Egypt and Sudan Are Ganging Up on Ethiopia’s Nile Dam

Egypt and Sudan Are Ganging Up on Ethiopia’s Nile Dam

Cairo and Khartoum want to capitalize on Addis Ababa’s international isolation.

By Amr Adly

Blue Nile, red rag. Photographer: Eduardo Soteras/Getty Images

(Bloomberg)—Ethiopia’s civil war and the growing international isolation of the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed are encouraging Egypt to press harder for concessions in their conflict over a giant dam on the Blue Nile. Cairo’s hand has been strengthened by Ethiopia’s strained relations with Sudan, the third party in the dispute.

[perfectpullquote align=”left” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=”16″]Amr Adly is an assistant professor at the American University in Cairo. He is the author of “State Reform and Development in the Middle East.”[/perfectpullquote]

The Sudanese have accused Ethiopian forces of entering their territory in an attempted land-grab. This has pushed Sudan’s transitional government closer to Egypt. Meeting in Khartoum last week, Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of Sudan’s sovereignty council, warned Ethiopia against “any unilateral measures aimed at monopolizing the resources” of the river. The two countries have called for an internationally-mediated agreement on water sharing before the next flood season starts in the summer.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, has been a bone of contention between the three countries since construction began in 2011. Ethiopia sees the project as the solution to its severe power shortage, and maintains its neighbors will benefit from future exports of cheap electricity. But Egypt, which depends on the Blue Nile for two-thirds of its freshwater supply, worries that the dam will have a devastating impact on agriculture downstream.

Egypt and Sudan raised alarms last summer, when Ethiopia began the first phase of filling the huge reservoir created by the dam. But their fears of being deprived of adequate supply of water were allayed, in part because of above-average rainfall and flooding of the river.

Matters could come to a head this July when Ethiopia begins the second phase of filling the reservoir. Sudan has said it would regard this as a threat to its security. Egypt’s Sisi has warned Ethiopia against “imposing a fait accompli and extending control over the Blue Nile through unilateral measures.”

The dispute has defied attempts at mediation by the Trump administration and the African Union. Ethiopia, having financed the $4.6 billion project without international borrowing, has been immune to pressure and unmoved by pleas for accommodation. The Ethiopian position may also have been bolstered by Abiy’s international prestige as a recipient of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.  

But that could be changing. The international outcry over allegations of human-rights abuses in the ongoing civil war in the northern province of Tigray have tarnished Abiy’s reputation abroad. The border tensions have antagonized Sudan, which was already struggling to cope with the refugee crisis created by the war.

The European Union has suspended some financial support for Addis Ababa. The U.S., which stopped some aid last year after its mediation efforts over GERD failed, may now make the resumption of assistance conditional on the Ethiopian government’s handling of the civil war

Egypt and Sudan are hoping that Abiy will be more vulnerable to international pressure now than he was last year. But they are also preparing for an escalation in the dispute. The two countries conducted joint military exercises last fall. On a visit to Khartoum earlier this month, the Egyptian military chief of staff cited the “gravity of dangers surrounding us,” and declared his country was “ready to meet Sudan’s requests in all fields.”

The Egyptian presidential statement accompanying the Sisi visit expressed full support for Sudan’s efforts to extend “its sovereignty over its borders with Ethiopia.” This was apparently a reference to the disputed al-Fashqa region on the Sudanese-Ethiopian border.

There has also been speculation that Egypt may take direct military action against GERD: President Donald Trump himself suggested the Egyptians might “blow up that dam.” But Cairo needn’t go quite that far to make things very difficult for Ethiopia. Egyptian military assistance for Sudan in al-Fashqa would raise anxieties in Addis Ababa. The Ethiopians are also wary of possible outside intervention in a separate insurrection in the Benishangul-Gumuz region, where GERD is located.

Egypt and Sudan are counting on Abiy to read the writing on the wall: The last thing an internationally isolated, internally divided Ethiopia needs right now is a hostile neighbor to its north, supported by a regional power with its own animus against Addis Ababa. This may be their best hope yet for water security.