…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, Aljazeera, March 30, 2021.
…we … don’t want to live in darkness - Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Aljazeera, March 30, 2021.
These two short quotes encapsulate the essence of the brewing conflict between the leaders of the two North African nations 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 dam—the Great Ethiopian Renaissances Dan (GERD) is the largest in Africa and one of the largest in the world.
Ethiopian electricity vs Egyptian water
The Blue Nile is one of the two principal tributaries—together with the White Nile—which converge near the Sudanese capital Khartoum and then flow northwards, as the Nile, through Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea.
As the world's longest river system, the Nile functions as a lifeline to the 11 countries through which it runs, supplying them with both water and electricity.
Arguably Egypt, as the ultimate downstream country, is the most vulnerable to disruptions of the river flow. It depends on the Nile for over 95% of its irrigation and drinking water for its 105 million population and it perceives the Ethiopian dam as an existential threat to its national security.
By contrast, upstream Ethiopia claims that the planned hydroelectric power produced by its dam will be vital to meet the energy needs of its people—numbering over 120 million—well over half of which has no access to electricity. Accordingly, with a planned installed capacity of over 6 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 being considered as well.
Is a long-simmering conflict approaching boiling point?
The long-simmering conflict over the waters of the Nile, between the upstream and downstream riparians intensified in 2011 with Ethiopia's decision to begin construction of the GERD. The dispute recently reemerged in the media spotlight when Addis Ababa initiated the operation of the first of the dam's 13 turbines and unilaterally started production of electricity on Feb. 20, 2022, without consultation or coordination with any of the other Nile nations.
According to the World Bank, Ethiopia—the second most populous nation in Africa (after Nigeria)—is the fastest growing economy in the region and over the past decade and a half has been among the fastest-growing countries in the world (at an average of 10 percent per year). From Ethiopia's perspective, the GERD is an essential initiative for the reduction of the widespread poverty that pervades the country, enhancing the availability of clean water—thus reducing illnesses and boosting 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 or any of its tributaries, and the later 1959 Agreement—concluded bilaterally between Egypt and Sudan—prior to Cairo's construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1960, which would flood extensive areas of Northern Sudan.
The 1959 Agreement, which effectively reinforced the provisions of the 1929 Treaty, increased water allocations to both Egypt and Sudan while neither agreement make any allowance for the water needs of the other riparian states. This includes Ethiopia, which was party to neither agreement and whose highlands supply more than 80 percent of the water that flows into the Nile River.
Unsurprisingly, as their populations—and water needs—increased, upstream nations grew increasingly dissatisfied with this arrangement. In 2010, five of them — Ethiopia, together with four White Nile riparians, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania — signed the Entebbe agreement, calling for a redistribution of the waters to include them, with Burundi joining in later.
Both Egypt and Sudan rejected the call.
Subsequent diplomatic efforts—including involvement of the UN Security Council and the African Union—proved fruitless in resolving what is essentially an archetypical "zero-sum game". After all, with a fixed (indeed decreasing) supply of water and increasing populations (and hence demand for water) of the Nile nations, gains for upstream riparians (such as Ethiopia) must almost inevitably come at the expense of downstream ones (such as 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."
Consequently, the pursuit of some consensual arrangement, adequately satisfactory to both sides has proved consistently futile.
Going back over four decades, Cairo has reiterated that water could become a casus belli. Thus, 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 UN Secretary-General, warned that the next war in the Middle East would be fought, not over politics, but over the waters of the Nile.
Stratfor cited a June 1, 2010 dispatch, according to which a "high-level Egyptian security/intel source, in regular direct contact with [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 the short-lived Islamist regime (2012-13), was generally less bellicose towards Addis Abba, he too—under pressure from his military, warned Ethiopia that “all options are open,” 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 apparent deadlock in this clash of the crucial, indeed, existential, interests of the adversarial protagonists means that some form of military confrontation between Cairo and Addis Abba cannot be discounted.
However, should such a confrontation turn violent, the outcome is far from a foregone conclusion. For, while 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), they would still face formidable obstacles in conducting a successful assault to halt the continued construction and operation of the massive GERD.
Moreover, it should be recalled that the only war between Egypt and Ethiopia in modern times (1874-1876), ended in an unequivocal victory for Ethiopia—despite it incurring far greater casualties. Conversely, for Egypt the war was a costly failure, severely blunting its then-regional aspirations as an African empire.
But even assuming that Egypt could successfully project military force effectively to curtail the GERD project, other factors need to be considered as well. Thus, as Cairo itself has acknowledged, any attack that causes catastrophic failure in the dam is likely to pose a major threat downstream as an almost 500-foot-high wall of water would come bursting 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 well prove mistaken.
Indeed, the potential strategic fallout of the Nile dispute for Israel is seldom, if ever raised in the public debate, despite the fact that it may turn out to be gravely ominous.
Egypt has long been plagued by Islamist insurgency in Sinai—by disaffected Bedouin tribes and the Jihadi Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, which later became the ISIS-affiliated "Sinai Province" (Wilayat Sinai). Insurgents have caused the death of thousands of Egyptian soldiers and local civilians as well as over 200 foreign citizens who died in the downing of a Russian airliner, attributed to Sinai Province.
Initially, the Egyptian army had great difficulty in contending with the insurgents, despite extremely 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).
More recently however, partially due to a policy shift of engaging, rather than alienating, the Bedouin tribes, there has been greater success in reducing Jihadist attacks. Indeed, according to the Washington Institute, the military’s shift to tribal engagement has helped reduce jihadist attacks, but given Cairo’s sluggish efforts to advance development and human rights in the peninsula, there is little guarantee that future resurgence of previous levels of violence will not flare up once again.
GERD: The ramifications for Israel (cont.)
Given the effort in terms of personnel and materiel called for to impose law and order in Sinai and prevent its take over by Jihadi warlords, one can only ponder what the outcome would be if Cairo was faced with another situation, which gravely threatened vital national interests elsewhere and required siphoning off resources currently deployed in Sinai.
Thus, if Egypt perceives Ethiopia's upstream dam construction as placing it in an untenable situation vis-a-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 wellbeing of the millions in the Nile delta over its endeavor to maintain its control over the remote Sinai—and draw off resources currently allocated to the latter. This will inevitably result in giving greater rein to the anti-regime—and anti-Israel—radicals, who, in the past, have launched attacks against Israel and been involved in smuggling arms into Hamas-controlled Gaza. These are likely to increase significantly if GERD-induced reductions in Egypt's military presence take place.
Accordingly, Israel must plan for a plausible scenario in which, along its long southern border and the vulnerable transport routes connecting 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 Peninsula.
Martin Sherman (www.martinsherman.org) is the founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies. (www.strategic-israel.org), and a member of the research department of Habithonistim: Israel’s Defense and Security Forum.