In light of the ongoing talks between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), I’m reminded of one of the better books I read in 2018, John Waterbury’s The Nile Basin: National Determinants of Collective Action. While published in 2002, many of the principles outlining the controversy surrounding the Nile river still provide insight today.
The talks between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan continue decades-old tensions regarding the Nile and its uses. Since 2011, this conversation has centered around the construction of the GERD on the Blue Nile bordering Sudan. The Blue Nile and the Atbara River (also in Ethiopia) are responsible for about 70%–85% of the Nile’s water that reaches Egypt. Ethiopia, the primary upstream country for the Blue Nile, wants to generate power – about 6000 megawatts – for domestic use and export by using the historically underutilized river. Egypt, the downstream and ancient utilizer of the Nile, fears a decrease in flow could harm its agricultural industries and worsen its people’s access to water, which is already low. These are significant issues and both countries have valid reasons for pursuing their interests.
Out of the 11 Nile riparians, Egypt asserts the oldest claim on the river’s use and is the most dependent (Waterbury p. 4). The country’s minimal rainfall, climate, and lack of forests mean they primarily depend on the river and its aquifers for agriculture and drinking water (p. 2). Egyptian leaders have continuously and strongly emphasized the river’s importance publicly, like former President Morsi claiming in 2013, “If our share of Nile water decreases, our blood will be the alternative.” In 2017, when discussing GERD, President al-Sisi stated that the Nile “water is a matter of life or death”. Heightened rhetoric notwithstanding, Egypt’s concerns are legitimate. A Geological Society of America study predicted the Nile’s water flow to Egypt may drop by 25% and reduce the Aswan High Dam’s electricity production by one-third during the attempt to fill up GERD’s reservoir (Khaled AbuZeid estimates up to a 40% loss in hydroelectricity production overall). This provides context for al-Sisi’s insistence that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed swear to God that Ethiopia would not harm the Egyptian people.
Ethiopia also sees the Nile as integral to its development, even though they have not utilized it much historically (Waterbury p.5). In an interview with Alex de Waal, former Ethiopian PM Meles Zenawi claimed, “For Egypt, the Nile Water is seen as an existential issue, and Egyptian leaders will use every means at their disposal to prevent us from exploiting the Nile Waters… Nile waters are an existential issue for us too.” In responding to a question on foreign policy objectives and strategic interests in the aforementioned interview, Meles added, “Our national security is now based on our own national goals, and that is achieving economic development.” Since GERD is primarily an economic development project, it fits squarely within the goals originally spearheaded by Meles. Current PM Abiy Ahmed continues to view, as did former PM Hailemariam Desalegn, economic development from the Nile as a core national interest.
Ethiopia and Egypt view the Nile as affecting a core national interest, which is partially why cooperation and agreement have been difficult. Waterbury notes, “where bottom-line national interests are at stake, particularly in the military and security domains,” the behavior and logic of these actors may not result in cooperation (p. 22). This is where Waterbury’s framing and analysis remain relevant.
Waterbury identifies and explores a few guiding principles that underly the debate over Nile resources. The first is the Master Principle of appropriation, also known as acquired rights, in that “whoever uses the water first thereby establishes a claim or right to it” (P. 28). Through this lens, Egypt has a historical claim to the Nile waters. Flowing from this principle is that of appreciable harm, which protects those with acquired rights by prohibiting other users from utilizing the natural resource in a way that harms the first user (p. 29). This principle would prevent Ethiopia from using the Nile in a way that would harm Egypt’s or Sudan’s utilization. Al-Sisi has spoken the language of acquired rights and appreciable harm multiple times, in late 2017 saying, “The water of Egypt is not a subject for discussion, and I assure you, no one can touch Egypt’s water.” This has been a common emphasis for Egyptian foreign affairs, and the principles of appreciable harm and acquired rights dominated the 1993 Framework for General Cooperation Between Ethiopia and the Arab Republic of Egypt (p. 82). As mentioned above, al-Sisi’s insistence in PM Abiy swearing to God to avoid harming the Egyptian people, and PM Abiy’s willingness to do so, demonstrated mutual recognition of the principle of appreciable harm.
There is also the principle of unlimited territorial sovereignty, which affirms the rights of a state to utilize any transboundary resource as it wishes, regardless of the consequences to neighboring states (p. 30). By proceeding with GERD construction in 2011, Ethiopia acted in accordance with this principle. This wasn’t entirely without warrant on their part though. In 1993, Ethiopia informed the World Bank and Egypt of irrigation projects it attempted to develop – notification being a requirement for potential World Bank-funded projects – and Egypt repeatedly requested additional information to assess and prevent potential harm (p. 32). The World Bank determined that there was not any concern for appreciable harm, causing Ethiopia to view Egypt’s requests for more information as an attempt at stalling. Similar repeated actions most likely prompted Ethiopia to act unilaterally in announcing the dam’s construction. Ultimately, Ethiopia acted on the principle of unlimited territorial sovereignty and forced neighboring countries to recognize and adapt to the changing reality of the resource.
Finally, the principle of equitable use attempts to allocate resource use in such a way to balance the concerns of all riparians (Waterbury p. 30). While Egypt generally insists that its share of water remain at the level stated in the 1959 agreement with Sudan, Waterbury notes that the principle of equitable use occasionally appears in its rhetoric (p. 75). The 1959 agreement itself provides guidelines for how Egypt and Sudan should reduce their allocation when future claims are made by other riparians (the agreement was only between the two countries). Additionally, Waterbury quotes former Senior Egyptian diplomat Marwan Badr saying in 1995, “We are obliged to engage in a process of negotiations that will ineluctably lead us toward the re-definition of quotas.” More recently, the Declaration of Principles signed by Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan essentially established the legitimacy of GERD while recognizing the needs of upstream and downstream users. The ten principles affirm both equitable use and appreciable harm.
What do we make of all this? There have been numerous legal arguments, multiple agreements from 1929-2015, and continued talks that occasionally show progress but often produce ambiguity and reassert the status quo. I still think there are a few interesting points for reflection. First, as of the 2015 Declaration of Principles, Egypt seems to accept the reality of Ethiopia’s development project. They are still very public with their concerns, but this is a vastly different position from 1993 when the agreement with Ethiopia only named the principle of appreciable harm. Their adjustment to a new reality is evidenced by their increased production of desalination plants to further maximize their access to water. Second, Ethiopia still needs to complete the dam, which has faced significant delays. International claims and arguments do not fix domestic politics or impediments to infrastructure development, which is a point Waterbury emphasizes multiple times in his book. Third, Ethiopia and Egypt are both raising their profiles diplomatically. In the past year, Ethiopia ended its border war with Eritrea, served as a mediator in a recent conflict between Kenya and Somalia, and attempted to mediate discussions between Somalia and Somaliland. Why does this matter? Waterbury thought Ethiopia would openly endorse and act on the principle of unlimited territorial sovereignty if it was “more acceptable in international circles” (p. 171). While they arguably already acted on that principle to some extent, gaining the perception as a diplomatic regional power, or further, as a peacemaker, in the international community, could curry favor in spite of potential downstream harm to Egypt. Likewise, Egyptian President al-Sisi was appointed the head of the African Union in February. This gives the Egyptian head of state an international and regional role. These respective international roles may not directly influence a specific Nile agreement but may influence how other international actors and financiers respond to it. Regardless, the conversations and tensions involving the Nile will be important to watch over the next few years. In the meantime, Waterbury’s 2002 study remains a valuable resource.