A Cold War is Brewing on the Blue Nile

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The failure of the latest negotiations over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam bodes ill for the stability and security of northeastern Africa. In the absence of a clear agreement that explicitly guarantees Egypt and Sudan access to fresh water while allowing Ethiopia to exploit the river for power generation, the Blue Nile basin could become the theater of a riparian cold war, with an ever-present possibility of direct confrontation between the three states.

Egypt and Sudan worry that Ethiopia, in filling the giant reservoir behind the dam, will cut off their water supply. The Ethiopians argue they are within their rights to exploit the river for much-needed electricity, and maintain they can fill the reservoir without choking off the countries downstream.

As a consequence of the impasse, Egypt has for the first time in decades begun to reorient its military attention southward. Egyptian and Sudanese armed forces have carried out a series of joint war games. The Egyptians have also provided assistance to the Sudanese army in the wake of conflict over al-Fashqa region, disputed by Sudan and Ethiopia.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi last week declared that Egypt’s share of the Blue Nile waters was a “red line,” adding that any reduction would “affect the stability of the entire region.” 

It is not hard to imagine what instability would look like: Heavy military investments by all sides, diplomatic showdowns in multilateral forums, support for separatist groups and insurgencies. Even if the confrontation never turns kinetic, it would be costly.

That’s something none of the three countries, all of them heavily-populated and poor, can afford. Ethiopia is counting the costs of a bloody civil war in the northern Tigray province. Sudan is struggling to recover from three decades of isolation. Egypt has a serious poverty problem: A third of its 100 million people have to get by on less than $2 a day. All three are additionally burdened by the economic damage caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

But they appear no closer to an agreement. At the root of their dispute is the 1959 water-sharing agreement between Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia, which was not a party to the deal, regards it as a meaningless colonial-era document. In 2015, the three countries agreed that the river’s waters should be used in a way that doesn’t cause “significant damage” to any of them, and that any disputes would be resolved through negotiations.

Cairo and Khartoum want a new deal to translate that pledge to do no harm into an Ethiopian commitment that prioritizes their access to water over electricity generation in the event of extended droughts in the future. Addis Ababa fears such a commitment would make the operation of the GERD subject to the approval of the two downstream countries. Ethiopia sees no benefit to agreeing to excluding itself from any future use of the waters.

How to break this impasse? One approach would be to seek an agreement over the specific operations of GERD during periods of extended drought, in a way that balances the water needs of Egypt and Sudan with the power-generation requirements of Ethiopia. This would leave the larger question of water-sharing unresolved, but the three parties might reasonably agree that the perfect deal should not be the enemy of a good one.

But first, they would have to return to the table for another round of negotiations. That will only happen under sustained international pressure, especially from the U.S. and the European Union, which have trade and aid leverage with the three countries.

Although the African Union played the honest broker in recent talks, it was American mediation that came closest to bringing about a breakthrough in 2020. When Ethiopia demurred, the Trump administration suspended aid to Addis Ababa, and lost interest in pursuing a solution to the dispute.

Since taking office, President Joe Biden has shown little interest in picking up the slack on GERD, instead focusing on the situation in Tigray. He sent Senator Chris Coons to meet Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed last month, to convey Washington’s “grave concerns” over the humanitarian crisis caused by the civil war — but not, apparently, to press for concessions over the dam project.

That might soon change, however. The U.S. State Department has announced the establishment of a special envoy for the Horn of Africa, to address the political crises in the region, including the GERD dispute. The renewal of American interest is timely, and essential.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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."

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