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Ethiopia’s dam over the Nile risks war with Egypt

By Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
web posted March 21, 2021

For more than ten years, Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia have been holding periodic negotiations aimed at reaching a water arrangement that will govern the flow of the Blue Nile into Sudan and Egypt, in the wake of the planned 2022 inauguration of the mammoth Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the biggest hydroelectric power facility in Africa and seventh-largest in the world.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam nears completion
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam nears completion 

The massive dam is being built 20 km from the Sudanese-Ethiopian border on the Blue Nile that provides 85 percent of the water to Egypt downstream (the White Nile provides 15 percent). Initially, the 6,450-megawatt dam hydroelectric power project was intended to be inaugurated in 2018, but because of budgetary constraints and mismanagement, 2022 is now projected as the likely date for the inauguration of the dam’s operation.

With the prospect of a stalemate in the negotiations, barely four months before the second filling of the dam’s reservoir in July 2021, tensions steadily mount between Egypt and Sudan on one side and Ethiopia on the other. Egypt sees the hydroelectric dam as an “existential threat” to millions of Egyptians. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, warned on March 27, 2021, “We reject the policy of imposing a fait accompli and extending control over the Blue Nile through unilateral measures without taking Sudan’s and Egypt’s interests into account. The specter of military confrontation has been openly presented as a last resort option by Egypt and Sudan to stop Ethiopia from going forward with its scheme to fill the reservoir and inaugurate the massive power station.

The new energy source is essential for Ethiopia, where, according to the World Bank, only 44 percent of Ethiopians have access to electricity. Once the dam is operational, Ethiopia expects to export energy to the neighboring states of Kenya, Sudan, and Djibouti.

Laying the foundation and construction work on the six billion dollar dam began in 2011 when Egypt’s attention was focused on domestic unrest of “the Arab Spring.” It took a ground-breaking ceremony in Ethiopia to signal to the Egyptians that the Ethiopian government had serious intentions to build the dam. The first reactions were a mixture of panic and incredulity because of the magnitude of the project: six times the output of energy of the Aswan Dam; the equivalent of six 1000-megawatt nuclear power plants; and a threatened water shortage problem that never existed in 7,000 years of Egyptian history.

Since the beginning of the construction, Egypt has unsuccessfully tried to negotiate with the Ethiopians to slow the pace of filling the mammoth reservoir behind the dam, which, once full, will contain between 74 to 100 billion cubic meters of water. The Egyptians ask that the reservoir-filling process be carried out over a minimum of 10 years and that Ethiopia would control the Nile water flow so that the impact on Egypt would be minimal. The Ethiopians, on the other hand, plan a three-year reservoir-filling process. A three-year rhythm of filling the reservoir would deprive Egypt of 33 billion cubic meters out of the 55.5 allowed each year according to assorted agreements signed in the past (1929 and 1959) between Ethiopia and the 11 Nile downstream countries. Such a deficit would mean, for instance, that each Egyptian would receive 600 cubic meters annually instead of 2,500 and would transform Egypt into a water-poverty-stricken area. The United Nations has decreed that water sustenance should stand at 1,000 cubic meters per year per individual.

Moreover, Egypt argues that each loss of two percent of its water share would result in the desertification of almost 80,000 hectares. Finally, with the beginning of the filling of the reservoir, the Aswan Dam water level would probably drop – in the best case – to 170 meters (eight meters less than today), and in a worst-case scenario, the level would drop to 168 meters, although not enough to jeopardize the production of electricity by the dam turbines.

Anticipating the coming crisis, in April 2018, the Egyptian parliament enacted a law forbidding the growth of water-intensive plants such as rice. As a result, for the second consecutive year, the area dedicated to rice growth has been reduced from 1.8 million feddans to 724,000 feddans (1 feddan = 1.037 acres). In all nine Egyptian governorates, farmers were encouraged to grow three alternative rice species that demand less water.

In 2014, the Egyptian government embarked on a water desalination project to provide alternative potable water sources. Through December 2018, 47 such installations had been built with a total output of 254,000 cubic meters daily (compared to 1.75 million cubic meters per day in Israel in five installations as of 2018). The plan aims to double the quantity of water desalination installations by the end of 2020 to reach one million cubic meters daily. However, to compensate for the loss of water due to the Ethiopian dam, Egypt should desalinate 90 million cubic meters of water per day – an impossible task.

Finally, the Egyptian government plans to build additional dams on the Nile and to erect a series of small dams meant to capture floods and rainfall, but this will not make up for the loss Egypt will sustain with the beginning of the filling of the Renaissance Dam reservoir.

