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Could Egypt and Ethiopia Go to War Over Water?

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey reports on an escalating conflict centred on the river Nile

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Photo: Yirga Mengistu/DPA/PA Images

Could Egypt & EthiopiaGo to War Over Water?

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey reports on an escalating conflict centred on the river Nile

Egypt is once again banging the drums of war over the river Nile’s waters – while Ethiopia plans to build a mega-dam on the Blue Nile.

After failed talks in the Democratic Republic of Congo in early April to find common ground, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi warned that Cairo would not allow a “single drop” of its water to be taken and that “all options are open” over a potential conflict. 

Meanwhile, on 23 April, Sudan threatened legal action against Ethiopia, including taking the case to the International Criminal Court (ICC), as the Ethiopian Government intends to proceed with the second-stage filling of the dam in July. 

There have been desperate calls for mediation from the United Nations, United States and European Union, to help broker what is clearly a distant diplomatic solution.  

Ethiopia began constructing what it called the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in 2011, arguing that Egypt and Sudan have unfair rights to the river Nile’s waters, based on a British-colonial era agreement which grants Cairo 55.5 billion cubic meters of water per year, while reserving 18.5 billion cubic meters for Sudan. Ethiopia says it needs the electricity from the GERD to lift millions of its civilians out of poverty. 

However, Egypt and Sudan in turn claim that Ethiopia’s plans are a matter of live or death. For Cairo, the Nile provides around 90% of its water needs. Sudan also says the GERD could threaten the lives of around 20 million of its civilians who depend on its waters. 

This is not the first time the Egyptian President has threatened conflict, and a former Egyptian defence minister also said that Cairo should use military force to stop Ethiopia’s dam. The failure of talks in Congo indicates that Ethiopia is determined to get its way, and that the threat of war is not off the table. 

All things considered, however, Egypt would likely not act upon its warnings in the short term. One possible deterrent is the potential damage to neighbouring Sudan and regional stability. 

“There are some problems that could happen if Egypt did launch an attack, such as conducting an airstrike on the dam. If Ethiopia’s dam collapses, this could also do a lot of damage to Sudan’s dam, which is only about 15 kilometres away Ethiopia’s GERD,” Abubakr Abdelzarig, a Sudanese analyst, told Byline Times.

He added that Sudan has been more conciliatory towards Ethiopia compared to Egypt. Sudan has undergone a democratic transition since 2019, with the civilian figures of the transitional Government more likely to oppose war, compared to the military wing. Cairo would therefore become isolated should it use force. 

A Diplomatic Vacuum

Though the dam is a pressing issue, all three countries are currently weighed down with domestic strife, including severe economic crises which the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated.

Egypt in particular faces internal pressure from sections of the general public, who oppose growing poverty and the military regime’s repressive and exploitative policies. Al-Sisi may therefore be deploying pro-war rhetoric to rally domestic support behind the regime, depicting Ethiopia as an external threat. Cairo could utilise military action against Ethiopia as a means of securing public favour. 

Although the situation is becoming dire, external mediation efforts have been minimal, particularly on the part of the United States, of whom Ethiopia and Egypt are strong allies.  

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on 23 April urged Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to “come together and resolve their disputes around the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam and their shared water resources,” according to a White House statement.

However, the White House’s impartiality in the region has been weakened in recent years – eroding trust. Last October, former US President Donald Trump said that Egypt could “blow up” Ethiopia’s dam. This exacerbated tensions and markedly worsened Washington’s diplomatic credentials over the dispute. 

As a result, Nile countries are looking to other actors for further mediation, that may not have the region’s best interests at heart – instead simply looking to bolster their clout in the geo-strategic sphere of Africa and the neighbouring Red Sea. 

Egypt’s foreign minister Sameh Shoukry on 11 April said that Cairo welcomed any efforts from Russia to intervene and help mediate the dispute. 

“Russia needs to play a more influential part in light of its relations with Ethiopia in order to resolve the crisis and to reduce tensions caused by them in East Africa and the Horn of Africa,” Shoukry emphasised.

Though Russia has yet to take a side, and said it supports African Union mediation, it could take a more proactive role if the situation intensifies – using any conflict as a mean of boosting its own military and geo-political clout. 

Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a tiny Gulf state which former US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called “little Sparta” due to its expansionist vision, is jostling in the Horn of Africa. Mediating the Nile conflict could help expand its interests there. 

According to various Egyptian and Sudanese sources, the UAE has tried to mediate between the three countries in recent months. However, it has favoured Ethiopia’s side, which could further polarise the conflict, for the sake of securing influence within Ethiopia and the wider region. 

With these external powers looking to fill a diplomatic vacuum, tensions are likely to remain in the near term. If they are not resolved in the future, a conflict cannot be fully ruled out.

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