To the victor, the water

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The Nile River, traditionally a source of peace, prosperity and growth, has become the focus point of a decade-long dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia. 

More specifically, Ethiopia is nearing completion on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a project costing $5 billion, and is looking to begin filling the reservoir this year. Ethiopia’s Highlands are the source of the Blue Nile, which supplies up to 80% of the water to the Nile. The GERD will restrict the Blue Nile near the border with Sudan and looks to become Africa’s biggest hydroelectric power plant. Upon completion, it will have the capacity of 6,000 megawatts of electricity, enough for the 65% of the population of Ethiopia currently without electricity and the surplus able to be sold to neighbouring countries. 

However, Egypt sees the dam as holding potentially far-reaching consequences in their country. Their line of response to construction and filling of the reservoir is, “If the water means electricity for Ethiopia, it is a life-or-death matter for Egypt”. Egypt relies on the Nile for 90% of its water, and the filling of the reservoir in Ethiopia could seriously restrict internal water supply for agriculture and electricity. 

The main debate centres on how quickly the reservoir, which is the size of greater London, is filled. The quicker it is filled, the more it will affect the water level downstream in Egypt. Ethiopia is keen on filling the dam in six years, whereas ideally Egypt would more than double this time period. 

The dispute stretches beyond water supply into colonial-era legacy and legislation. A 1929 document gave Egypt 75% of the Nile’s water, offering the final 25% to Sudan and none to Ethiopia (then Abyssinia). Ethiopia refuses to recognise such legislation and sees the project as a show of national prosperity and unity. It is being fully funded through government bonds, private funds and donations from the population, who see the dam as opening a door out of poverty for many and an opportunity to show Ethiopia’s prestige and mounting economic international presence. 

So far, all attempts at agreement between Egypt and Ethiopia have proved unsuccessful. The USA has become involved in the conflict in an attempt to prevent an escalation. The Egyptian government demands that Ethiopia must have its consent around the filling of the dam, but the Ethiopian government maintains it has the right to build and fill the dam as it desires. Both populations are also heavily invested in the outcome of the project and critical of the handling of the dispute by the other country. 

The filling of the reservoir in Ethiopia could seriously restrict internal water supply for agriculture and electricity 

To move forward, both governments should lead the way in acknowledging the other country’s concerns around the dam. Egypt should move away from the backing of colonial-era legislation and focus on asking for legitimate assurances on water supply for the sake of its population and farming industry. Ethiopia, led by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed who won the Noble Peace Prize in 2019 for facilitating peace talks with neighbouring Eritrea, should accommodate reasonable wishes from Egypt around slowing the filling of the reservoir to protect those downstream. This will further cooperation with Egypt, away from conflict, and lay the path for prosperity and growth of the nations, better achieved together.  The aims of a lift out of poverty and push towards the manufacturing sector through the electricity generated will still be achieved. 

After all, the nature of the River Nile makes it inevitable as a source of connection between the ten countries it passes through. It would be a shame to see the connection as negative and to be treated with hostility, when it should be celebrated alongside the accomplishments of all nations benefitting from it. 

Image: RachidH via CreativeCommons

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