Egypt’s Nile Blues

Ethiopia is forging ahead with the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile, which it began more than three years ago, despite Egypt’s protests. 

Unlike Egypt, Sudan has not raised objections to the dam, reckoning that it could gain from the project by purchasing electricity, and perhaps reducing sediments in its own water reservoirs.

Ethiopia’s actions have profound consequences for the rules of the game governing the Nile’s flow, and its distribution among the African nations situated on the river’s banks.

Egypt is currently gripped by grave domestic and foreign policy problems. But the importance of the Nile — virtually the country’s only source of water — for Egypt’s long-term livelihood, and that of its economy, does not allow the new administration to waste any time in finding ways to minimize the dam’s impact. To succeed, the state needs to establish solid domestic, regional and international positions.  

Some observers maintain that 20th century arrangements for exploiting the Nile’s water, which are highly skewed in favor of Egypt and Sudan, represent Egyptian hydro-hegemony, or water-related dominance. This opinion is based on the many power attributes — economic, financial, military and technical — that, until recently, Egypt possessed and Ethiopia lacked.  

But this is not an entirely sound portrayal of the power configuration on the Nile.

Hegemony might have prevailed while Britain was the colonial ruler capable of projecting its force upstream. Once Britain was out of the region, however, Egypt could no longer dictate.

That Egypt and Sudan were able to divide the entire discharge of the Nile water among themselves was thanks to Ethiopia’s lack of finance and technical wherewithal, which was exacerbated by domestic strife. With or without the Sudanese dams or the Aswan High Dam, in all likelihood Ethiopia would not have diverted much water, and the river would have coursed to the Mediterranean and been harnessed along the way, as it had always been.

It was, then, Ethiopia’s own absence, rather than the imposing presence of Egypt or Sudan, that kept the uppermost stream state from taking advantage of its fortunate perch on the river. 

To understand Egypt’s bargaining position and its future options, it’s helpful to pause and consider further how hegemony works.

Whether or not a state enjoys a hegemonic position in a shared watercourse is revealed in its ability to prevent one or more states from retaining significant amounts of its flow. Take, for example, the Euphrates River, which originates in Turkey and descends to Syria, then Iraq.  

In that river basin, it could be said that Turkey acted as the hegemon. It could, and did, build a series of dams sufficient to keep the entire flow within its borders. It has not acceded to Iraq and Syria’s demands for equal division of the flow.  

Turkey’s hegemony is abetted by its upstream position, in addition to its economic, military and diplomatic capabilities. Syria and Iraq, whose stream location is akin to that of Sudan and Egypt on the Nile, have failed to alter this set-up.

Even here, though, hegemony is not absolute, and power is a continuum. It is not difficult to imagine that the expansion of economic and political interests with Arab neighbors would act as an incentive for Turkey to be more forthcoming.

In a sense, the gauge of Egypt’s power in the basin will be its ability to influence the operation of the GERD and the uses of the impounded water. The dam’s storage capacity of 74 billion cubic meters — of which 59 is active — is about 1.5 times the average yearly flow of the entire Blue Nile, estimated at around 48 billion cubic meters, with heavy fluctuations.

According to a review of the documents of the dam’s design and construction conducted last year by an international panel of specialists — including experts from Egypt and Ethiopia — the dam’s effect on the flow into the Aswan High Dam depends mainly on two contingencies: the speed of filling the dam’s reservoir, and the rainfall level during the years of filling.  

A shorter filling period and low rainfall could substantially reduce the water in Lake Nasser and the Nubian lands behind the Aswan High Dam. The panel recommended more substantive studies to verify this conclusion, and a more thorough examination of the project’s downstream environmental effects. 

The initial conditions under which Ethiopia’s dam is filled constitute only one potentially major difficulty for Egypt. The long-term concern is the water volume Ethiopia plans to draw for irrigation. Generating hydropower necessitates the release of the water, even if the timing of discharge may not be optimal for Egypt, whereas irrigation consumes the bulk of it.

The rules under which the GERD is completed are also likely to set a precedent for future dam construction by Ethiopia and the rest of the Nilotic states.  Taking into account the fact that the Blue Nile contributes about 60 percent of the total flow of the Nile measured at Aswan — mainly from Ethiopia — it is not an exaggeration to say that the Nile’s hydropolitics are at a turning point, and Egyptians cannot help but be apprehensive.

The core issue that urgently confronts Egypt today is how to allocate the Nile basin water among the 11 protagonists in the story. Egypt maintains that it has an acquired, or prior-use, water right of 55.5 billion cubic meters annually, most of which is earmarked for irrigation — roughly 1,000 cubic meters are needed for the food production per person every year. This quantity is inscribed in the 1959 Egyptian-Sudanese treaty that enabled Egypt to build the Aswan High Dam.

