Ethiopia started building the Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam two years ago. The hydroelectric power project will use the waters of Ethiopia’s Abai River, which is the primary source of water for Sudan and Egypt.
But when the Morsi government began objecting to Ethiopia’s upstream dam project a few months ago, it quickly discovered that it did not have control over the Abai River – whose basin provides 75 percent of the Nile waters. The Morsi government also found it was going to have trouble with at least eight other countries that were interested in acquiring their own share of Nile waters.
Two previous Nile access treaties were based on river rights the British had guaranteed to colonial-era Egypt and Sudan. But countries at the Nile’s several sources upstream were kept out of those agreements.
That may soon change as the other Nile nations seek to ratify a new agreement, the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI). And here again, Egypt could be a loser in the world’s latest water conflict.
Equal rights on the Nile
“What’s going on in the Nile Basin is to some degree what’s been going on in the Nile basin for many years,” said Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security. “And that is growing competition over the limited resources of the Nile River, increasingly by the upstream nations.”
The era of Egyptian dominance is being replaced by an era “when many more countries, and especially Ethiopia, want to have a say in the ways it’s managed. The potential new agreement and the Abai dam could affect the amount, timing and quality of the water Egypt gets in the future,” said Gleick.
Six upstream countries have signed the new Nile Basin Initiative accord: Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Burundi. Newly independent South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo are also expected to sign.
Each country must also ratify the agreement. Ethiopia’s parliament did so in June and Uganda’s may soon follow.
Sudan stands to be a key beneficiary of a new Nile basin agreement. A completed Abbai dam just across its border would offer Sudan much-needed cheap electrical power and put the country first in line for regulated flows of water from a friendly ally, Ethiopia.
The World Bank encouraged such regional cooperation when it created and funded the NBI process. But a western government official who monitors cross-border water rights issues says reaching an accord on the Nile has been more difficult than achieving similar water management agreements for the Tigris and Euphrates, the Mekong and the Indus rivers.
“At the national and regional level, many have done better,” the official said of the Nile talks.
Power shifts on the Nile
And regional experts say Egypt has been slow and ineffective in protecting its water rights to the Nile compared to other nations in the river basin.
Richard Tutwiler, director of the Desert Development Center at the American University in Cairo, says Egyptian politicians were so consumed with maintaining or winning political power during the recent upheavals that they didn’t pay enough attention to the Nile water negotiations.
“Water was not part of the revolutionary conversation,” said Tutwiler.
According to Eric Trager of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, this lack of attention could cost Egypt dearly.
”Egypt’s eye was not on the ball when it came to these negotiations over the Nile Basin Initiative and [it] was completely caught off guard by the construction of the [Ethiopian] dam,” Trager said.
The problem started well before Morsi took office last year, Trager added, noting that the Mubarak regime had balked at collective ongoing water rights negotiations with its upstream neighbors on the Nile.
At one point, Cairo even suspended its negotiations on an overall accord and tried to negotiate separate deals with some of its upstream neighbors.
“There is not much they can do about it” now, said Harry VerHoeven, a political scientist of the University of Oxford specializing in Nile basin issues. He said Egyptian efforts to block World Bank support of Ethiopia’s water initiatives and dam construction projects got Cairo nowhere.
“The world has changed very much and it is no longer the world of 20 or 30 years ago when Egypt could have veto [on] this sort of thing,” said VerHoeven.
And when Morsi finally realized how serious the situation was becoming for Egypt, he and other politicians began hinting or talking openly about possible military action to halt Ethiopia’s dam construction. But Trager noted that “the military gave a very clear signal it would not tolerate that.”
The generals, he said, were “not prepared to fight a war right now.”
Taking the Nile to court
One possible way to resolving Nile water issues peacefully is the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague, according to Tom Campbell, dean of the Chapman University School of Law and a former Congressman who served on the House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs subcommittee for African Affairs.
Campbell encouraged Ethiopia to take its case to the ICJ early so it could preempt any military conflict over the water rights. This is important, he added, because the court would not intervene in an on-going war.
And Ethiopia is on good legal ground, Campbell said, because legal precedent on trans-border water rights favors existing population needs. Egypt previously sought to expand its water rights on the Nile “to serve new settlements in the Sinai, he said, while Ethiopia was seeking to preserve existing life and livelihood” following severe periodic droughts.
In addition to its legal arguments in favor of Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project, experts say Addis Ababa can make a good political case as well.
First, Ethiopia’s population is now estimated to be slightly larger than that of Egypt. Ethiopia’s economy has grown by 6 percent or more in recent years and its future economic progress now depends heavily on dams for irrigation and for energy production.
The nation’s 12 existing dams are designed to irrigate lands once subject to drought and famine, provide electricity to the majority of Ethiopians who live in rural poverty, boost foreign investment in agriculture and earn needed foreign currency by selling hydroelectric power to its neighbors in the Nile basin at a low price.