Ethiopia’s Power Play on the Nile Has Left the Region in a Deadlock

Ethiopia’s Power Play on the Nile Has Left the Region in a Deadlock

As long as the Renaissance Dam remains an instrument in Ethiopia’s bid to control the Blue Nile, negotiations are doomed.

Workers move iron bars with a crane at the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, near Guba in Ethiopia, on Dec. 26, 2019. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

(foreignpolicy)—For almost a decade, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan have been negotiating over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Unfortunately, these negotiations have not led to an agreement. Reams of technical reports have been written, dozens of statements have been issued, and hundreds of meetings have been held with heads of state and government, foreign ministers and water ministers, hydrologists and engineers, lawyers and litigators, and foreign mediators and international observers. Yet there is little—apart from a 2015 treaty that provided a legal framework to govern the negotiations—to show for this diplomatic commotion.

The reason these efforts have failed is that there is a fundamental divergence on the purpose of these negotiations. Egypt is pursuing an agreement based on a simple and mutually beneficial quid pro quo: Ethiopia should be able to generate hydropower from the GERD while minimizing the harm on downstream communities in Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia’s objective, however, is to exploit these negotiations to assert control over the Blue Nile, the largest tributary of the Nile River, and to reconfigure the political topography of the Nile Basin.

 The classic conundrum of transboundary watercourses is that downstream states, with their lush valleys and bountiful deltas, often construct sophisticated riparian-based economies before mountainous upstream states begin to develop the need and capacity to exploit these shared natural resources. This is particularly true in the Nile Basin. For its entire history, Egypt, which is essentially a desert oasis of 100 million people, has been entirely dependent on the Nile for its survival. Ethiopia, on the other hand, is a water-rich upstream country that has recently begun to utilize its many transboundary rivers as vehicles of development through the construction of hydropower dams.

Reconciling Ethiopia’s developmental needs with Egypt’s imperative of survival is not an insurmountable challenge.The predicament, however, is that upstream developments invariably affect downstream states and could expose millions of people to the ravaging effects of water shortages. This danger is especially acute in the case of the GERD, which, when construction is completed, will be Africa’s largest hydropower dam with a storage capacity more than twice that of the United States’ Hoover Dam. If it is filled and operated without an agreement with Egypt and Sudan, the GERD could have disastrous impacts on the livelihood of downstream communities. Indeed, when Ethiopia unilaterally commenced the filling of the GERD in July by rapidly impounding nearly 5 billion cubic meters of water, Sudan experienced disruptions in drinking water supply systems and hydropower production facilities. (As a sign of mounting concern about Ethiopia’s decision to fill the dam and the lack of progress in the negotiations, the United States announced a “temporary pause” of a portion of U.S. aid to Ethiopia.)

Reconciling Ethiopia’s developmental needs with Egypt’s imperative of survival is not an insurmountable challenge. In February, the United States brokered an agreement that did just that. It enabled Ethiopia to generate hydropower from the GERD expeditiously and sustainably while reducing the harmful effects of the dam. Yet while Egypt accepted and initialed this agreement, Ethiopia rejected it. Since then, there have been two rounds of negotiations between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan, which were attended by observers from the African Union, the European Union, and the United States. During these talks, Egypt and Sudan proposed multiple solutions based on the win-win formula of ensuring that the GERD produces hydropower while minimizing its adverse effects. Nonetheless, Ethiopia remained implacable.

The reason is that, for Ethiopia, these negotiations are about much more than the GERD and its economic value. Indeed, the dam is an instrument in an Ethiopian bid to exercise unrestricted control over the Blue Nile, to free itself of the restraints of international law that apply to all riparian states sharing international watercourses, and to force Egypt and Sudan into apportioning the waters of the Nile on Ethiopia’s terms.

These motives are reflected in Ethiopia’s proposals throughout the negotiations this year, such as the text that Ethiopia sent to the U.N. Security Council in June. These proposals demonstrate that Ethiopia is unwilling to conclude a legally binding agreement—it has even refused to call the instrument being negotiated an “agreement.” It has also rejected the inclusion of any binding dispute resolution mechanism and has instead suggested that disagreements be solved through negotiation and mediation.For Ethiopia, these negotiations are about much more than the GERD and its economic value. 

Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government is demanding that Egypt and Sudan sign off on a document that grants it the right to unilaterally adjust the terms of an agreement on the GERD. It is insisting that any such agreement should give Ethiopia the unrestrained right to undertake more development projects and to alter the GERD agreement to accommodate these new waterworks in the future. Yet that would effectively require Egypt and Sudan to sign away their riparian rights and turn themselves into Ethiopia’s hydrological hostages.

Ethiopia is also arguing that Egypt and Sudan must accede to the Cooperative Framework Agreement, an ineffectual and divisive treaty that was designed a decade ago to manage the Nile waters but that has since lacked the requisite support to come into force. Moreover, Ethiopia insists that any GERD agreement should be terminated if Egypt and Sudan do not agree to apportion specific shares of the Nile waters for the riparian states of the White Nile, the other major tributary of the Nile, within a decade—even though the White Nile doesn’t flow through Ethiopia itself.

In short, Ethiopia is seeking to establish a hydrological tabula rasa by dictating the distribution of the river’s waters and disregarding the realities of geography that have long made Egypt’s survival dependent on the Nile.

Ethiopia is seeking to establish a hydrological tabula rasa.On the other hand, Egypt’s position has been principled and pragmatic. It recognizes Ethiopia’s inalienable right to enjoy the benefits of the Blue Nile and to undertake future development projects. However, Egypt believes that international law should govern any future projects on the Blue Nile. Moreover, Egypt understands that it will be impossible, in these negotiations on the GERD, to overcome decades of disagreements on the legal and institutional infrastructure that governs the Nile Basin. Therefore, Egypt is pursuing the attainable by working to reach an agreement exclusively on the GERD. This would be a technical agreement that regulates a single project on a single tributary of the Nile River by outlining the details of the filling and operation of the GERD. It would not foreclose Ethiopia’s right to undertake future development projects nor would it undermine the riparian rights of downstream states. It would also bypass intractable issues, such as that of the Cooperative Framework Agreement, that have bedeviled the Nile Basin for decades.

Behaving as though the management of an international watercourse is a zero-sum game is untenable. Ethiopia should not seek to establish a fait accompli or exploit the riches of the river by diktat. Doing so would only inflame tensions and undermine stability throughout East Africa. In order to preserve the peace in an already turbulent region, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan must avoid a scenario where one state threatens the existence of downstream communities or turns a dam into a Damoclean sword.

The AU, the EU, and the United States should prod the parties to exercise flexibility and encourage Ethiopia to conclude a legally binding agreement that enables the country to achieve a return on its investment in the GERD while protecting downstream communities. Such an agreement would build trust and confidence, thus laying the foundations for broader cooperation on future development projects in the Nile Basin.