There’s a new wave of problems washing over East Africa.
The Nile and its tributaries have long been a key source of development prosperity in East Africa, particularly for Egypt and Ethiopia. Nile flows and floods provide the silt that enriches soil for crop growth in the Nile Basin area, and the river’s consistent flow levels have generated considerable amounts of electricity in Egypt and other riparian states for decades. At the same time, these same waters have provoked serious diplomatic crises. Cross-national rivers and streams pose unique challenges in resource management. The overuse or pollution of a river by an upstream riparian state has serious ramifications for downstream states, potentially choking off a vital resource and economic access point. As such, hydrodiplomacy – the diplomacy regarding water usage and riparian rights – is a well-established and often contentious field of international affairs.
This holds true for the states along the Nile, whose water usage is governed under a 1959 agreement known as the Nile Waters Agreement (NWA), a joint agreement between Egypt and Sudan that gave Egypt primary usage of the Nile’s waters. The agreement has come under increased scrutiny more recently, with the development of major hydropower projects like the Merowe Dam in Sudan, the Beles Dam in Ethiopia, and the planned Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile near the Ethiopia-Sudan border. Smaller riparian states have increasingly called for a renegotiation of water rights in order to aid their development, strengthen their economies, and ensure their security. However, increased conflicts and resolution negotiations have seen economically powerful states leverage their authority to further entrench their power in the face of opposition from their smaller counterparts.
Building the Nile Waters Agreement
The Nile Waters Agreement (NWA) was signed in 1959 by Egypt and Sudan as a supplement to the earlier 1929 Agreement between Egypt and Great Britain (at that time still a colonial power representing the other Nile states). The earlier agreement granted Egypt veto power over upstream projects in the other states that would affect the Nile’s flow beyond a level deemed acceptable by Egypt. The 1929 Agreement recognized Egypt’s historic claims to the Nile and its status as a critical component of Egyptian security, opportunity, and national identity. It also, however, recognized the deep need on the part of Sudan for reliable and sustainable water access at the Nile. The 1959 Agreement between Egypt and Sudan standardized the level of the flow of the Nile and determined in exact measurements the amount of water each state was entitled to per year – 55.5 billion cubic meters for Egypt, and the remaining 18.5 billion for Sudan.
These Agreements have both been heavily opposed by other Nile and Nile-tributary states, notably Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania, who have been excluded from many of the substantive international instruments and frameworks governing Nile waters usage. Opposition primarily stems from two sources – the practical difficulties of being denied access or rights to water usage due to threat of veto or conflict from the more powerful downstream states of Egypt and Sudan, as well as the moral frustration that these agreements were established when Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania were still under colonial rule and were not well-represented by the British governing authorities.
Hydropower Projects Are Expanding in the Nile Basin
The past two decades have seen the creation of large-scale infrastructure projects along the upper portions of the Nile, most notable the Merowe Dam in Sudan (a hydropower plant with an installed capacity of 1,250 MW impounding a 10,100,000-acre-ft. reservoir) and the GERD in Ethiopia (a hydropower plant with a planned installed capacity of 6.45 GW impounding a 60,000,000-acre-ft. reservoir). The Merowe Dam project was funded by the China Export Import Bank as part of China’s development strategy in Africa and it has doubled Sudan’s electricity generation capacity, requiring a full upgrade of the country’s electric grid in order to carry the increased capacity. While GERD is not yet completed, it is slated to be one of the highest capacity dams in the world. These projects provide extensive benefits, even essential benefits, for the constructing state. However, they have faced considerable opposition from Egypt.
The impoundment of reservoirs increases water loss through evaporation, with the reservoir from the Merowe dam alone accounting for a loss of nearly 2,000,000 acre-ft. annually. This permanently depresses the rivers flow, an effect exacerbated by the use of controlled spillway release rather than natural flow patterns. The majority of Egypt’s electricity generation comes from four major hydroelectric plants (most notably the two Aswan Dams), which rely on steady and heavy flows to operate at capacity. The Aswan Dam has not generated at its peak capacity in some years, due partially to natural decreases in water levels but also due to the construction of new projects upstream that have impounded large bodies of water and decreased total discharge.
Is the Nile Waters Agreement Enough?
The current treaty instruments governing Nile waters heavily favor Egypt, and its relative power in the region allow it to exercise its authority over Nile waters quite effectively. Other states have come together and formed the Nile Basin Initiative, a framework for addressing Nile usage, pollution, and other hydrodiplomatic issues in a more cooperative setting. This approach has not received support from Egypt, which continues to oppose any system that jeopardizes its 55.5 billion cubic meter allocation and its veto power.
Egypt has demonstrated willingness to exercise its veto authority under the 1929 and 1959 NWAs, and is widely credited with blocking a 1990 grant to Ethiopia from the African Development Bank for a dam project. As a result, riparian states have suffered extensively from a lack of sufficient, consistent electricity that has resulted in periods of rationing and shutdown that have stalled economies and production for years. Egypt has successfully leveraged its power and water hegemony to trap other states in underdevelopment and instability as a tool for ensuring continued control over waters it considers an untouchable and irreplaceable component of its national identity and security.
