water war Nile
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (Image: Kremlin)

Could there be a water war between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Nile? It’s a question that has been regularly asked since 2011, when Ethiopia revealed that it was constructing a massive $4 billion, 6450-megawatt dam. It’s expected to be the biggest hydroelectric power plant in Africa when it opens.

The Nile runs through 11 African states, yet it is Egypt — the last country the river passes through before it reaches the Mediterranean — that the world famous river is most commonly associated with. Egypt has enjoyed historic dominance over the Nile too, which it considers its lifeline.

For the Egyptians, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile tributary — which some experts predict could cut its freshwater supply by as much as a quarter and farmland by more than half — represents a threat to national security and the nation’s very existence. Since 2011 there has been a mixture of threats and dialogue between the Egyptians and Ethiopians.

“I am a firm believer that they will not at all engage in a war. Everyone knows that no one will be a winner in war,” said Wondwosen Seide, an Ethiopian analyst who was previously at the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (an eight-country trade bloc in Africa).

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Indeed, with the dam two-thirds finished and scheduled to open late next year, Egypt’s focus has instead moved to finding an agreement on how long the Ethiopians should take to fill the dam’s reservoir. Egypt wants a longer period of 15 years to minimise the impact, but Ethiopia is looking at three years, insisting Egypt’s concerns are misplaced.

For Ethiopia the Nile has long represented an immense, untapped resource, said Seide. Around 60% of Ethiopians currently lack access to electricity, and the country also needs power if it is to become the middle-income economy it aspires to be. The dam “is a development necessity”, said Seide.

Ethiopia’s ambitions are problematic for Egypt, particularly given Egypt gets 85% of its Nile water share from the Blue Nile tributary that begins in Ethiopia. The remaining 15% comes from the White Nile tributary, which combines with the Blue Nile in Sudan’s capital of Khartoum before flowing north into Egypt. 

It also threatens Egypt’s historical hegemony over the Nile, which was reinforced by British colonial-era treaties in 1902 and 1929. Another in 1959, between Egypt and Sudan, gave Egypt 55.5 billion cubic meters of Nile water and Sudan 18.5 billion cubic meters.

“Egypt has a right to be concerned; it is one of the most water-dependent countries in the world because virtually all of its fresh water falls as rain outside its borders,” said Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Egypt, a state of almost 100 million people, is predominantly a desert. The Nile has given it lush farmland on either bank, and the country relies on the river for over 90% of its freshwater supply. The Ethiopian dam threatens to exacerbate major food and water shortages that the country is already facing.

“Since 1959 Sudan has expanded its agriculture incredibly. Egypt has also expanded its cultivating area,” said Richard Tutwiler, a water expert at the American University in Cairo. “But the main thing in Egypt is that they are just more intensive as they are irrigating all year long, so the amount of water they need is much more all the time and the amount of water available doesn’t increase.”  

Military conflict seems far off though.

The government of Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has prioritised tripartite talks with Ethiopia and Sudan, a report by the International Crisis Group noted in March.

Though Egyptian diplomats privately concede it is too late to stop the dam, they have sought to persuade their Ethiopian and Sudanese counterparts of the need to abide by the terms of the 23 March 2015 ‘declaration of principles’ — notably its provision that all parties ensure that the GERD causes no significant harm to downstream countries. They are thus eager to strike a deal on the GERD’s operations that does not sharply reduce water flow downstream.

Last year, Ethiopians elected a new reforming Prime Minister in Abiy Ahmed, who analysts say has paved the way for more constructive negotiations. Just a month after he was sworn into office, the three countries signed a new tripartite agreement. The following month, Ahmed assured Egyptians during a press conference in Cairo: “I swear to God, we will never hurt you”.

“There have been many, many rounds of negotiations without a clear agreement emerging yet,” said Dunne. “I am a bit more hopeful about an agreement now due to the new leadership in Ethiopia, which seems to be more amenable to friendly relations with neighbours as well as more frank about Ethiopia’s own difficulties finishing the dam. These factors are buying some time to work things out and avoid unnecessary confrontations.”

But a resolution still seems far away. The current political turmoil in Sudan, after the army ousted Omar Bashir following months of nationwide protests, is likely to have obstructed or even stalled talks between the nations. And while Sudanese politics will not affect Ethiopia’s progress with the dam — given that the project is regarded as a fait accompli — it may “have an implication on the broader Nile hydro-politics”, said Seide.