Why has the Nile River Become a Battleground?

Lori Pottinger
The Nile in Egypt: Lifeline in a desert. (NASA)
The Nile in Egypt: Lifeline in a desert. (NASA)

This week, Ethiopia announced it was diverting the flow of the Blue Nile to begin building the huge Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Within days, water-stressed Egypt – a downstream Nile Basin nation – called for Ethiopia to halt its work on the giant new dam. This followed a live televised drama in which Egyptian politicians (unaware the cameras were running) brainstormed ways to stop the project, some of which involved hostilities. In a more tempered response, President Morsi’s office has announced that Egypt would create a national commission to address the dam and its impacts on transboundary water sharing on the Nile. Ethiopia has reportedly summoned Egypt’s ambassador in Addis Ababa to explain the hostile response.

Why is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam causing such strife? In addition to Egypt’s fears that it will reduce its lifeline of Nile waters, the tensions have been fanned by the project’s “SAD” planning process:
•    Secretive: Although it is Africa’s biggest dam project and will have lasting impacts on its longest river, it has been developed under a veil of secrecy.
•    Autocratic: The dam will impact Ethiopians and downstream neighbors, yet its planning process has been top-down and unilateral. The public and dam-affected people have not been given a meaningful opportunity to critique the project or process.
•    Dismissive: Ethiopian government officials have flatly stated they will not make changes to the project, and have asserted that the project will not have impacts on downstream countries.

The Blue Nile starts in the Ethiopian highlands and flows into the Sudans and Egypt. The dam poses a number of risks to these downstream neighbors; one reason for the growing tension is that these risks have not been properly analyzed. Egypt has virtually no other sources of water for its people, and is already making do with less water per person than the international average. By at least one estimate, the Grand Renaissance reservoir could evaporate 3bn cubic meters of water a year – three times Egypt’s annual rainfall, and enough to meet the basic needs of up to half a million people. The reservoir could take 3-5 years to fill, reducing Egypt’s water supply by up to 25%. A Kenyan journalist writes: “If Egypt loses just 25% of the water it is receiving from the Nile, it could collapse.”  Climate change, that cruelly unpredictable specter, will only intensify the region’s water conflicts.

Like all nations, Ethiopia has the right to exploit its natural resources for its own development aspirations. And there is widespread acknowledgment that Ethiopia deserves a fairer apportionment of Nile waters – after all, a colonial-era treaty that excluded Ethiopia and granted the lion’s share of Nile waters to Egypt is an outdated roadmap for water sharing in this century. However, damming off a shared river in a secretive and unilateral fashion is a provocative approach to resolving conflict in a water-stressed basin such as the Nile. Says Mohamed Allam, former minister of irrigation and water resources in Egypt: “This is not just about Egypt and Sudan. International rivers are governed by laws and conventions, in accordance with which any action that affects water quotas requires advanced notice and guarantees against possible harm.”

The Nile situation is not an isolated incident. Ethiopia is being similarly aggressive over the development of the shared Omo River, where it is building the controversial Gibe III Dam and developing large-scale plantations. These developments threaten Kenya’s Lake Turkana, which derives 90% of its water from the Omo River. Rather than consulting with communities of the Lower Omo River Valley affected by schemes to lease land to foreign agribusiness and control the flow of the river, affected communities have instead been subjected to a wide range of human rights violations and repression.

Shared rivers should be handled in a way that protects the livelihoods of those who depend on them, helps prepare the most vulnerable for adapting to a changing climate, and increases cooperation among neighboring states.  The approach that governments take in managing shared rivers can either divide or unite.  With construction beginning on GERD, Ethiopia is literally dividing the Nile with a huge wall, and letting the chips fall where they may. It’s a shortsighted approach that may play well at home, but its unintended consequences could be far-reaching. Egyptian saber-rattling aside, the responsibility rests with Ethiopia to take the next steps to reduce this crisis, and resolve its failures in the planning and execution of this dam.

But what if Ethiopia refuses to engage? Some believe the International Court of Justice should be called in. – a move that Ethiopia rejects. Others hope Ethiopia’s major donors will use their diplomatic leverage to intervene. And still others hold out hope that the crisis will prove to be an opportunity to improve cooperation over the Nile.

Western donors have thus far mostly stayed out of the debate on Ethiopia’s dam building. Yet Ethiopia is one of the world’s largest recipients of foreign aid. The US has been the largest donor to the country, through a range of programs. Ethiopia has been receiving $3.5 billion on average from international donors in recent years – a critical portion of its national budget. This assistance explains how such a poor nation can afford to build costly dams and irrigation infrastructure without dedicated funding. Western donors such as the United States have a responsibility to step up diplomatic pressure on Ethiopia and call for more openness in this process, and a more collaborative approach to managing the Nile River.

More information: 

Dams and Impunity: What Next, Ethiopia?, a commentary by Friends of Lake Turkana (also affected by one of Ethiopia's dams on a shared river, the Gibe III project)

Friday, June 7, 2013