“No one can take a drop from Egypt’s water, and if it happens, there will be inconceivable instability in the region. — Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Al Jazeera, March 30, 2021
“We … don’t want to live in darkness.” — Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Al Jazeera, March 30, 2021
These two short quotes encapsulate the essence of the conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia over the waters of the Nile, triggered by the construction of a huge dam on the Blue Nile by Ethiopia, just east of its border with Sudan. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is the largest in Africa and one of the largest in the world. And it could start a war.
Ethiopian electricity vs. Egyptian water
The Blue Nile is one of the river’s two principal tributaries that converge near the Sudanese capital Khartoum and then flow northwards through Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea. As the world’s longest river system, the Nile functions as a lifeline to the 11 countries it traverses, supplying them with both water and hydroelectricity.
Egypt, which is the furthest downstream, is also one the most vulnerable to disruptions in the river flow. Its population of 105 million depends on the Nile for over 95% of its irrigation and potable water, and the Egyptian government thus perceives the Ethiopian dam as an existential threat to its national security.
By contrast, upstream Ethiopia claims that the hydroelectric power produced by the GERD is vital to the energy needs of its people—numbering over 120 million—more than half of whom have no access to electricity. With a planned installed capacity of over six gigawatts, the primary purpose of the dam is to relieve the acute power shortage in Ethiopia, although the export of electricity to other countries is under consideration as well.
Is the conflict near boiling point?
The long-term conflict over the waters of the Nile between upstream and downstream riparians intensified in 2011 when Ethiopia decided to begin construction of the GERD. The dispute just reemerged in the media when Addis Ababa initiated the operation of the first of the dam’s 13 turbines and started production of electricity on Feb. 20 without consultation or coordination with any of the other Nile nations.
According to the World Bank, Ethiopia—the second most populous nation in Africa—is the fastest-growing economy in the region, and over the past decade-and-a-half has been among the fastest-growing economies in the world at an average of 10% per year. From Ethiopia’s perspective, the GERD is essential to the reduction of the country’s widespread poverty. It will enhance the availability of clean water, and thus reduce disease rates and boost employment.
For decades, the waters of the Nile have been administered and allocated according to the colonial-era 1929 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty, which granted Egypt veto power over construction projects on the Nile River and any of its tributaries, and the later 1959 Agreement, a bilateral accord between Egypt and Sudan prior to Cairo’s construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1960, which flooded extensive areas of Northern Sudan.
The 1959 Agreement, which reinforced the provisions of the 1929 treaty, increased water allocations to both Egypt and Sudan, but neither agreement made any allowance for the water needs of other riparian states. This includes Ethiopia, which was not party to the agreements and whose highlands supply more than 80% of the Nile’s volume.
It is no surprise that, as their populations—and water needs—increased, upstream nations grew dissatisfied with this arrangement. In 2010, five of them—Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania—signed the Entebbe Agreement, which called for the waters to be redistributed to include them. Burundi later joined the agreement as well.
Both Egypt and Sudan rejected the call.
Subsequent diplomatic efforts, which included the involvement of the U.N. Security Council and the African Union, failed to resolve what is essentially a classic “zero-sum game.” The supply of water from the Nile is fixed—indeed, decreasing—while the riparian populations, and their demand for water, are increasing. As a result, gains for upstream riparians like Ethiopia must come at the expense of downstream riparians like Egypt.
According to one expert: “Under another treaty in 1959, Egypt has a rightful claim to 55.5 bcm [billion cubic meters] of the Nile’s total volume. Egypt’s share of the Nile still falls short of its annual water needs that hover around 64 billion bcm. By 2020, Egypt will need 20% additional water to meet the needs of its projected population. … Consistent increase in demand for water and proportionate decrease in its supply makes the future of Egypt even grimmer.”
Needless to say, the pursuit of some consensual arrangement that can satisfy both sides has proved futile.
For over four decades, Cairo has reiterated that water could become a casus belli. In 1979, in the wake of peace accords with Israel, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat declared: “The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.”
A decade later, in 1988, then-Egyptian Foreign Minister Boutros Boutros-Ghali, later the U.N. Secretary-General, warned that the next war in the Middle East would not be fought over politics, but over the waters of the Nile.
