The Conflicted Nile Basin: Future Challenges and the Way Out

  • The conflict in the Nile basin over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) will go beyond the current riparian states’ dispute over the filling timeline of the reservoirs. 
  • Though an armed conflict among these countries is unlikely to happen, the prevailing economic, climate, and political realities of the region will induce new complexities and conflict in the basin. 
  • Only a sustainability-oriented and basin-wide administrative mechanism with decision making mandate can responsively transform the emerging conflicts among the riparian states. 

The conflict in the Nile basin over the construction of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has entered a critical standoff among the riparian countries. Ethiopia, the upstream country, has almost completed the construction of the controversial dam on the Nile. The country is now moving aggressively to start filling the reservoirs that could potentially reduce the flow of water downstream. Egypt and Sudan, the two lower riparian countries, are opposing filling the reservoirs before reaching an agreement among the three countries. They demand a longer timeline for filling the reservoirs. 

In 2011, Ethiopia resorted to build the multibillion dollars mega dam merely for hydropower production. As the most populous landlocked country in the world, Ethiopia has long been due for restructuring its economy. Its freshwater resources offer the country unmatched potential to materialize the vision of a dynamic economy. Accordingly, the 6000 MW potential hydropower that the dam will harness is anticipated to jumpstart Ethiopia’s economy through electrification and generating revenues by exporting power. The country has already launched its National Electrification Program (NEP) that is aimed at alleviating poverty and promoting prosperity.

Given that the construction of the dam is near completion, the conflict in the basin has reached its tipping point. A series of negotiations facilitated by regional and international mediators, including the United States and the African Union, have failed to transform the conflict. Even the punitive measures sanctioned by the U.S against Ethiopia for rejecting the U.S. led negotiation with Egypt and Sudan apparently did not help resolve the conflict. Egypt, the most downstream riparian country and heavily dependent on the Nile water, has already hinted at military options, if Ethiopia failed to address its concerns. Given the situation, the lingering question is if these riparian countries are moving towards waging the ever first water war?  

The possibility of the conflict escalating to an armed conflict among the co-riparian states is unlikely. This is based on two reasons: historical precedent and active diplomacy. Historically, there is no evidence, systematic or anecdotal, to suggest the ever existence of water wars between riverine countries. Diplomatically, regional and international actors are alert about the potential costs and implications of a possible armed conflict between the three riparian countries. The region is already home to various conventional and unconventional security threats including internal armed conflicts, political instabilities and development issues, inter alia. As such, an armed conflict will further deteriorate the situation in the region with broader rippling effects. To avoid this, international actors have been active in their efforts and engagement to mitigate and prevent the escalation of the conflict. However, inter-riparian conflicts seem to be a new normal in the basin. 

In general, the economics behind large dams are complicated and controversial. Based on the utilitarian logic, hydropower contributes to poverty alleviation through macroeconomic pathways, including economic growth and expansion of the national power grid. However, reviewing the history of large dams built since the 1950s reveals a more complicated relationship between hydropower, electrification, and poverty alleviation. Although the proponents of large dams including the World Bank, promote building hydropower for alleviating poverty, empirical studies portray a different and mostly puzzling picture. 

In Brazil, a study found that, in the long-term, the socio-economic benefits of large hydropower lack empirical support. Similarly, studies in Indian districts and in Africa depicted that constructing large dams increased poverty rate and reduced agricultural wages, respectively. Another study revealed that the reported socio-economic benefits of large dams are largely exaggerated. Despite over two trillion USD were spent on building over 50,000 large dams around the world, these efforts have failed in meeting the anticipated goal of hydropower production

This article argues that the GERD in Ethiopia will find it difficult to beat the odds and become a success story. By considering the pattern established by large hydropower projects, the dam is unlikely to materialize the anticipated goals of industrialization and prosperity. Such a scenario of falling short in harnessing the anticipated hydropower may push Ethiopia to breach its initial commitment of using the dam merely for hydropower. Somewhere down the road, the country – based on utilitarian or political reasons – may diversify the mandate of the dam to other purposes, including irrigation. Unlike hydropower, irrigation is a highly consumptive use of water, which will further exacerbate water scarcity and insecurity of the downstream countries.

Another reason that can potentially instigate new conflicts among the three riparian countries is the severe and frequent manifestations of climate change in the region. Egypt and Sudan are in one of the driest regions on earth—North Africa. In addition, the region is highly vulnerable to decreasing runoff in its rivers. In general, diversions and dams are the main drivers for freshwater losses in river basins, which exacerbate water insecurity and complicate transboundary water management

The high dependency of both Egypt and Sudan on water intensive irrigated agriculture and increasing demand for energy will further exacerbate their freshwater stress levels. As such, by obstructing the free flow of water down the Nile, the GERD will keep intensifying water scarcity downstream, which will bring new challenges for managing water and its allocation in the basin. This will further complicate the relationship between the riparian states.  

