Countdown to a Bitter Battle Over the Water of the Nile?

The world may never have been as close to a ‘war over water’ as it is now, following the escalation in the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which has reached its final stage

Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD). Credit: Ministry of
Foreign Affairs, Ethiopia.

By Ricard González
TUNIS, Jul 14 2020 (IPS)

In the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, the idea that
water would drive the wars of the future took hold among analysts
and the media. Three decades later and that grim prospect has,
fortunately, not yet materialised, and international cooperation,
despite
its ups and downs
, is the norm in the management of
transboundary waters.

But the world may never have been as close to a ‘war over
water’ as it is now, following the escalation in the dispute
between Egypt and Ethiopia over the construction of the Grand
Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which has reached its final
stage. The Ethiopian authorities intend to start filling the
dam’s reservoir in the coming days, before finalising an
agreement with Egypt, which has inflamed tensions.

The disputes between Cairo and Addis Ababa over water from the
Nile began a decade ago when the announcement was made of the plans
to build a huge dam, one of the largest in Africa and the world,
covering an area of 1,800 km2 and with a capacity of 74 billion
cubic metres.

The world may never have been as close to a ‘war over water’
as it is now, following the escalation in the dispute between Egypt
and Ethiopia over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian
Renaissance Dam (GERD), which has reached its final stage

The main purpose of the dam is to generate electricity, a project
that the Ethiopian government considers essential for the
development of the country, which is in the full throes of economic
and demographic growth. The GERD could even enable it to become an
energy hub and to export electricity to its neighbours. Egypt,
meanwhile, fears a considerable reduction in the flow of the Nile,
which accounts for more than 90 per cent of the desert country’s
water resources.

“The Ethiopian government is following a policy of fait
accompli
. It seems their aim is to prolong the negotiations
while they keep building the dam, to avoid any restrictions on
their management of the project,” says Nader Noureddin, a
professor specialising in water resources at Cairo University.

These suspicions have been reinforced since Ethiopia reneged on
the agreement reached between the three countries in February,
after months of negotiations in Washington under the mediation of
the United States and the World Bank.

“The negotiations have progressed a lot, and there are only a
few points of contention between both countries now. There is no
indication that Ethiopia is not negotiating in good faith. I think
it wants a deal, to avoid pressure from the international
community, which it needs if it wants to develop,” says Alfonso
Medinilla, a researcher for the ECDPM think tank, specialising in
Africa.

The three parties (Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia) resumed their
negotiations in early June, this time with the US, the European
Union and South Africa as observers. Egypt is trying to step up the
international pressure on Ethiopia by involving the United Nations
Security Council.

In 2015, the leaders of the three countries signed
a Declaration of Principles
that was to serve as a framework
for resolving the dispute. The document, however, was very vague,
and each side interpreted it differently. One of the main stumbling
blocks has been the length of the process of filling the reservoir
(Ethiopia wanted three years, Egypt ten), but a consensus seems to
be emerging around a period of between five and seven years.

More challenging is the issue of the mechanism for resolving
future conflicts over the dam’s management, and above all, the
minimum flow that Egypt should receive in the event of one or
several years of drought. This last point is crucial in the context
of climate change.

“Studies show that the deviation describing inter-annual
variability of total Nile flow could increase by 50 per cent, but
that extreme events such as drought and floods will become more
recurrent,” writes Ana Elisa Cascao in the chapter on the GERD in
the book
Natural Resource Conflicts and Sustainable Development
.

Development ‘at any cost’ or ‘fair and
sustainable’ development

“This conflict is very complicated because it is not only
about the GERD but also has historical roots that one needs to know
about to understand it,†explains Medinilla.

Egypt’s demands are based on agreements reached during the
British colonial era and updated in 1959 in a bilateral treaty
signed with Sudan. By virtue of the treaty, 55,500 cubic metres
correspond to Egypt and 18,500 to Sudan, which means, between the
two of them, they control around 90 per cent of the Nile’s
flow.

The other nine Nile Basin states (Burundi, Democratic Republic
of Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Uganda and
Tanzania) consider these quotas to be unfair, and in 2010 six of
them signed what is known as the
Entebbe Agreement
, which seeks to redefine the distribution of
the water from the world’s longest river, the fruit of the
confluence, near Khartoum (Sudan), of the White Nile and the Blue
Nile. The GERD is located on the Blue Nile.

“Egypt cannot live with a substantial reduction in Nile water.
Its economy and water consumption depends on it,†says Noureddin,
pointing out that each Egyptian has an average of just over 500
cubic metres of water a year, half of the threshold set by the
United Nations for a country to be considered under water
stress.

According to the professor, the water should be distributed on
the basis of need and the existence of alternative water sources:
“Ethiopia has nine rivers, several big lakes and abundant rains.
In total, its annual water resources amount to 122 billion cubic
metres, while Egypt has only 62 billion, 55.5 of which come from
the Nile.â€

Agriculture now accounts for 12 per cent of GDP and employs 24
per cent of the workforce in Egypt
, where the first great human
civilization could not have arisen in the desert without the waters
of the powerful river.

“More than 65 million people live [in Ethiopia] without access
to electricity. The river’s potential is huge. Ethiopia has long
been known for its humanitarian crises and famine. This has to
change and [we must] lift people out of abject poverty,†says
Zerihun Abebe, a member of the Ethiopian negotiating team.

Ethiopia’s
GDP per capita
is around US$780 (€780), four times lower than
in Egypt. For Ethiopians, the construction of the Grand Ethiopian
Renaissance Dam is a matter of national pride.

Given the difficulties raising the €4.5 billion (around US$4.9
billion) to cover the cost of the project through international
funding, on account of its controversial nature, the Ethiopian
government has covered much of the cost through ‘patriotic’
bonds purchased by its own citizens.

According to some experts, the politicisation of the conflict
and the fact that it has inflamed nationalist sentiment in both
countries is, precisely, one of the main obstacles to a negotiated
settlement.

“Egyptians and the rest of the world know too well how we
conduct war whenever it comes,†Birhanu Jula, Ethiopia’s deputy
chief of staff, recently declared in response to the drums of war
being beaten in certain circles in Cairo. The limited trade between
Egypt and Ethiopia also makes it difficult to find imaginative
solutions, as it does not allow for negotiations to be expanded to
include compensation mechanisms at other levels.

“The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is
water,†said President Anwar Sadat in 1979, after signing the
Camp David Accords with Israel. The countdown to avoiding this
scenario is coming to an end, and the Ethiopian prime minister,
Abiy Ahmed, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, is left with
very little room for manoeuvre during this election year.

“I think the deadline to reach an agreement is three more
months. After that, we could see the first water war in history,â€
warns Noureddin. Although the two countries do not share a border,
a war could be waged through a proxy, be it another state or a
militia. The
skirmishes recently seen
on the border between Ethiopia and
Sudan are not, perhaps, coincidental.

 

This story was originally
published
 by Equal Times

The post
Countdown to a Bitter Battle Over the Water of the Nile?

appeared first on Inter Press
Service
.

Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
Countdown to a Bitter Battle Over the Water of the
Nile?