Tension over the Nile: an Ethiopian perspective

It would not be inaccurate to say that the Nile river, the longest in all of Eurasia, has played a foundational role in human history. After all, it has given rise to one of the first recorded civilizations thanks to its abundance of fresh water. This is no less true today, where it keeps shaping African geopolitics thanks to the vast resources it offers the nations it traverses: fish in abundance, an easy medium for transport, the possibility for hydroelectric power generation, and most importantly, fresh water. 

Egypt’s dependence on the Nile

The latter is especially crucial for water-starved Egypt, where 96.5% of its land is desert, arid and unable to grow a single plant. Egypt also relies on the Nile’s water for 90% of its freshwater needs, making it more than essential for Egypt to keep the flow stable and unchanged. With more than a third of its population employed in agriculture, any changes to the flow of the Nile threaten to have dire political consequences for the ruling administration. This is why, for Egypt, the construction and most crucially the filling of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam threatens to upend a status quo that has been preserved starting in 1976, with the filling of the Egyptian Aswan Dam.

Sudan’s dependence on the Nile

Another key player in this unfolding crisis is Sudan, who also has important stakes to protect due, like Egypt, to its reliance on the Nile’s freshwater. Unlike Egypt, Sudan is often relegated to a minor role compared to its two better known neighbours due to the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement it signed with Egypt. One of its clauses stipulates that Egypt and Sudan should stand together in any Nile related negotiations. Unwilling to break international law, Sudan mostly follows the Egyptian line. However, Sudan also recognizes there are significant benefits it could gain from the dam. Firstly, it would vastly reduce the issue of sediment building up in Sudanese dams since it would mostly be captured by the Renaissance Dam’s basin, reducing upkeep costs for its dams and prolonging their useful life. Secondly, it could provide a massive reservoir of fresh water that could be used in case of drought, while also limiting the irregular and devastating floods of the Nile. Sudan’s use of the reservoir, however, is contingent on Sudan and Ethiopia reaching an agreement over it, which is why Sudan is unwilling to compromise its relationship with Ethiopia too much.

Why is the dam so important to Ethiopia’s government?

Perhaps, however, too much focus has been placed on Egyptian concerns, aims, and threats by most media reporting on the issue. Indeed, for Ethiopia and its people this monumental dam has taken on a quasi-religious aspect, which is certainly deserved. Popular support and defence of the dam is also due to the fact that it was funded in part from public government bonds, and thus a significant part of the population has a stake in the dam. The Ethiopian regime itself, headed by Abiy Ahmed, has also used the dam as a prop and a symbol for the ongoing economic reforms that the ruling coalition has promised. They also hope to use it to further unite the Ethiopian people, since factional violence between ethnic groups has often rocked Ethiopian internal politics. Indeed, it has recently reared its ugly head through the conflict between the central government and the Tigray ethnic and provincial authorities.

Why is the dam so important to Ethiopia’s economy?

The Renaissance Dam has the potential to revolutionise agriculture, energy generation, politics, and most importantly the economy of Ethiopia. It would also be the biggest hydroelectric power plant in Africa when finalized. It is estimated it will produce 16,153 GWh per year, enough to supply all of Ethiopia’s needs when combined with existing power sources. The surplus would be exported and sold to neighbouring countries such as Kenya, where a suitable high voltage power line already exists. The huge reservoir created as a result of the dam could also be used to alleviate periods of drought through careful release of stored water, and as mentioned above a great beneficiary of this could be Sudan. A large quantity of fish is also expected to be available in the reservoir, fostering the local economy and increasing food security. 

All these factors explain why Ethiopia is so adamant about the timely filling of the dam – it would have great economic, political, and security benefits for the ruling government and Ethiopia as a whole. The current government of Abiy Ahmed, inaugurated in 2018, has embarked on an ambitious program of economic reform and liberalization, aiming to increase GDP growth and reorganize the economy to be more competitive internationally. Numerous state-owned enterprises in telecommunications, aviation, electricity, and logistics have been privatised. Ethiopia is the largest country in the world without a stock exchange and the government plans to set up one in the near future. As a result, the GDP has grown by 9% in 2019 and much foreign investment has poured into the country. Needless to say, the construction of the Renaissance Dam fits right into this program of economic growth and reform.

What can we expect in the future?

Due to its expected economic, political, and energy gains, Ethiopia is unlikely to back down from continuing to fill the dam, despite Egyptian and Sudanese protests and attempts at negotiation. The Ethiopian position is further bolstered by popular support and investment in the dam, as well as the current government’s need to shore up national support in the face of the mounting ethnic conflict in Tigray. Ethiopia sees the control of its stretch of the Nile as inviolable and will not accept Egyptian claims over its water resources, but so does Egypt see its right to protect its water security. All signs point to continued conflict on the horizon. 

Now, only one question remains: will Ethiopia be able to fill its reservoir before the diplomatic pressure spills over into economic and military conflict?

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