The African Union Needs to Resolve Ethiopia’s Dam Dispute
U.S. diplomacy has failed. African diplomacy can’t afford to.
Egypt and Sudan have threatened to withdraw from negotiations over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, which flows into the Nile River. Thus, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan all ultimately share the water of the Blue Nile, but Egypt and Sudan—both of which sit downstream from Ethiopia on the river—fear putting control of a vitally needed water supply in Ethiopia’s hands. The dispute has lasted for years, but with the livelihoods of millions depending on the project and on the smooth flow of the water, it is crucial that the African Union (AU) helps to resolve the deadlock imminently.
Negotiations involving the U.S. Treasury Department and the World Bank have failed, thanks to the perceived U.S. bias toward Egypt, a long-term ally of the United States. Even worse, the United States is now suspending aid to Ethiopia over the dam, a crude threat that worsens the odds of any resolution. But the AU can speak from an African perspective, and a relatively unbiased one. All three states are AU members, and some AU officials have a rich and nuanced understanding of the problems of the Nile Basin.
The $4.6 billion hydroelectric project, which began nearly a decade ago, is being built along the Ethiopian-Sudanese border. From the start, it was a controversial scheme, and the three Nile Basin countries have failed, despite years of negotiations, to reach a trilateral agreement. Ethiopia sees the dam as a means to drive forward its economy by improving access to electricity in a country where up to 65 percent of the population are not connected to the power grid. Egypt however, worries that Ethiopia will have too much control over the Nile, a huge risk given that up to 90 percent of Egypt’s water supply for fresh water and agriculture comes from the river. Sudan is stuck in the middle—literally. On the one hand, it welcomes the idea of Ethiopia being able to produce and supply energy, as it will mean that Sudan can buy cheap hydropower. The dam could also help to prevent floods. But on the other hand, it doesn’t want Ethiopia to become a hegemon fueled by control over the Nile.
Mediation efforts by the African Union, chaired by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, are ongoing, and Ethiopia has welcomed them. Egypt and Sudan have committed to reaching a solution. The first meeting took place in late June, and a follow-up video teleconference chaired by Ramaphosa was held on July 21 with the view of reviewing progress made with the trilateral negotiations.
But any negotiations face a number of tricky points of contention still. To begin with, Egypt does not want the dam to be filled too quickly. It has proposed that the reservoir be filled over a 12- to 20-year period, whereas Ethiopia has argued for a five- to seven-year period so that it can reap the economic rewards of the dam sooner rather than later.
Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt have also been unable to reach any agreement over drought mitigation. Egypt would like assurances that during periods of drought, Ethiopia will not leave too much water in its reservoirs, thus blocking Egyptian farmers from being able to irrigate their lands.
But perhaps most critical is establishing clear mechanisms for managing future disputes or water conflicts. As the climate shifts, such disputes seem inevitable; in the past few years alone East Africa has seen flooding caused by unprecedented levels of rainfall, the worst locust crisis in decades, and severe droughts, all of which have posed a serious threat to food security in the region.
Behind each of these disputes is the fraught relationship between the Nile powers and Ethiopia. Historical treaties established in the 1920s and colonial ties have undoubtedly favored Egypt and Sudan.
The 1929 Nile Waters Agreement between Egypt and Britain, which at the time held colonial power over several Nile Basin countries, gave Egypt the right to veto any projects along the Nile. Likewise, a treaty established in 1959 between Egypt and Sudan apportioned the vast majority of the Nile’s waters to Egypt and a sizable allocation to Sudan. Ethiopia was never consulted for either treaty.
As a result, Egypt in particular thinks of itself as the natural owner of the Nile, which it has dominated for centuries. Ethiopians, in contrast, have been historically unable to exercise any natural rights over the Nile despite the fact that 86 percent of the water that reaches Egypt originally flows from their country. And despite Ethiopia’s heavy natural contribution to the flow of the Nile River, its use of the water has been minimal. The feelings of historical injustice in Ethiopia and the rivalry between Egypt and Ethiopia emanate largely from outdated agreements that need to be reformed.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has echoed the importance of an African-led arbitration. The dam dispute is an African issue and so requires an African solution. Besides, as Ethiopia’s minister for water, irrigation and energy, Seleshi Bekele, has asserted, the resolution of the dispute will help create a pathway for resolving African issues. African-led negotiations should be encouraged and normalized.
The AU understands the importance of regional cooperation among all riparian countries, especially as the African Continental Free Trade Area—the AU’s planned single market for goods and services with free movement of people and investments—begins to take shape. The wider agenda of establishing a single market will require a greater need for pan-African solidarity. As William Davison, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, suggested on The Horn podcast, the Nile Basin needs to be seen as a zone of cooperation and not one of zero-sum competition.
Climate change remains a strong concern, too, as East Africa has grappled with extreme conditions. An interconnected region with a cohesive hydrological ecosystem will help the region’s countries to navigate these challenges in future. The United Nations Development Programme Climate Change Adaptation reports that in the decades ahead, there will be increased incidences of drought and larger volumes of rainfall during rainy seasons combined with prolonged dry seasons. The AU is the only body that can realistically emphasize the need for solidarity, unification, and cooperation and ensure an appropriate mediation process is in place in the event of a drought.
Finally, the Nile dam dispute has been a long protracted process, and arriving at a mutually beneficial solution will not only benefit riparian countries, but will also lend more credence to the AU itself. If the international community begins to play a reduced role in settling disputes across the continent as countries begin to prioritize their own domestic affairs, the AU’s strength and capability will become critical to Africa’s future.