This does not, however indicate other states are powerless. As the sole other signatory of the 1929 and 1959 NWAs and a major upstream power, Sudan has successfully established a hydroelectric power regime. Ethiopia sits at one of the major sources for the Nile and controls the highest volumetric contribution to the Nile’s flow, accounting for 85% of the Nile River Basin. This position of control has allowed it to leverage the Nile, notably in the 1990s when it lobbied in opposition to planned irrigation and land reclamation developments in Egypt at Toshka and New Valley. This has allowed Ethiopia to challenge Egyptian hydrohegemony. The Ethiopian campaign against Egypt has culminated in GERD, a project whose success would be a death knell to Egyptian control of the Nile.
Water Wars Are Not Inevitable
The arising diplomatic conflicts between these states and a growing academic literature concerned with the possibility of water-resource-focused warfare had led to new governmental and civil society programs dedicated to peaceful and diplomatic solutions to hydrologic resource management. The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) and the Nile Basic Discourse (NBD), an associated NGO dedicated to enhancing Nile waters dialogue, have sought out a new path of hydrodiplomacy intending to ensure even and open usage of Nile waters and development. NBI was begun in 1999 by the nine Nile states – Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Eritrea (as an observer) – with the support of the World Bank as a forum for their water ministers to address water use concerns. NBI, with cooperation and funding from the World Bank, has invested heavily in fast-track infrastructure projects in Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt to promote watershed management and responsible hydroelectric generation as a model for sustainable cooperation on the distribution of Nile resources.
Part of this strategy is the ‘aquawareness’ initiative, an NBD program that forms part of the public awareness strategy to encourage understanding of water usage and the importance of a more shared Nile Basin. The concept of aquawareness seeks to tie civil society and technical academic groups into the management and design process, and has been the primary success point for NBD and NBI investments, particularly with respect to watershed management and flood prevention. However, NBI and NBD have failed to reach the goalpost with respect to a new treaty instrument – partially due to an overarching weakness with civil society capabilities in the region, and partly due to entrenched opposition by the largest of the regional powers. Egypt has consistently postponed the signing of the Nile Basin Initiative Cooperative Framework Agreement (NBI-CFA), which has now past its signing deadline and expired. Opposition to a reworking still centers around Egypt’s desire to retain its 75% share of Nile waters and its veto power.
Mapping the Future
While water wars are not inevitable, a full state of peace may be distant. There is unlikely to be any considerable movement on this issue for the foreseeable future. While the upstream states view the Nile as the key to unlocking their development, the Nile provides almost all of the drinking and irrigation water for Egypt and a majority of its electricity generation. As such, it is a vital component of national security, and Egypt will likely not give up its control. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has responded to the continued development of GERD by saying control of the Nile was, for Egypt, “a matter of life or death” and that “no one can touch Egypt’s share of the water.” As GERD will begin testing its first turbines soon, the potential for escalation becomes greater and greater.
Ethiopia’s assurances that once the reservoir has been filled, Nile flows will return to prior levels and Egypt will not lose any major amount of flows have done little to soothe tensions, which have reached flash points more recently. The reservoir impoundment will be expected to hold the same volume as the entire annual flow of the Nile and take multiple years to reach capacity, indicating a sustained period of lower flows to Egypt, resulting in shortages, agricultural damage, and decreased energy production. Egyptian political figures were caught on camera in 2013 suggesting military action to then-President Mohammed Morsi against Ethiopia over the construction of GERD, suggesting the construction of the dam violates the 1959 Agreement and constitutes an act of war. Tensions flared again in 2018 when a UN report indicated Egypt will face water shortages by 2025, with the water minister Mohamed Abdel Aty saying that the GERD’s impact would reduce water flows by 2% to Egypt, costing 200,000 acres of arable land and 1,000,000 jobs. This position is backed up by a third-party environmental impact assessment that found normalization of the Nile’s flows will never be achieved after the construction of GERD, as the reservoir will encourage increased usage and consumption upstream, and evaporation from the reservoir will permanently depress the volume of water moving through the region.
There is every indication that GERD could be the next flash point in the region, sparking the first major water conflict of the climate change era. Sudan and Egypt are in conflict over Sudan’s water usage. Ethiopia’s construction of GERD is being seen by Egypt as a military threat, And other riparian states are frustrated by a colonial era framework and are demanding change. Hydrodiplomacy and effective economic and political management of water resources in the Nile Basin must be the major regional policy priority. So far, Egypt has successfully managed to leverage its historical power and claims on the Nile’s resources to maintain its hydrohegemony. However, this hegemony is challenged by the construction of GERD, as Ethiopia seeks to capitalize on its control of some of the Nile’s source in order to enhance its own energy and water security. The future of resource conflicts is slowly presenting itself, emerging from the increasingly tumultuous flows of the Nile.