A Dammed Nile: Ethiopia’s Geopolitical Plan Increases Regional Tensions

Just last month, Ethiopia began the groundwork for their Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project to help bolster the country’s majority and struggling agrarian economy. COVID-19 significantly impacted the agrarian and manufacturing sectors for the worse, while simultaneously stressing proper hygiene and sanitation habits to limit the spread of the virus. The $5 billion hydroelectric project has also received pushback from neighboring Egypt in attempts to control domestic water supplies. Will that stop Ethiopia’s five-year completion plan?

Referencing the map below, the Blue Nile runs downward from Ethiopia’s Lake Tana (Elevation: 1788 meters) all the way to Cairo (Elevation: 23 meters). This allows Ethiopia greater control over how the Blue Nile’s water is distributed between itself, Sudan, and Egypt. Attempts to quantify appropriate Nile water claims have resulted in various agreements during the colonial era; a 1929 treaty and 1959 agreement allocated an average of 50 billion cubic meters and 11 cubic meters of water to Egypt and Sudan respectively. Ethiopia’s organic population increase required the government to intervene and accommodate Nile water as time passed.

Source: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1687428520300200

As with most cross-border resource arguments, Egypt in particular views the GERD as “an existential threat” according to Boston University Pardee professor Michael Woldemariam writing for Foreign Affairs. He goes on to describe Egypt’s hegemony over the river basin since the 1959 Sudan treaty; Ethiopia wasn’t party to the agreement and has since pressured Egypt to initiate an Egyptian military intervention in 2013.

Here are some of the effects the dispute currently holds and may hold in future domestic affairs in each country involved:

First, the GERD will inevitably halt ongoing democratic transitions in Egypt and Ethiopia from what Woldemariam calls “Nile River nationalism.” Egypt has frequented engagements with Sudan’s military and security to pressure Khartoum in favor of Egyptian interests in the Nile. Many Sudanese officials and officers were trained in Egyptian academies and have maintained positive relationships with those in Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s administration. Political divides have also widened between Ethiopian government leaders and politicians favoring the dam’s development over maintaining healthy diplomatic relations. Political tension in the country stems from regional disputes rather than foreign policy, such as ethnic minority attacks in Ethiopia’s Oromia region. 

Second, Sudan is now favoring the GERD and Ethiopia’s position on the dam’s completion timeline. Foreign Policy’s geoeconomics correspondent Keith Johnson writes that Sudan had permitted the use of more Blue Nile water for Egypt “which [had] used more water than it [was] entitled to.” The dam would also help facilitate irrigation projects in Sudan to boost the nation’s agricultural sector. As these GERD agreements look towards the long-term, Sudan is hoping to take advantage of better Nile water distribution for the future.

Third, the U.S. reveals itself, according to Johnson, as a “biased mediator” in GERD negotiations. In 2019 through 2020, Washington offered to mediate talks between the three countries and discuss resolving points. A U.S. Treasury statement on the draft agreement signed states that all of the issues were addressed and warned against Ethiopia filling the dam until another agreement was drafted. Trump supports Sisi’s administration as well as his national interests. Notably, Trump supported de-escalation efforts as Egypt faced domestic protests in September 2019 against Sisi’s administration. The Treasury statement begs the question of whether the U.S. favors Egypt over Ethiopia and if the mediation only made diplomatic tensions worse?

Fourth, the GERD dispute hangs over the future Ethiopian election period and party officials representing domestic issues by region. The postponement of Ethiopian government elections due to COVID-19 have only exacerbated political turmoil. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed campaigned with the goal of national unity between different ethnic groups throughout Ethiopia. African regional experts from Chatham House report that COVID-19 has resulted in heavy economic losses in the country’s agricultural sector, “which accounts for a third of GDP and on which most Ethiopian’s depend for their livelihoods.” Economic security through the GERD project may push national unity to the backburner in order for Ethiopia to recover from the effects of the coronavirus.

If the GERD is completed and a settlement comes to fruition between Egypt and Ethiopia, the countries will likely dispute over future implications of the Nile. Realistically, the dispute is not about either country: regional actors including Arab League members (e.x. Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates) and Ethiopia’s bordering countries (Eritrea, Djibouti, Somalia) will inevitably choose sides in the dispute and weigh their support accordingly. Special attention will be placed on Ethiopia’s elections and prime minister Abiy’s support of the GERD to determine whether the project will provide tranquility or conflict in Ethiopia, Egypt, and beyond.

*Developing Story

(Links to sources can be found underlined through a hyperlink)

This article was written by Declan Mazur reporting from The Berkshires, Massachusetts. You can reach out to the author at djm752@nyu.edu
Photo credit: Eduardo Soteras (AFP via Getty Images)

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