Geopolitical intelligence platform Stratfor has cited a June 1, 2010 dispatch, according to which a “high-level Egyptian security/intel source, in regular direct contact with [then-President Hosni] Mubarak and [then-intelligence head Omar] Suleiman, said: ‘If it comes to a crisis [with Ethiopia], we will send a jet to bomb the dam and come back in one day, simple as that. Or we can send our special forces to block/sabotage the [planned] dam.”
Even though Mohamed Morsi, the leader of Egypt’s short-lived 2012-2013 Islamist regime, was less bellicose towards Ethiopia, he too—under pressure from the military—warned Ethiopia that “all options are open” on the issue, a reference to an airstrike, guerrilla sabotage or destabilization of the Ethiopian government.
Last year, the current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi cautioned that “there will be inconceivable instability in the region” if Egypt’s water supply is reduced by even “a drop.”
The drums of war?
The deadlock over this crucial, indeed existential, issue for both countries means that the possibility of some form of military confrontation between Egypt and Ethiopia cannot be discounted.
Should war break out, the outcome is far from a foregone conclusion. On paper, the Egyptian armed forces far outstrip those of Ethiopia in terms of quality and quantity of its armaments on land, sea and in the air (see here), but an assault intended to halt the continued construction and operation of the massive GERD would still face formidable obstacles.
Moreover, the only war between Egypt and Ethiopia in modern times (1874-1876), ended in an unequivocal victory for Ethiopia, even though it suffered far more casualties. For Egypt, that war was a costly failure that blunted its aspirations as an African empire.
Even if Egypt could use military force to curtail the GERD project, other factors need to be considered as well. As Cairo itself has acknowledged, any attack that causes a catastrophic failure of the dam is likely to pose a major threat downstream, as an almost 500-foot-high wall of water would burst through the breached structure along the river valley.
GERD: The ramifications for Israel
Although the Egypt-Ethiopia dispute over GERD and the Nile might appear somewhat remote and disconnected from Israel and its strategic agenda, this view may prove mistaken. The conflict’s potential strategic fallout for Israel is seldom, if ever, raised in the public debate, despite the fact that it may turn out to be severe.
Egypt has long been plagued by an Islamist insurgency in Sinai that involves disaffected Bedouin tribes and the jihadi group Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, which later became the ISIS-affiliated “Sinai Province” (Wilayat Sinai). Insurgents have killed thousands of Egyptian soldiers and local civilians, as well as more than 200 foreign citizens who died in the downing of a Russian airliner that was attributed to Sinai Province.
At first, the Egyptian army found it very difficult to contend with the insurgents, despite harsh policies implemented by Cairo and increases in military personnel and weapons that far exceeded the limitations of the peace treaty with Israel, which in itself is a source of considerable Israeli concern (see, for example, “Israel’s Sinai Dilemma”).
Partially due to a policy shift toward engaging, rather than alienating, the Bedouin tribes, Egypt has recently been more successful in reducing jihadi attacks. However, the Washington Institute states, given Cairo’s sluggish efforts to advance development and human rights in the peninsula, there is little guarantee that violence will not flare up again.
Given the amount of personnel and materiel required to impose law and order in Sinai and prevent its takeover by jihadi warlords, one can only ponder what the outcome would be if Cairo were faced with a situation elsewhere that gravely threatens vital national interests and requires it to siphon off resources deployed in Sinai.
If Egypt perceives Ethiopia’s upstream dam construction as placing it in an untenable situation vis-à-vis its ability to provide vital amounts of water to its population, it may well find itself compelled to mobilize for coercive action to contend with the situation.
Thus, if the impasse with Ethiopia persists, and the grave water situation in Egypt continues to deteriorate, Cairo may well be forced to prioritize the well-being of the millions in the Nile delta over its endeavor to maintain control over the remote Sinai. This means ceding ground to the anti-regime—and anti-Israel—radicals, who, in the past, have launched attacks against Israel and smuggled arms into Hamas-controlled Gaza. This malign activity is likely to show a significant increase if GERD-induced reductions in Egypt’s military presence take place.
Therefore, Israel must plan for a plausible scenario in which its long southern border and the vulnerable transport routes that connect the center of the country with the southern port of Eilat are subject to mounting fundamentalist threats from unfettered warlords in an increasingly lawless Sinai.