Another factor that has potential to instigate conflicts between the riparian countries is the political nature of shared water. These waters have nationalistic, symbolic, and emotional aspects, which appeal to each riparian country and people in the basin. These attachments become more alluring and prominent during times of scarcity and can shape the nature of inter-riparian state relationships. For example, during times of severe scarcity, water in the Jordan River basin tends to transform to a highly crisis-oriented, contagious, and zero-sum power source among the riparian countries. This made the conflict among the states persistent and difficult to resolve. In the Nile basin, with the intensifying water scarcity in the region, the political establishment of the riparian countries will use the nationalistic fervour attached to shared water to sway public attention from their domestic political and policy related shortfalls. Instead of embracing the challenging task of bringing about structural changes and reforms in the water sector, it is easy to invoke populist nationalistic emotions about water grabbing by the other riparian state. 

These scenarios suggest that the construction and the subsequent operationalization of the GERD will give rise to new complexities in the riparian states’ relationships. A potential agreement over the filling of the reservoir is unlikely to be the end of the saga in the basin. Beyond the current conflict, the prevailing economic, climatic, and political circumstances in the region will bring new challenges, fears, and insecurities to the basin with the potential for new conflicts. 

Given the new and emerging realities in the basin, establishing a basin wide administrative mechanism is necessary for creating a responsive and cooperative dynamic among the riparian countries. Such a mechanism needs to have decision making power, not merely consultative. Its purpose should be aimed at creating sustainable co-benefits for the communities within the basin and not solely at optimizing the utilization of the basin’s water for economic development. The sustainability orientation of the mechanism is necessary to ensure coupling the co-riparian states’ rights with those of the people, the communities, and the river itself. By holding up the basin’s integrity as one of the guiding principles, such a mechanism can prevent zero-sum manoeuvres of the riparian states in the watershed.    

Atal is a Postdoctoral Researcher. He holds a Ph.D. in Global Affairs from Rutgers-University. His specialization and research focus falls within the thematic intersection of environment, resource conflicts, and development. In the capacity of Adjunct Faculty, he has taught courses related to global development, and sustainability, and research methodologies.

3 thoughts on “The Conflicted Nile Basin: Future Challenges and the Way Out

  • Avatar
    December 8, 2020 at 5:59 pm
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    One sided article …

    While mentioning the failures of large hydropower dams ….please include the success stories of….Three Gorges Dam , and the importance of Aswan dam to Egyptian economy….

    The first round filling of the dam only took 15 summer days….without any notice/complain on water reduction by the riparian countries….

    The US negotiation has ended up by taking side for Egypt and forcing Ethiopia to accept the deal proposed by the US…by overriding the principles of negotiation

    the approach of egypt to the GERD…emanates from the believe that egypt is the sole owner of Nile….And economic threat that assumes the production of cheap electricity in Ethiopia will attract investments that would strengthen the dominance of Ethiopia in the region.

    Reply
    • December 20, 2020 at 5:31 pm
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      Hi Eyouel, 

       

      Thank you for your comment and engagement in the discussion. The points you raised are relevant. Let me address them briefly: 

      The benefits of large dams: The debate on the role of large dams in development is highly contagious and unsettled among the pro and skeptics of large dams. In a nutshell, it depends how someone looks at the benefits of these dams. Looking to it from a utilitarian perspective, you can claim different benefits of large dams. However, if you look at the role of large dams from human-centered/human security, non-utilitarian, and non aggregate view, then large dams’ contribution to development is challenged and dwarfed. Specifically to your point about the Three Gorges Dam, it has a long bumpy road journey ahead to prove its efficiency and benefits. It is by no means a success story. Ecological, developmental, and even structural concerns are emerging about this mega project. And there are many reliable papers that discuss such risks of the dam. 

       

      Filling Reservoirs during the flooding season: This is a common claim/justification by all the upper riparian countries to tone down their conflicts with other riparian states. Above and beyond paying lip service, such a claim needs to be adjudicated and substantiated with concrete measures and deeds, mainly data generation and sharing mechanisms. Such measures, to be effective and reliable, can only be ensured through a joint coordination mechanism. Unilateral claims and measures cannot satisfy the demands, needs, and wants of all parties in a riparian conflict. 

      Reply
  • Avatar
    December 8, 2020 at 6:01 pm
    Permalink

    One sided article …

    While mentioning the failures of large hydropower dams ….please include the success stories of….Three Gorges Dam , and the importance of Aswan dam to Egyptian economy….

    The first round filling of the dam only took 15 summer days….without any notice/complain on water reduction by the riparian countries….

    The US negotiation has ended up by taking side for Egypt and forcing Ethiopia to accept the deal proposed by the US…by overriding the principles of negotiation

    the approach of egypt to the GERD…emanates from the believe that egypt is the sole owner of Nile….And economic threat that assumes the production of cheap electricity in Ethiopia will attract investments that would strengthen the dominance of Ethiopia in the region.

    Reply

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