Water is Power

Water Wars Nile
As the water shortage and the impact from the Middle East are shaping northeastern Africa.

In Ethiopia, the construction of the largest African dam and hydroelectric power plant is nearing completion. The Great Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile River has the potential to transform the economy of Ethiopia and bring the revolution into the agricultural sector of its northwestern neighbor, Sudan. But further downstream in Egypt, where 95 percent of the population lives on the banks of the Nile or along its delta, many oppose the defense, seen as a fundamental threat to their way of life. As Ethiopia prepares to end the dam and redirect the Nile waterfall to fill its large artificial lake, an international dispute over the river has reached a critical moment when the dam will be completed or everything will stop. In the following year, Egypt and Ethiopia will either leave their differences aside and move forward – a result that is technically feasible, but politically demanding – or facing a diplomatic slippage.

The story of a defensive dispute, however, is also becoming more and more inseparable from the intensification of the “big game” that takes place throughout East Africa: while Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt compete for influence, the Middle East geopolitics bypasses the Red Sea, it militarizes and polarizes the African Horn. Middle Eastern powers hijack real estate for military and naval bases, taking a farming land and allegedly getting brokers to put pressure on their rivals.

In some cases, the increasing influence and resources of the Gulf countries help achieve a constructive compromise that pushes East Africa forward: a historic peace agreement in July that ended the twenty-year war between Ethiopia and Eritrea was negotiated thanks to the United Arab Emirates’ mediation. In other cases, such as Somalia, Middle East intervention has already made unstable local politics even more explosive by exporting bitter geopolitical disputes across the Red Sea.

Today, both times – escalating into conflict and constructive cooperation – are quite possible in the dispute over the dam as well as throughout the region. Risks from new violence in East Africa, instability in Egypt, mass migrations and threats to key Red Sea passages indicate that the United States, Europe and the international community have interests to ensure that actors on the ground and in the Middle East make wise decisions.


From the British colonial times, the use of the waters of the Nile countries was formed primarily by the bilateral agreement between Egypt and Sudan from 1959, after which a large part of the Nile water was assigned to Egypt, excluding Ethiopia and other upstream countries. The latter condemned the agreement, calling for a more equitable distribution of water, but multiannual attempts to negotiate a wider regional water management treaty proved ineffective.

In spite of a continuing dispute, Ethiopia began building GERD in 2010. For Ethiopian leaders in Addis Ababa, the dam “Renaissance” is both a transformative state infrastructure project and a symbol of their national ambitions. The structure will be nearly 150 meters high and 1,600 meters wide, with an additional auxiliary dam and an artificial lake of nearly 800 square miles. Upon completion, it could keep 74 billion cubic meters of water, which is more than Egypt took over the year. Its 16 turbines will almost triple the existing installed capacity of Ethiopia to generate electricity and enable Ethiopia to make significant exports of electricity to neighboring countries. Construction is a long, arduous process, but, apparently, workers will begin to charge the lake and produce energy next year. Since the dam is financed through domestic funds and issuing bonds to Ethiopian Diaspora around the world, the pressure to complete the project and generate export earnings is high.

Ethiopian neighbor Ethiopia was originally alongside Egypt, opposed to each building of the dam upstream, but its position in the project has changed because the potential benefits of the dam became apparent to Sudanese farmers. Sudan is hit by ruthless seasonal floods, which is why it can not use more than 20 per cent of its arable land, according to an estimate by a diplomat. The GERD could allow the Sudanese eastern region of Gezira to cultivate the country for three seasons, and its own small hydropower plants at Nile could work to create energy, helping to realize its long-term potential for a farming center for African and Arab neighbors. Sudan’s change of attitude may also be the result of his increasingly close relationship with two Egyptian regional rivals, Turkey and Qatar. In addition, Ethiopia has built GERD about 30 km from the Sudanese border, convinced leaders in Khartoum that water will not be diverted from its current through their land.

The advantages of the dams for Ethiopia and Sudan are clear, but its consequences for Egypt, one of the poorest countries in the world, are potentially serious. 85 percent of the water supply for almost 100 million Egyptians goes through Ethiopia. If Ethiopia fills the lake in less than a decade, short-term water supply in Egypt is at risk. But the country will face even more serious long-term dangers when dams regulate the flow of water through Sudanese agricultural areas. Ethiopia generally guarantees that it will charge the lake slow enough not to cause significant damage to Egypt, but it is difficult for Egypt to believe it or accept it. Moreover, the dam comes at a time when his fragile economy finally becomes promising after painful economic reforms. As a result, many Egyptians repeat the statement by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that the dispute over Nile’s defenses is a matter of “life and death.”

