It is a debate that goes back centuries: Who owns the rights to the waters of a river, those at its source or those who benefit from its flow as it meanders toward its mouth?
The simple answer should be “both,” but tell that to Ethiopia and Egypt.
As both countries gear up to face the terrible consequences of what UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called “the worst drought to plague the region in 30 years,” tensions over water resources in the Nile Basin are once again heating up between Addis Ababa and Cairo.
Ever since May of 2013, when Ethiopia announced that it was planning to divert the course of the Blue Nile — which is responsible for 85 percent of the world’s longest river — with its $4 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD, previously pegged the Millennium Dam) on the Benishangul-Gumuz region near the border with Sudan, the two northeastern African countries have been going to bat over the controversial project in international and regional ballparks in order to garner diplomatic support for their respective arguments.
For Egypt, the Nile is and always has been the lifeblood of its agricultural industry, which accounts for 14.5 percent of the nation’s GDP.
For Ethiopia, the massive hydroelectric dam promised abundant energy and represents the country’s first real hope of being able to produce enough food for a population that has for decades been synonymous with starvation.
Consequently, the construction of the 6,000 megawatt dam has put the two countries at political loggerheads, with Egypt insisting that the dam could potentially cut the flow of water for its rapidly growing population and wreak dire economic and social consequences throughout Africa.
Bilateral frictions got so tense that in June 2013, Egypt’s then-President Mohamed Morsi even threatened to go to war over the GED, warning that if Ethiopia proceeded with its construction, “all options” were on the table, including a military intervention.
Sudan, which will also be potentially negatively impacted by the construction of the Millennium Dam, has, for the most part, sided with Ethiopia, accusing Cairo of inflaming the situation with groundless scare-tactic warnings of impending downstream environmental disaster.
(It is worth noting that, like most of the countries in the region, Sudan has been enticed by promises from Addis Ababa for free or subsidized energy when the dam is completed as scheduled in 2017.)
Meanwhile, Ethiopia has claimed that Egypt is using its political and economic clout to pressure donor countries and international lenders to withhold funding for the dam, which is being constructed by Italy’s largest construction firm Salini Impregilo Spa.
Egypt has justifiably pointed out that, while the three countries signed a preliminary deal in Khartoum last year to cooperate and to ensure access to water for all bases on a series of analyses by French specialists, the dam was already more than half built before any environmental impact studies even began (construction started in April 2011).
Cairo is also concerned about Ethiopia’s compliance with promises to respect Egyptian interests and international laws governing water rights.
Egypt’s skepticism is not unfounded.
So far, Ethiopia has blatantly violated previous promises to protect Egypt’s access to Nile waters and has essentially taken a devil-be-damned approach to the environmental studies, refusing to delay filling the dam’s reservoir and sticking to its construction schedule.
Some experts warn that Egypt could lose up to 25 percent of its tributary water reserves as a consequence, as well as a third of the electricity generated by its Aswan High Dam.
On Tuesday, representatives from the three countries met once again in Khartoum to brainstorm on a possible solution to the mounting grievances on all sides, albeit a stopgap one.
Meanwhile, like the Nile itself, the tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile water rights ebb and flow, and if a permanent peaceful and equitable solution is not found, regional political and economic stability will indeed be threatened.