The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is considered crucial to securing Addis Ababa’s energy needs while Cairo and Khartoum believe it will reduce water flows downstream.
A senior Ethiopian official has warned Egypt about the possibility of an ongoing dispute over Nile waters turning into war.
General Birhanu Jula accused Egyptian leaders of ‘distorting’ the narrative on Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project.
The project, which will cost nearly $5 billion, will help Ethiopia establish energy dependency using waters from the Blue Nile, one of the River Nile’s main tributaries.
However, Egypt believes the hydroelectric dam will reduce downriver flows leaving their populations vulnerable to drought and water scarcity.
“Egyptians and the rest of the world know too well how we conduct war whenever it comes,” the military official, who serves as Ethiopia’s deputy army chief, said.
The comments stand in stark contrast to Ethiopian Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Abiy Ahmed’s assertion that his country does not “want to hurt anyone else” in its pursuit of energy security.
Nevertheless they show the stakes at play in what could become one of the world’s first explicitly water-related conflicts.
A US and World Bank mediated deal, which would stagger the rate at which the dam is filled and ensure safeguard mechanisms to reduce retention during periods of drought has been agreed to in principle by all parties but only signed by Egypt.
Egypt says Ethiopia is buying time so that it can start filling the dam as early as next month, while Ethiopia says it has taken the agreement back for consultations.
Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan, had agreed to reach a final deal by early 2020 but that timeframe will now have to be reworked.
A 1929 treaty gives Egypt the right to monitor the use of the Nile’s waters by countries upstream, as well as veto any projects that would present a risk to its water security but that agreement is seen as invalid and unfair by Nile basin countries, as it was drawn up under the auspices of British colonialists. Countries, such as Ethiopia, never put their names to the agreement.
The 1959 Nile Waters Agreement also unilaterally consolidated Egyptian and Sudanese control of the river’s waters.
Egypt maintains that any reduction in water flow to its portion of the Nile poses an existential risk to its ability to provide for its peoples. An Ethiopian dam of 74 billion cubic metres could potentially present such a threat.
Around 96 percent of Egypt’s territory is in uninhabitable desert with the vast majority of its population of 100 million people living along the banks of the Nile or in the Delta region that leads into the Mediterranean. The country is reliant on the Nile for 90 percent of its water needs.
Due to a mixture of factors, including urbanisation and climate change, the country is losing arable land needed to feed its population.
It’s estimated that a further loss of a billion kilolitres of Nile flow would lead to the loss of 200,000 acres and directly affect 2.5 million people reliant on the agricultural industry.
Until the 2013 military coup that overthrew Egypt’s only democratically elected leader, Mohamed Morsi, Khartoum had sided with Cairo on the issue of the dam.
Sudan has shifted its position towards Ethiopia’s as the energy created by the hydroelectric dam is also likely to benefit it.
Ethiopia expects a surplus that will allow it to become a net exporter of hydroelectric energy to neighbouring African states.
The reluctance on the part of Sudan to take a harder stance on Ethiopia means Egypt’s military options against Ethiopia are limited.
Despite this, the country has been building ties with Ethiopia’s rival and neighbour Eritrea, with some mooting the possibility of a military base in the country.
That will be a big ask, however, as Ethiopia has recently patched up its relations with Eritrea, ending years of war.
This lack of viable options has led to Egyptian officials accusing Ethiopia of holding it “hostage”.