite some positive trends, there is a serious challenge in Egyptian-Chinese relations that could negatively affect the interaction between the two countries — intensive cooperation between China and Ethiopia. In particular, Egypt perceives Ethiopia’s hydropower policies as a threat to its national security. However, the Ethiopian factor seems insignificant in the context of the strategic partnership between China and Egypt; therefore, both countries will continue to develop cooperation effectively.

As to the US negotiating between Ethiopia and Egypt in the ongoing dispute Ethiopia accused the US of overstepping its role as a neutral observer after the US said the dam should not be completed without an agreement. Tensions have escalated between Ethiopia and Egypt, with both countries vowing to do what is necessary to protect their interests. The US stepped in to assist in negotiations in 2019 and issued a statement saying an agreement had been reached, and urging Ethiopia to formally commit to it. As the US swings from observer to power broker, the stalemate is splitting the Arab world and Africa. Talk of US bias in the process it is meant only to observe, alongside the World Bank, is doing the rounds in Ethiopia, with some analysts seeing Washington’s strong support for Cairo as a means fostering US leverage in the Middle East.

Finally, after Sudan has rejected an Ethiopian proposal to sign an initial agreement greenlighting the filling of a controversial mega-dam, Egypt has confirmed its willingness to resume negotiations with Sudan and Ethiopia.

Αfrica’s win-win approach to water security

Regional cooperation should depend on balancing the distribution of benefits and duties in the context of a cooperative Win-Win Approach, which will eventually lead to optimizing the benefits among all Nile countries enabling a relevant improvement and development. Accordingly, rather than focus on their differences, Ethiopia and Egypt could both benefit from GERD by shifting their attention to economic growth and investment. GERD could be a first step in stabilizing Egypt’s long-term relations with neighboring African countries. Highlighting the importance of extending the filing period over several years, an agreement between the two countries should take into account the times when Egypt needs water most; (for example) if the season of cultivation in Egypt is August, September and October, Ethiopia should not decrease Egypt’s water quantity at those times, thus minimizing the social impact on Egyptian farmers. GERD also presents Egypt with the opportunity to rebuild trust between itself and African countries like Ethiopia. Egypt should see GERD and the negotiations as opportunities to open up to Africa, to engage with the neighboring countries. Promoting economic exchange between Egypt and other African countries is a long- term goal that Egypt should strive for, and this process could start with Ethiopia and the Renaissance Dam.

Given the multiplicity of role-players with competing interests, an African solution to the crisis should be urgently found because this dispute has the potential to cause another African war with dire consequences for the African Agenda 2063.