The Renaissance of Water Conflict

Ethiopia first announced its plan to construct the Grand Renaissance Dam in 2010, as the Arab Spring began to threaten political stability throughout the region. Upon completion, the hydropower plant on the Blue Nile River will become the largest dam in Africa, storing about 70 billion cubic meters of water and flooding 1,680 square kilometers of land. In addition to displacing 20,000 Ethiopians from their homes, the dam also poses a serious water security threat to Ethiopia’s powerful downstream neighbor, Egypt. Ethiopia’s damming of the Blue Nile will propel Egypt into absolute water scarcity, severely limiting supply to its agricultural sector and to urban residents in Cairo. Tensions regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) have consequently spanned nearly a decade as the two countries have struggled to reach a deal that will supply both of them with a desirable amount of water.

Due to colonial-era agreements, Egypt historically owns the rights to a majority of the Nile’s water. The 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty and its modification in 1959 granted Egypt control over the Nile as well as veto power over any water projects upstream. These agreements were signed under British rule to maintain colonial control over Egypt’s agricultural exports and the Suez Canal, but did not take into account the needs of any other Nile Basin countries. Ethiopia, which controls the supply of 70-80% of the Nile’s water, was not included in either of these treaties and continues to deny their validity to this day. Addis Ababa has thus viewed GERD as a rightful opportunity to become the primary energy exporter in the region and lift the country out of poverty. Egypt, however, has viewed its construction as a secretive and unilateral decision to violate these treaties, escalating a conflict that has at times even threatened at military action.

Conflict over the Nile is not a new phenomenon, but Ethiopia’s announcement of the dam’s construction came at a time of particular uncertainty following the Egyptian Revolution in 2010. This had significant implications for the balance of power in North Africa, and Ethiopia took the opportunity to move on a neighbor preoccupied with domestic instability. However, tensions flared regardless as Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi asserted in 2013 that “if our share of Nile water decreases”, the alternative will be “our blood”. Egypt’s dependence on the Nile goes far beyond water resources and national security. The river is frequently mythologized in Egyptian culture, and the country’s constitution even characterizes Egypt’s existence as a “gift of the Nile”. After securing peace with Israel in 1979, President Anwar Sadat famously wrote that the only issue that could bring Egypt to war again is water.

More pressing than geopolitics, however, is Egypt’s domestic water security threat. Even without the dam, overpopulation and increasing desertification have forced the government to increasingly import water-intensive crops, especially rice. 625,000 acres of arable land are currently vulnerable to drought, and hundreds of thousands of farmers face a lack of livelihood should these trends continue. GERD’s completion, expected within the next five years, will reduce Egypt’s water levels by an additional 25%, posing major challenges for the desert-ridden country as droughts only continue to lengthen. The government has taken few steps to address this issue, and has instead mitigated the problem through increasing food imports and threatening the dam’s construction in Ethiopia. While Egypt’s attachment to the Nile is understandable, military action will not guarantee Cairo its water supply. Instead, the country should take the changing status quo as an opportunity to renegotiate water rights in the region outside of colonial dependence. A deal that provides all Nile Basin countries with water would help prevent dissatisfaction in Ethiopia and set a precedent for sharing international water bodies as resources become more scarce.

Fortunately, Ethiopia’s new prime minister Abiy Ahmed reached out this May stating his intention to “aid development in Ethiopia without harming the Egyptian people”. Known as a reformer, Abiy has made it clear that he wants to collaborate with Ethiopia’s neighbors rather than threaten them. However, the country’s staunch defense of the dam’s construction has signaled that Ethiopia does intend to rival Egypt as the primary energy exporter in the region and is now bargaining from a position of strength. The best course of action for Egypt now would be to concede its regional power and resort to diplomacy rather than threatening war. Temporary lapses in GERD’s construction due to domestic corruption and infrastructure problems have slowed the dam’s progress, and Egypt would be well advised to take advantage of this opportunity to negotiate a deal with Ethiopia. A temporary reprieve in construction allows all parties to preemptively negotiate without the pressure of full development underway.

Meanwhile, Egypt can more effectively mitigate the dam’s threat through its domestic water policy. Relying more on wastewater recycling would utilize its already available water supply, and drawing from groundwater aquifers would decrease its reliance on surface water. The government can even invest in desalination plants to help support its urban populations along the coast. In the agriculture sector, the country can update its irrigation technology to more efficient techniques that require much smaller amounts of water. Smarter irrigation and a transition away from water-intensive crops will considerably decrease agricultural water demand without decreasing food output. All of these strategies can help Egypt better adapt to water shortage while preparing for resource scarcities already expected due to climate change.

Unfortunately, this kind of conflict is not uncommon, and water grabbing has become one of the most profound vestiges of colonialism around the world. Powerful countries facing a water deficit have offset their losses by acquiring water in developing countries, often without the institutional protections and regulations to guard against resource exploitation. The majority of water grabbing takes place in Indonesia, the Philippines, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, although nearly 60% of global water appropriation is made by the United States, China, the United Kingdom, Egypt, and Israel. As water resources become more scarce, historical power structures continue to define the allocation of resources that seem to provide too little for both the rich and the poor. To make matters worse, legal agreements concerning international water bodies do not include climate adaptation policies or incorporate climate models for the future. As a result, the Grand Renaissance Dam is a powerful example of what we can expect in the coming years as water resources become increasingly limited and valuable.

The utilization of water as a national rather than a collective right has historically harmed all states involved and resulted in the power imbalances existent in the Nile Basin. All parties would be better off bargaining if they approached water as essential to their collective security rather than as the property of singular national governments. However, this requires the dismantling of centuries of unequal water distribution rights and the power hierarchies surrounding them. Until sufficient agreements can be made regarding the just allocation of water rights going forward, we can expect to see a surge in water conflict not only in Africa but throughout the world.

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