Diplomatic Efforts

In the meantime, Egypt and Sudan are pressing for a diplomatic outcome. Both countries have suggested convening a commission comprising representatives of the UN, the United States, the EU, and headed by the chairman of the African Union, President Félix Tshisekedi from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The commission would guide the parties in reaching an agreement before the beginning of the second filling of the reservoir. Ethiopia is opposed to the idea, asking to limit the negotiations only to the parties involved. Tshisekedi recently sent a delegation to Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt to try to reach an agreement on the Renaissance Dam.

The frustration of the Egyptians with the Ethiopians is growing, with some commentators, such as the former minister of irrigation and water resources, Mohamed Nasr el-Din Allam, charging Ethiopia with “bullying amid an international silence.” He claims Ethiopia’s position represents foreign entities who aim to diminish Egypt’s regional influence by reducing its water resources.

If Diplomacy Fails

With this background, Egypt has been contemplating the possibility of waging military action against the Ethiopian dam. Under President Morsi, the Egyptian national security council’s secret discussions in June 2013 were accidentally televised, including the proposal for commando attacks against the Ethiopian dam. The Egyptian government apologized, and Morsi’s cabinet declared that the two countries’ relationship was based on “good neighborliness, mutual respect, and the pursuit of joint interests without either party harming the other.”

However, on March 2, 2021, Egypt and Sudan signed an agreement on military cooperation, which was a result of an intense series of visits of high-ranking officials from both sides in the two countries. The agreement was signed at the conclusion of the visit of the Egyptian military chief, Lt. Gen. Mohammed Farid, to Sudan and includes definite hints that the Ethiopian issue was the issue discussed by the two sides, including ways to “secure the borders.”

Quite unusual in such an agreement signed by military men, was the prerequisite condition to secure an agreement on the Nile waters before the beginning of the second filling of the Renaissance dam’s reservoir due in July 2021. Understood was a threat towards Ethiopia that if it chose to continue its path without reaching an agreement, this would be considered by Cairo and Khartoum as a direct threat to the water security of both countries. Sudan’s Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdouk argued in February that the Ethiopian dam poses a threat to the safety and security of more than 20 million of his country’s citizens.

Nearby Military Developments

It is noteworthy that in recent years, Egypt has been building and refurbishing a mega-air and naval basis in Ras Banas on the Red Sea shore, almost adjacent to the border between Sudan and Egypt and opposite Saudi Arabia’s Medina on the other side of the Red Sea. The base, located on the approach to the southern entrance to the Suez Canal, is presented as a forward base for the projection of Egyptian air and naval power to protect its allies, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, to counter Iranian, Turkish (and Israeli) power in the Red Sea. However, due to its location, one cannot ignore that the proximity of such a military complex is within reach of the Eritrean and Ethiopian territories and could eventually be the departing point of military actions in the military conflict with Ethiopia. 

In the meantime, events on the ground have accelerated the crisis between Ethiopia and the Egypt-Sudan alliance. When the war in Tigray started on November 4, 2020, some Ethiopian army garrisons stationed in the Al Fashaqah triangle abandoned their bases and joined the Ethiopian war effort in Tigray. The triangle is a 250 square kilometer area of fertile land claimed by both Sudan and Ethiopia as part of their respective territory in a 100 year dispute but occupied for more than 25 years by Ethiopians (Amhari) and protected by federal Ethiopian troops and local Amhari militias, west of the Tigray territory. By deserting their bases, the soldiers left the area empty of Ethiopian army units and allowed the Sudanese army to move in. The attempt to retake the area by the Amhara militias failed after clashes occurred with the Sudanese army, which reinforced its positions in the area. Since then, intermittent violent and deadly incidents have erupted between Ethiopian and Sudanese troops, with Ethiopia claiming that that the Sudanese side (backed by Egypt) is stirring the situation on the ground. [For more information, see AlJazeera Inside Story.]

In fact, the Al-Fashagah issue has given both Sudan and Egypt an important bargaining chip in the stand-off on the Renaissance Dam. This fact allows Egypt, for the time being, to refrain from direct military action against Ethiopia. As a result, a military confrontation at this point seems unlikely, even though both Egypt and Sudan are interested in weighing their military options. The most plausible course of action would be to secure international support and try to convince the Ethiopians to accept a compromise.

In the meantime, until the deadline of July 2021, consultations may try to reroute the Blue Nile River to alternative channels that would cause only minor damage to Egypt and Sudan rather than the catastrophe presaged by the opponents of the project. Reaching July 2021 and the beginning of the second filling of the reservoir without an agreement would be tantamount to a declaration of war by Ethiopia to Egypt and Sudan. This is a scenario that the three parties would like to avoid despite the fact that it is underplayed at this stage. Inevitably, it will be necessary to mobilize international opinion and allow room for diplomacy. ESR

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.

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