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Balancing Economic Development and Human Security in the Nile River Basin

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is arguably one of the most important issue facing the African continent today. Concerning water supply from the Nile River, a critical natural resource for ten African states, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan are seeking to re-negotiate decades-long contracts dictating who can pursue development projects on the river. The three states have thus far failed to reach a settlement through trilateral meetings, and President Putin faltered in his efforts to meaningfully-advance discussions on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa Sochi Summit. As Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan barrel towards January 15, 2020, their self-imposed deadline for reaching agreement without an outside mediator, it is becoming increasingly likely that President Trump will help dictate the future of Africa’s water supply.

Construction site for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Image source: Jacey Fortin © 2014)

Currently under construction, the GERD was first proposed by Ethiopia in 2011 as a hydroelectric project. The dam would generate an estimate 6,000 megawatts of electricity to advance Ethiopia’s national development agenda, but the sheer size of the GERD reservoir would slow the flow of the Nile River, potentially jeopardizing irrigation needs in Egypt. The two countries are currently at a crossroads with Ethiopia holding fast to its right to pursue economic development opportunities and Egypt fearing for the food and water security of its population.

Furthering complicating the GERD negotiations are the colonial legacies underpinning Nile water usage rights. The countries of the Nile River Basin region are bound by the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty which allocates to Egypt more than half of the Nile’s annual yield. Furthermore, the agreement grants Cairo veto power over any construction projects on the banks of the Nile or its tributaries — a stipulation that would include the GERD. Ethiopia naturally feels cut out of these arrangements. Although the Ethiopian highlands supply roughly eighty percent of the Nile’s water, Addis Ababa’s colonial status necessarily hindered any input into the 1929 agreement.

Egypt and Ethiopia have been engaged in negotiations around the GERD since the project was first proposed (Sudan, by virtue of its high rainfall levels is less-directly affected). Neither country has demonstrated a willingness to make concessions in order to close the growing chasm, with Cairo dubbing diplomatic efforts “exhausted.” Regional actors now fear that Ethiopia may pursue a military option after Prime Minister Abiy warned that he would not hesitate to “deploy many millions” of troops to defend Addis Ababa’s right to complete the GERD.

As insurmountable as the GERD dilemma seems, the silver lining is that the remaining challenges are largely technical rather than ideological. Both sides agree that Egypt deserves a water allocation from the GERD, although negotiators must seek a middle ground between Cairo’s demand for forty billion cubic meters and Addis Ababa’s counter offer of 35 billion. The countries have held four technical meetings this fall hoping to resolve these prevailing issues, so far without success. International actors are also starting to get involved. Hoping to secure a diplomatic coup for Moscow President Putin encouraged African leaders to take advantage of the Sochi Summit to engage in talks. While Prime Minister Abiy and President al-Sisi did meet on the Summit’s sidelines, no meaningful advancements emerged. The U.S. has also worked to carve out a stake in the issue, sending Treasury Secretary Mnuchin to attend trilateral discussions in November. 

Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan have thus far insisted on a minimal role for international actors, affirming their commitment to “reach a comprehensive, cooperative, adaptive, sustainable, and mutually beneficial agreement” on the GERD. But after years of talks yielding little progress, water ministers from the three countries, who have been leading negotiations thus far designated January 15, 2020 as their deadline for finalizing an agreement. Failing substantive progress in the next six weeks, the GERD negotiations will become an issue for heads of state. Egypt has already accepted President Trump’s offer to mediate discussions in Washington, and it is likely that Prime Minister Abiy and President al-Bashir would follow suit should the GERD become an issue for heads of state to resolve.

Should final negotiations on the GERD fall into the hands of President Trump, the international community should be wary. In spite of trilateral commitments to resolve the issue peacefully, President Abiy’s militaristic comments broached the possibility of a hard power approach to guarding Ethiopia’s development agenda. President Trump’s spotty record on diplomatic negotiations, ranging from repeated failures in North Korea to outright repudiation of his involvement in Kashmir, American engagement on the GERD may be the final push towards war between two African superpowers.

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Kathryn Urban

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