Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam Image Credit: Reuters

After being the Chairman of the African Union in February 2021, the President of Congo Félix Tshisekedi got engaged in the mediation of the long-running dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan. He had hosted a meeting of the foreign ministers of all the three Blue Nile Basin countries at Kinshasa on 4-5 April 2021, hoping to help them reach a “win-win” agreement.

Although the meeting was extended for a few hours on 6 April, disappointing the proponents of “African Solutions to African problems” failed to make any progress. Immediately after the unsuccessful Kinshasa meeting, both Egypt and Sudan have reiterated their “all options open” warnings. At the same time, Ethiopia is adamant about going ahead with the 2nd year filling of the Dam in July, even without any agreement.

Conflicts over the sharing of the Blue Nile are not new. Since the beginning of the 20th Century, the river has been the source of political tensions and low-intensity conflicts among three basin countries. Way back in 1985, Egypt’s then Foreign Minister Dr. Boutros Boutros Ghali had famously remarked, “the next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics”.

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The war over the water is yet to take place, but, no doubt, the ongoing construction of the massive hydropower Renaissance Dam by Ethiopia has raised that specter again.

Both Egypt and Sudan have issued repurcussions if Ethiopia starts filling the reservoir in July without any agreement. Last week, Sudan even conducted a 5-day joint military exercise with Egypt in the northern parts of its country, naming it as ‘Nile Eagles 2’.

Sudan-Egypt alliance

Previously Sudan had broken its alliance with Egypt on the Nile water, and sided with Ethiopia when it started building the Dam in 2013. The new cooperation had changed the power dynamics in the basin significantly. But that change was short-lived.

Since January this year, Sudan and Egypt have joined hands, asking for a new set of negotiators and projecting Ethiopia’s plan to go ahead with filling the reservoir without an agreement as a threat to their national security.

In 2020, Ethiopia had kept 5 BCM of water for the reservoir, and the plan for 2021 is to store 13.5 BCM more. Besides the possible water scarcity, Sudan is more worried about Ethiopia’s storage and control over such a massive volume of water upstream without any binding agreement in place.

Sudan fears for the strategic use of that water by Ethiopia and the safety of its dams downstream. The ongoing bilateral border dispute has multiplied Sudanese anxiety. But the solution to this water insecurity lies not in the escalating conflict.

Taking the cover of the colonial era treaties does not make any sense considering the geo-political realities of the 21st Century. The international law is also of no use as the UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses.

It obligates Ethiopia not to cause significant harm to others, and at the same time, it also permits Ethiopia for equitable and reasonable utilization of the shared water. By bringing the matter before the UN Security Council makes no difference when its ‘veto’ carrying members have very different views over upstream countries’ rights and obligations.

Mutually Assured Dam Destruction

Suppose downstream countries opt for an armed conflict or a military operation that will be only suicidal as it will lead to a MADD (Mutually Assured Dam Destruction) in the basin. While Sudan and Egypt have much to lose by escalating the dam conflict, Ethiopia should also realize that the unilateral filling of the GERD’s reservoir and operation will be self-defeating as well.

The absence of any agreement on the GERD will always bring threats to the dam safety, create adverse international opinion, limit multilateral funding for its other planned water projects, and seriously limit the direct and associated benefits of the Dam.

Thus, the only way forward for the three countries in the basin is to cooperate and sign an agreement on the operation of the GERD. They can easily follow the examples of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, who signed an agreement over Parana river projects in 1979 after a long period of bitter conflict over the Itaipu Dam on the upstream.

The GERD is being built to bring development and cooperation for the people not to be used as a nationalist political weapon. The collaboration among the basin countries can yield significant advantages from the river on food and energy production. The GERD can bring considerable dividends, particularly to Sudan, to prevent seasonal floods, regulate the river flows, and extend its dams’ life span by preventing silts upstream.

In the last two years of negotiations at various levels and with different mediators, the three basin countries have agreed on the agreement’s content while difference remains over the potency of the agreement. Whether the agreement be a binding one or just an MoU?

After the Trump administration’s failure, the African Union is facilitating the talk for a year now. As AU chair in 2020, South Africa failed to break the impasse, and a breakthrough under the new Chair, Congo, looks very unlikely.

Getting the countries to cooperate is the key, and it is immaterial who facilitated that process. Congo is also a member like Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan of the World Bank-initiated Nile Basin Initiative (NBI).

The NBI was created in 1999 to bring basin-based cooperation in the Nile Basin, but it has miserably failed on the Blue Nile side, which supplies at least 86% of the Nile water. So, insisting on finding a so-called ‘African Solution’ to the GERD crisis with the same set of actors is in no way prudent.

An escalating debate

The next filling period is only a couple of months away. The regional security situation has become quite precarious with the rise of militant nationalism. The GERD dispute is escalating every day, and the AU negotiation has come to a standstill. It is time for the basin countries to come out of this mutually hurting stalemate and look for ways to reinvigorate the negotiation process.

Ethiopia’s offer on 10 April to share the data with Egypt and Sudan at the time of filling of the Dam raises hope of continued negation till the filling period arrives. Proposals are there for bringing in the UN, US, and EU to join the AU in mediation. There are also suggestions of Gulf countries, particularly the UAE, taking up the negotiator role.

It is high time for the Blue Nile basin countries to restart the negotiation process and look for a new set of negotiators and agree on GERD’s operation. The most significant development project in Africa should not be used to wage war but be a catalyst for regional development and peace.