From the perspective of engineers, a diplomatic official pointed out that Ethiopia would produce electricity, Sudan would plant crops, and Egypt would drink water. It is superfluous to say that this formula does not work for Egypt, which understandably remains cautious about any progress from the status quo.

The opposing sides are moving between brash and pragmatic conversations. The recent warming of the relationship involves the visit of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abi Ahmed to Cairo, the alleged release of 32 Ethiopian prisoners in Egypt and plans to agree a common vision of the Nile. This could signal progress towards resolution. But bourgeois nationalisms and fears of domestic instability are limiting both sides. No concrete progress has been made nor detailed details of how much Ethiopia will need to fill the dam.

Despite earlier military threats, the future of a direct war between Ethiopia and Egypt remains remotely, given the recent diplomatic rapprochement. Opportunity drivers state that direct wars will rarely occur because cross-border water supply creates interdependence (bombarding the earth upstream, which can divert water supply is not wise). Moreover, the flow of water is rarely all-or-nothing, and a number of mutually beneficial technical solutions certainly exist. Egypt, for its part, strives to keep away from regional adventures, and its army would hardly strike a direct blow to the dam.


The situation further complicates the minimized big game that emerged after the Middle East Middle East re-emergence of the Middle East over the past ten years and its possible consequences for the dispute over the dam. The Arab focus on the Horn is growing since the Gulf countries began investing in African arable land after the 2007 global food price rises rapidly. To a large extent dependent on imports due to food security, the Gulf countries have begun searching for alternatives to global markets by taking fertile land in sub-Saharan Africa. Since then, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and even Turkey have been increasing various forms of investment and engagement.

As the allies are rapidly changing with the inflow of resources and money, a senior European official described the process as a “total mess”. External players in the region “know that with a little money they can get away. Offer 50 million dollars to someone who leads a group and completely change the game.

The fast and unusual nature of this competition – which Annette Webber, an East African expert, characterized as” experimenting “

– means that this already fragile region is becoming more susceptible to escalation.

The inclusion of the Gulf escalated after the Saudi intervention in Yemen in 2015 and the diplomatic dispute with Katar in 2017. As a result, Rog has become more military equipped and regional actors now threaten to provoke rivalry at the local level. At the same time, increased Arab involvement, in particular the UAE’s promise to help Ethiopia amounting to $ 3 billion, points to the possibility of breaking past conflicts and a better way forward.

The interests of the Gulf is not the only reason for resource inflows to East Africa. The United States, China, France and others also stationed the troops there. But the region has played an enormous role in strategy and defense planning. In November 2017, Saudi officials announced the opening of a military base in Djibouti. In the Assab port in Eritrea in 2015, the first foreign military base, the United Arab Emirates, was located, from where the Emirates project enters Yemen.

Meanwhile, Turkey and Qatar, the strategic rivals of Saudi Arabia and the Emirates with some earlier investments in Sudan, have signed contracts worth nearly $ 5 billion with Khartoum over the past year. Contracts also include plans to rent and build a port on Suakin Island on the Red Sea, with talks on creating a port for civilian and military use as Turkey’s third overseas military base with those in Qatar and Somalia. Turkey and Qatar also significantly invested in the central government of Somalia. Recent reports state that Russia is also talking to Khartoum about the Red Sea shipping center.

United Arab Emirates is the most aggressive in expanding military co-operation in the Horn of Africa. Beginning in 2014, Emirates began to assist the Somali government in the training and development of its armed forces. Nevertheless, relations have been complacent in recent years, as the UAE has accused the government of Mogadishu of being too friendly with its rivals Katar and Turkey, while in Somalia there has been a suspicion that the UAE supports rival local forces. The co-operation was abruptly halted in mid-April, after Somali security forces seized 10 million dollars of emirate money in an emirate’s plane.

However, the UAE has set as a priority the acquisition of new regional partners to defend its position in Somalia. Recently, the UAE pledged $ 3 billion in aid to Ethiopia and helped negotiate its rapprochement with Eritrea, another recipient of generous emirate assistance. Some have speculated that the UAE can take advantage of this new-found advantage over Ethiopia to ensure that GERD is easily charged, and a senior emirate official has confirmed this intention to one of our authors. This would avoid short-term water shortages in Egypt, protecting the far greater investment of the Emirate in the domestic stability of the Sisi Government in Cairo. In this way, as Middle Eastern geopolitics penetrates into the region, it could actually help bring the Nile dispute to a diplomatic solution.

