A conflict is brewing on the Nile — and the Trump administration is making things worse
Yet to dam a river that provides 90 percent of Egypt’s freshwater will deepen that country’s perilous water crisis. In recent years, Egypt’s persistent water deficit has strained its agricultural industry and upended life in many parts of the country.
For Sudan, stuck in the middle, the cheap energy and flood regulation benefits are attractive, but the possible water shortages are too great to overlook. Khartoum has weighed in on the side of its downstream partner, Cairo.
There is now little room for maneuver. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has begun filling the dam at haste, threatening to mobilize “millions” of people if Egypt gets in the way. The Egyptians in turn have tested Abiy’s words, launching cyber strikes against Ethiopia and leaving haunting warnings: “Prepare the Ethiopian people for the wrath of the Pharaohs.” As the two sides clash, many warn of a “water war,” the sort of resource scarcity crisis that may pull many neighbors apart in the future. With fears of sabotage still growing, Ethiopia took the extraordinary and ominous step this week of banning all flights over the dam.
If Washington still hopes to stave off war between two of its closest allies on the African continent, it will need to reverse course. Fortunately, the path forward does not rely on the United States. Negotiations will now be led by the African Union, a more honest and informed broker. However, the United States can still help.
Instead, the United States should seek to solve Egypt’s water crisis. Egypt loses 50 percent of its freshwater to poor planning and regulation, wasting scant resources by using freshwater for industrial cooling, for example, when it could use seawater. The United States could alter the dynamics of the dispute by investing in more rigorous water-efficiency programs. Examples from Jordan to Kenya — where the United States has successfully reduced water waste by up to 41 percent and helped provide drought-adjustment innovations — show the potential of such an intervention.
As this crisis continues, Washington must realize that carrots nearly always fare better than sticks. Indeed, recent research has shown that as much as 90 percent of contemporary sanctions regimes fail to achieve their objectives. These measures are more likely to raise the stakes of disputes and make compromise more difficult.