Disputes over the filling and operation of Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam have, once again, led to a breach of security in North-East Africa.
The dam – a huge project on one of the River Nile’s main tributaries, the Blue Nile in Ethiopia – is designed to generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity. Its reservoir can hold more than 70 billion cubic metres of water. That’s nearly equal to half of the Nile’s annual flow. Filling the immense reservoir will diminish the flow of the Nile.
Tensions have been particularly acute between Egypt and Ethiopia because more than 80% of the water reaching Egypt comes from the Blue Nile.
Diplomatic spats between Addis Ababa and Cairo are not new. Since the early 1990s, the two countries have held various talks on the Nile but these usually end in a stalemate and the threat of military recourse by Egypt.
The current disputes have imperial roots, starting with Britain’s occupation of Egypt in 1882. Egypt became independent in 1922, though British influence remained strong for another three decades until the last British troops left in 1956.
During the scramble for Africa, controlling the source of the Nile was a major colonial goal for the British. Various agreements – including the Nile Treaties – where established to achieve this.
Great Britain’s textile industries depended on Egyptian cotton, which relied on irrigation using the River Nile’s water. To conserve water during the rainy seasons for dry seasons, British hydrologists developed a plan called the Century Storage Scheme.
The plan envisaged the regulating the Nile waters along different seasons and years (drought and flood) by building several dams and reservoirs in Ethiopia and other upstream countries. The plan ruled out storing the Nile waters in downstream countries, mainly because of immense water losses that could happen due to evaporation.
But the plan had one major flaw. It didn’t consider the interests of nine upstream countries including Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Its aim was to safeguard Great Britain’s interests.
The 1902 Anglo-Ethiopian Treaty was an agreement between Great Britain, on behalf of Sudan (under British rule), and Ethiopia. Although the main purpose of the treaty was to determine the boundary between Ethiopia and Sudan, Ethiopia undertook “not to construct or allow to be constructed, any work across the Blue Nile, Lake Tana, or the Sobat, which would arrest the flow of their waters into the Nile except in agreement with His Britannic Majesty’s Government of the Sudan.”
In addition to this, a Treaty in 1959 allocated the bulk of the Nile’s waters to Egypt, 55.5 billion cubic meters (BCM) (or 66%) of the rivers total 84 BCM water flow. Sudan was allocated 18.5 BCM (22%) and the rest, 10 BCM (12%), was left for evaporation. The treaty did not recognize the rights of upstream countries, including Ethiopia whose territory contributes more than 85% of the Nile.
Upon independence, Britain’s former East African colonies rejected the validity of the Nile Water Treaties, arguing that they were not part to them because they had no role in the formation and conclusion of those treaties.
Ethiopia asserts that there is no legal ground to stop Addis Ababa from equitably using the Nile waters. The obligation imposed in the 1902 Anglo- Ethiopian Treaty does not prohibit Ethiopia from using the Nile waters, even without the consent of Britain (now Sudan). But, what the Treaty prohibited is total blockage of the entire flow of the Nile water.
The current legal instruments being used to challenge Egypt’s hegemony are the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework (CFA) – negotiated between 10 Nile basin countries to prepare a basin-wide legal framework to regulate the use and management of the Nile River – and the Agreement on Declaration of Principles on Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (DOP).
The Declaration of Principles – signed in 2015 between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia – reiterated that the Nile’s water should be shared equitably but doesn’t mention the treaties. As for the Cooperative Framework, Egypt refused to sign it because it has the potential of abrogating the Nile Water Treaties.
Since construction began a decade ago, there’s been serious contention between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a huge project straddling the Blue Nile in Ethiopia.
For Ethiopia, the project is meant to offer a solution to its severe power problem, providing electricity access for about 65 million Ethiopians.
Egypt relies on the Blue Nile for freshwater, and maintains that the dam represents an existential threat.
For its part, Sudan has had to balance its own concerns about water supply with the dam’s promise of cheap power and flood control, but remains opposed to the Dam.