Recent emirate peace mediation is a promising development. If it is maintained, that would mean a more constructive path than the UAE and other regional players to date. The choice of the Emirates to prioritize the integration of local actors in their Eastern African engagements over the Middle East exports could significantly improve the perspectives of peace in the region.

Such an outcome, however, is far from safe. The lack of coordination or guarantees among external players, with the risk of security dilemma, forces other actors to compete. Egypt, for example, has accelerated its efforts to modernize the navy and expand military procurement even while conducting an intense military campaign against insurgents in Sinai and imposing austerity measures for which the IMF is responsible. There is no doubt that this strengthening is partly intended to strengthen the power of Egypt on the Red Sea. It is necessary to continue to provide guarantees and information to ensure that Ethiopian security officials do not interpret such steps as achieving their long-standing fears of the Arab environment.


Since the Middle Eastern powers have increased their presence across the region, the Western powers and international organizations have so far failed to leave their mark on the dispute over the dam. In the past few years, the United States did not want to deal with this problem, but their policies in the Middle East and North Africa instead focused on revolutions, civil war and ISIS. These days, space for US participation is limited by the chaotic process of the Trump administration. At the technical level, the European Union proposes various solutions, and the World Bank remains open to facilitate negotiations between the parties. Until recently, these efforts have come to the hedge of distrust, nationalism, regional rivalry and the lack of US attention at a high level. As the dam begins to charge, an abstract future threat becomes the daily reality that needs to be dealt with, and the period of diplomatic negotiation stands before us.

For American officials, holding hands and working at technocratic level can be favorable. But this can cost them because of the lack of senior officials who would design constructive solutions for foreign leaders. If the United States is more seriously engaged, they could benefit from long-standing ties with Egypt, increasing the advantage over Sudan through recent diplomatic successes and significant US security assistance in Ethiopia. The internal problems of the Trump administration are complicated by the matter, but the United States can and should calmly and constructively encourage preventive diplomacy among the coastal states.

The dispute over the dam represents a unique challenge for American politicians. Issues that share regional expertise and functional terrain and expertise can fail through bureaucratic cracks. The Nile dispute binds Middle Eastern and African offices in the State Department and the Pentagon, and also requires technical expertise in cross-border disputes. Some State Department officials make strenuous efforts to overcome critical issues and allow US diplomats to present a unique front in Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa. Such efforts – as well as clear, consistent support from the leadership – are vital to ensure that the political process is not deformed by clientelism or excessive emphasis on political-military issues at the expense of functional expertise.

The successful involvement of the United States will also require the involvement of various international stakeholders. The beginning is working together with the European Union – which has wisely appointed a coordinator for East Africa – as well as Nordic donors and international financial institutions to offer technical advice and money as incentives for co-operation of local parties. Gulf countries and Turkey must also be part of any regional dialogue: just as their competition can aggravate local disputes, their diplomatic offices, aid and investments in areas such as water efficiency and cross-border energy infrastructure could help peacefully mingle the region. As one diplomat warned us,

we can not afford a policy that breaks the region into a number of countries. Everything is coming back in this region.

Challenges that will bring the dispute around the dam will surely take place in other contexts as well. First, the Arab-African ties are becoming more and more important. Gulf countries, with their enormous wealth, but smaller food stocks, bear the bulk of responsibility. In the meantime, the movement of terrorists and smugglers through the Sahel desert linking the Arab Maghreb with sub-Saharan Africa shows that tomorrow’s security problems will be difficult to fit into the framework of the existing American bureaucracy. The question is not whether these Arab-African ties will deepen, but can they constructively deepen – and how the Arab engagement in northeastern Africa will change once the Yemeni war on the other side of the Red Sea finally ends.

Likewise, you do not need to accept the claim that climate change has contributed to undermining Arab unrest in 2011 to make it clear that foreign policy challenges are increasingly appearing at a crossroads of nature and national security, where climate change and other human-induced changes in the environment are exacerbating diplomatic disputes . These hybrid challenges cover not only the usually separate spheres of politics in the Middle East and Africa, but also the traditional political-military interests of regional experts and the functional expertise of hydrologists and engineers. From the Gaza crisis to the threat of a major tsunami in the interior of the collapse of the Mosul defenses, political leaders will increasingly have to devise processes using the talents of a broader diapason of technical experts. As climate change accelerates and causes further displacement, we have every reason to believe that this trend will only intensify.

(NYT / TBT, Foreign Affairs)