Nile Politics: Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan to Meet Regarding Grand Renaissance Dam

A few weeks ago, I looked at the regional politics of sharing water from the Nile River in the wake of Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi’s death. The conflict between upstream and downstream Nile countries over water usage has historically pitted Ethiopia and the upstream countries against Egypt and Sudan. In Meles’ final years, Ethiopia began pursuing a more aggressive strategy, including the construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam, set to be completed in 2018. The Dam has been a source of tension between Ethiopia and Egypt, and Meles’ successors have continued to pursue the project.

Alongside disagreement, however, Egypt and Ethiopia have made efforts at dialogue. This week brings news that may help reduce tensions. From the Africa Report:

A tripartite commission, established by Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan will meet on 8 October 2012 in Addis Ababa to discuss the impact of Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam on the three other countries.

[...]

The commission, established after Egypt raised alarm, will discuss the effects of the Ethiopian on both Egypt and Sudan.

However, Ethiopia maintains that the dam over the Nile River will not affect either Egypt or Sudan.

Ethiopia seems unwilling to halt construction of the Dam, but it is possible that the commission could produce some agreements and compromises. With or without the Dam, the situation is unsustainable – by 2017, even under the status quo, experts predict that Egypt’s share of the Nile will be insufficient for its needs. And in the meantime the upstream countries’ water needs and dissatisfaction will only grow. The two sides will eventually need a mechanism to settle the dispute. Hopefully the commission will represent a step in that direction.

Nile Politics in a Post-Meles Era

Conflict and tension between upstream and downstream countries over the use of the Nile River has been going on for years. But changes in leadership in the Nile region could affect the course of the struggle. Egypt, the leader of the downstream bloc, and Ethiopia, the leader of the upstream bloc, both have new heads of state. At a recent meeting between Sudanese President Omar al Bashir and Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi shows, parts of the status quo will remain in place, but other parts may be set to change.

Kenya’s Africa Review reports (Kenya is one of the upstream countries):

In what must be construed as a warning to the other Nile waters sharing countries, both President Bashir and his Egyptian counterpart reaffirmed their countries “identical position” in regards to the water dispute.

Mr Morsy’s spokesperson did not hide the fact that the issue of the Nile Water is “an Egyptian national security issue”. The two countries receive 55 billion ( Egypt) and 18.5 billion ( Sudan) cubic meters of water annually thanks to a series of agreements that date back to 1929 and drawn by Britain when it was the main colonising power over much of the continent.

The upstream countries maintain that these agreements, which also give the two countries veto powers over projects deemed as “harmful’ to their interests, where [sic] signed during the “colonial era, and should be rewritten to allow countries to equally share in the river’s economic potential.”

One of Egypt long standing objectives over the body of water is that it would never consider the calls for a decrease in its annual share, in fact it would actively seek to increase it – already both Egypt and Sudan control approximately 87 per cent of the water resources of the Nile.

Back in 2010 then Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif, following the signing of the the Cooperative Framework Agreement water treaty by Uganda, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Tanzania, flatly stated Egypt’s annual share would not be affected.

That view has pretty much remained unchanged in the eyes of the newly elected government and whilst it also seeks to increase that share, it has been at pains to add that this is “through cooperation and coordination with the Nile Basin countries”, not unilaterally.

In the midst of continuity – Egypt and Sudan against the upstream countries – there is also some change, at least in the diplomatic tone Egypt takes. Africa Review writes that “President Morsy’s government has gone on a charm offensive with its African counterparts,” adding, “What steps Khartoum and Cairo will take is still unclear, but the signs do point to a more conciliatory tone though not to the extent where they will agree nor accept the demands of the other Nile Basin countries unconditionally.”

Read about Morsi’s July visit to Ethiopia here.

How will the death of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who had ruled Ethiopia since 1991, affect Nile politics? Meles’ most ambitious move on the Nile issue as of late was the Grand Renaissance Dam, projected to be one of the largest dams in the world. Construction began in April, and by late May 10% of the dam had been completed, with the project set to finish in 2018. So far, it looks as though the project will remain on track even without Meles there to oversee it. The International Monetary Fund recently suggestion that Ethiopia slow down the project, but the government refused:

Ethiopia’s government won’t reschedule construction of the Grand Renaissance dam, said Communications Minister Bereket Simon, who co-chairs a fundraising committee for the plant.

“It was a well-considered plan and it’s one of the mega projects for which the government commits itself unconditionally,” Bereket said in a phone interview [September 13].

The Grand Renaissance Dam has caused substantial alarm in Egypt, which fears the project may reduce its water supply. Experts project that by 2017, even Egypt’s current share of the waters will be insufficient for its population’s needs. Egypt may attempt, then, to frustrate the Renaissance Dam project by “lobby[ing] foreign donors and international organisations to withhold financing for the dam because of the adverse impacts on its economy.”

The existence of South Sudan adds another complication to the status quo. The National writes,

The 1959 treaty did not foresee an independent South Sudan, and the implications for Juba’s share of Nile waters. Like most post-secession issues between Sudan and South Sudan, the South’s allocation of Nile waters is not agreed. Nor is Khartoum, like Cairo before it, likely to easily give ground to a state upstream. The acrimonious relationship between Juba and Khartoum is unlikely to help.

Tension with Khartoum has not, however, prevented Juba from taking action. As part of its strategy to meet the country’s energy needs, South Sudan has stated that it will build dams on the White Nile and its tributaries. Reuters reports, “One of the most ambitious plans is the construction of a 540-megawatt Bedden dam across the White Nile south of Juba, but the government has not yet provided details of funding for the $1.5 billion, seven-to-eight-year project.” As details on this and other projects emerge, South Sudan’s role in the new politics of Nile water usage will become clearer.

As populations grow, the Nile issue will only become more urgent over time. The new leaders of Egypt and Ethiopia, no matter how friendly the tone of their diplomatic interactions, will face difficult choices in the coming years about how and whether to share the waters.