Europe can help prevent a ‘water war’ over Ethiopia’s Nile dam


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Dimitrios Kantemnidis
Dimitrios Kantemnidis

Managing Director of Lesvos Migration Reception Center and Environmental Security Researcher at the Aegean University and the European Security and Defense College

“The next war in the Middle East will be fought over water, not politics,” Egypt’s former foreign minister, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, warned in 1985. The grandson of Egypt’s first Coptic prime minister, Boutros Ghali Pasha, and later the sixth United Nations Secretary-General, knew how to grab international attention. His prophecy is starkly topical today in his own country after Ethiopia announced the second phase of filling its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a mega-dam on the Nile River, upstream from Sudan and Egypt.

The $4.6bn project, started in 2011 by an Italian company and funded to a large extent by China, involves the construction of a 45 GW hydroelectric power station. In 2012, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan agreed to form a three-member committee to promote cooperation on the dam’s benefits and consequences. However, disagreements and tensions have arisen over the years. Egypt, which relies on the Nile for 90% of its freshwater, fears the barrage will reduce its supply and has threatened to use military force to ensure its water security.

The international community has been unable to reach an agreement on the operation of Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam. The United States and the African Union have tried unsuccessfully to mediate. In 2020, Egypt referred the issue to the UN Security Council, which also struggled to find a solution. Following the most recent talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia in Kinshasa in April 2021, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi warned Ethiopia not to “touch a drop of Egypt’s water, because all options are open”. Nevertheless, the Ethiopian Water Minister, Seleshi Bekele, announced that the second filling will take place and “we don’t deviate from that at all”. Ethiopia rejects Sudan’s proposal to include the European Union, the UN and the US in negotiations, arguing that Africans should solve African problems.

The EU should deal pro-actively with this crisis, which has the potential to directly affect the Union’s security

So far, the EU has not given the issue the attention it deserves, given the risk of destabilising the entire region. On 17 July, High Representative Josep Borrell urged the states involved to reach a collective agreement, emphasising that it would benefit the entire Nile Basin by fostering trust, reducing tensions and generating investment. On the other hand, 22 non-governmental organisations asked the UN Security Council to treat the conflict as a matter of top priority and stressed that “it is of great concern that some media pronouncement from top level authorities in these countries show no compromise, often hinting that the situation could degenerate into full-blown military confrontation.”

Just a few days ago, the European Parliament delivered its first in-depth analysis on the security threats posed by climate change to Europe. The report notes that the Ethiopian dam will not affect Egypt’s water security unless there is a prolonged drought. However, in the case of a multi-year drought, clear guarantees are required to ensure that water is released to meet the basic needs of downstream states. The same analysis recommends three actions for the EU to take to advance its climate security agenda: measurable military goals and planning in regard to climate change; expanded climate engagement under the Common Security and Defence Policy; and political leadership “to move from rhetoric to practice on climate security”.

The EU should deal pro-actively with this crisis, which has the potential to directly affect the Union’s security, threatening another humanitarian disaster on Europe’s doorstep. Six issues need to be addressed if the GERD project is to result in a peaceful outcome among the three countries: transparency, EU diplomatic involvement, resolution of larger political disagreements between the three countries, technical matters, oversight agreements, and an arbitration mechanism.

The EU should gain a clear understanding of the situation in the region. Not only as an observer to the AU’s processes, but as a participant in the discussions to ensure that the real risks and benefits are identified and quantified. An older project, the Gibe III dam, demonstrated how governments frequently suppress information and present a false picture. The $5bn dam on the Omo River in Ethiopia, which was financed by the World Bank, has raised serious environmental and social concerns. In 2015, EU diplomats who visited the Omo Valley reported that construction of the dam caused land grabbing, inter-tribal raiding, poorly planned resettlements, financial mismanagement and widespread abuses by the Ethiopian government. Anyone affected by the GERD project should have a voice, and the EU should assist in this effort.

Aside from the dam’s construction, the three countries have other political disagreements that trigger security concerns

The EU should draw on its diplomatic assets to shift from being a passive observer to an active mediator. Egypt and Sudan held military exercises in April following deadlock in discussions with Ethiopia over the second filling of the dam. Egypt is the world’s third-largest arms importer, while France is the country’s second-largest arms supplier, after Russia. Ethiopia’s weapons providers include Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Bulgaria. EU member states should use their trade power to persuade their customers to avoid armed conflict. The EU should seek to ensure that the Nile Basin conflict is managed in a way that promotes dialogue, even if other areas of cooperation remain problematic.

Aside from the dam’s construction, the three countries have other political disagreements that trigger security concerns. Egypt’s aspiration for regional dominance has long led Ethiopians to believe that it is attempting to keep Ethiopia weak and is covertly involved in the Tigray crisis. Sudan and Ethiopia also have serious border disputes as both countries seek to assert their sovereignty over the al-Fashaga fertile lands. The EU may act as a go-between, ensuring that an agreement on the dam opens the way to resolving those larger political concerns between the three countries.

Regarding the technical aspects, the EU could provide scientific expertise on reservoir operations, power trade agreements, dam safety and salinisation control. The only independent study on the project was conducted in 2015 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sponsored by independent contributors. The authors emphasised: “We support Ethiopia’s right to develop its water resources for the well-being of the Ethiopian people, and we believe that water storage facilities on the Blue Nile are economically and financially attractive investments.” However, they noted several technical concerns that could be resolved if the Ethiopian government were to disclose reliable information unavailable to the international community. An independent committee should be formed at the request of the EU, in partnership with the UN and the AU, to conduct an updated technical study.

Since climate change may alter the dam’s operation, an ad hoc arbitration mechanism and an oversight agreement should be established. Ethiopia has rejected Egypt’s request to monitor the dam’s functioning but the EU could establish a neutral oversight group to oversee it. This initiative could be led by an international figure respected by all three countries to act in the public interest. Civil society should be included in the oversight process to contribute development know-how. Lastly, because environmental conditions are volatile and dynamic, the three countries should be able to raise concerns through an ad hoc arbitration mechanism.

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