The allocation for Sudan is 18.5 billion cubic meters — or one-third of Egypt’s share — and 10 billion cubic meters for evaporation. The sum total of the three quantities, 84 billion cubic meters, constitutes the estimated average annual flow of the Nile at Aswan. 

The 1959 treaty is an extension of the 1929 accord that divided the water between the two countries during British colonial rule, and of other earlier agreements and understandings between Britain, Ethiopia and Italy, its former colonial master.  

Ethiopia and other states in the upper reaches of the river argue that the 1959 accord is a colonial vestige fashioned against their will, and must be scrapped. In 2010, seven of the upstream countries issued a Cooperative Framework Agreement for joint water management of the basin, and invited Egypt and Sudan to add their signatures. Both declined — Egypt because the framework did not sanction its historic water allowance, while Sudan seemed to prefer the ambiguity that it believed would best serve its interests.

The GERD could be viewed as a translation of the framework into material fact, or at least as a tactic to force Egypt’s hand into signing the agreement.

To lessen the injurious consequences of the GERD, in theory Egypt has several options. A military strike has sometimes been floated by officials and in the media. Yet, even if — and that’s a big if— it is logistically possible, an armed intervention is counterproductive both politically, and as a method of securing adequate water supply in the long run.  Such an act would further inflame an already mobilized Ethiopian public against Egypt, and would also provoke the ire of many countries in the African Union, which already revoked Egypt’s membership after former President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster.

The new administration in Cairo would therefore be courting adversaries by taking the military route, at a time when it seeks to win hearts and minds following its severe crackdown on domestic political opposition. And it would only offer a fleeting reprieve before Ethiopia resumes construction on the dam and strengthens its military.  It is hard to imagine any sane leadership getting embroiled in such a misadventure.

Another option is for Egypt to take the case for arbitration to the World Court of Justice in The Hague, which would require Ethiopia’s consent. Alternatively, Egypt could go alone to test its position, even if the verdict in the case would be non-binding. There is a big risk that the World Court would not endorse Egypt’s prior-use claims, and instead invoke the other principle of international water law — equitable utilization.

Equitable utilization sees prior-use as only one among many factors for the allotment of water among the parties on an international watercourse. The principle is a key item in the shared vision of the now-moribund Nile Basin Initiative, a cooperative venture launched in 1999 with the participation of all the Nile nations. There is no reason why that vision cannot be the basis of future negotiations, which the 2010 cooperative framework misguidedly replaced with the non-legal, and potentially incendiary, language of water security.

A third option is for Egypt to deploy its soft power — trade, diplomatic activity, technical assistance and civil society diplomacy. A chief hurdle here is that Egypt itself has come to resemble a “soft power.” It is gripped domestically by an avalanche of economic problems made more acute by a dysfunctional state apparatus, political instability, repression and terrorism.  Could this unhappy situation be remedied before national political reconciliation is achieved?

And internationally, Egypt — which prides itself on being the most populous country in the Arab world and the hub of the region — squandered much of its former clout following late President Anwar Sadat’s separate peace with Israel, and the subsequent sclerosis that distinguished deposed President Hosni Mubarak’s regional policy.

The relationship with the Nile basin states has not fared any better. During both the Sadat and Mubarak administrations, Egypt concentrated on its relations with major powers and Israel — but effectiveness in bargaining over the Nile’s waters is tied to the solidity of its regional standing. Regaining some of its former regional weight is conditional on Egypt starting a new, active African and Arab policy and inclusive discourse, in place of the loud xenophobia of the last year.

Finally, the Egyptian government needs to introduce water conservation policy in the agricultural land along the Nile and the Delta — the “old land” — that increases water productivity, meaning producing more from the same volume of water. In effect, saving water makes more water available, giving the government greater leeway in the negotiations. Equally important, the policy may help persuade Ethiopia and other countries that Egypt is serious about securing water supply for all.

Water conservation in the old land is a complex enterprise that involves finance, technology and social and institutional reforms. Its success is predicated on the government being transparent with the public about the situation on the Nile, the risks of losing water and the likely outcomes from negotiations.

Following the Egyptian media, one gets the impression that the government has explained little to its citizens about the GERD, or the myriad of things that need to be, could be or could not be done about it.

It may be said that this is a tall order. Unfortunately, so it is, but the sooner the order is in place, the better the chances of fruitful discussions with the great river’s upstream states.

Welcome to the real world, President Sisi!

This article is published jointly with Jadaliyya.

Sharif S Elmusa 

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