Ever since workers first broke ground on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in 2011, international commenters have fixated on the Nile as a possible harbinger of future ‘water wars’ to come. And almost since then, water experts have pushed back against that narrative. There’s no reason for such giddy pessimism, they say. Nor does precedent support the likelihood of conflict. As Addis Ababa and downstream Cairo have slowly hashed out most of the technical details, they’ve so far been proven right.
But though this dispute’s potential to spark inter-state violence may have been overstated thus far, at least for the near-term, the Nile and its GERD lightning rod nevertheless offer an alarming insight into just how dangerous future transboundary water disputes are liable to become, particularly in the context of a changing climate. This might be the new normal. Because while most previous cross-border water wrangles played out among neighbors with histories of water woes or sudden supply shocks, many current disputes are ensnaring a much broader, significantly less experienced, and worryingly ill-prepared cast of riparian states.
Among these rookie water strugglers, there’s often little recent familiarity with severe thirst – and hence limited capacity to safeguard economies and ways of life that weren’t built with dryness in mind. There’s frequently insufficient understanding of the water needs and government motivations in the sometimes-distant states they’re now up against. In other words, these newly minted adversaries are having to build trust almost from scratch in high stakes scenarios that are practically purpose-built to dispel it. When coupled with the fact that more disputes are unraveling at breakneck speed at a time of climate change in political systems that are temperamentally ill-suited to cope with drama, it’s little wonder that many are proving more intractable than ever. The era of largely collegiate negotiations might be coming to a close.
In the Nile’s case, resolving water tensions was never going to be easy under any circumstances. But as with a number of other brewing showdowns, what’s seemingly transformed the world’s longest river from a tricky, if still run-of-the-mill dispute into a combustible mess is the pace and extent to which GERD has forced the dominant water consumer to re-examine its relationship with a water source that it’s long seen more or less as its own.
For millennia, rain-deprived Egypt has relied on the Nile for almost every need imaginable. Practically every drop of water to drink and channel to irrigate emanates from the river. And for millennia, that dominance of the river posed few insurmountable challenges. Until relatively recently, the wetter, poorer, less populous upstream states had neither the same need of its water, nor the wherewithal to harness it when they did. But as basin-wide demand has surged in recent decades and as the Ethiopias of the Upper Nile have finally established the clout to try and replicate Cairo’s Nile-side development schemes, the old norms have crumbled. Cue anger and frustration and military build-ups and saber-rattling.
(It’s worth noting that while GERD might have spurred this showdown, it’s merely forced a reckoning that worsening climate stresses and deteriorating water management along the Nile would eventually have triggered anyway. As with rising water tensions in Southeast Asia, the Euphrates-Tigris watersheds and further afield, these big, tangible dams often act as catch-all totems for broader and less easily comprehensible water security concerns.)
Still, even with the Nile’s longstanding power dynamic unraveling, things didn’t have to get as testy as they have over the course of ceaseless negotiations. However, threatened, insecure, and fiercely motivated states often act in fiery or unpredictable ways. At every step of the process, Egypt and Ethiopia have contrived to misunderstand one another, trip over one another’s historical sensitivities, and assert outdated but politically untouchable dogmas. Indeed, it’s notable that much of the most poisonous discourse surrounding the dam has turned on domestic political events at both ends of the river, rather than the state of play at the negotiating table.
On Cairo’s part, officials have been intensely begrudging about Ethiopia’s capacity to make use of the Nile in any way at all. Having powered up much of the southern part of the country and beyond with its own mega-dam – the Aswan High Dam, which was completed in 1970, Egypt’s initial refusal to countenance a similar structure upstream has smacked of hypocrisy to Ethiopians, many of whom already suspect that the old Nile power wants to keep them poor and undeveloped. In appearing to deny Addis the path to growth that it followed and the electricity generation that a largely blacked out Ethiopia so desperately needs, Cairo also seems to have forgotten how tightly bound up with national identity these projects can be.
The rights and wrongs of GERD aside, Ethiopia was never going to abandon construction of a dam that’s a rare source of unity in a divided country and that stands as a point of pride after the horrors of the famines in the 1980s. That Egypt’s objections were primarily grounded on the 1959 water sharing treaty, which apportioned all Nile waters to Egypt and Sudan and that Ethiopia and the eight other Upper Nile states regard as little more than a colonial-era relic, was, if anything, another illustration of the perils of conducting high stakes negotiations among distant, not-fully-acquainted parties. With comparatively little interaction between the two capitals in recent decades, particularly in the Mubarak era, they have repeatedly failed to understand how hollow their respective claims have sounded to their counterparts.
Addis Ababa, in turn, has played its part in raising the temperature. First, officials took advantage of Egypt’s domestic chaos in the aftermath of the Arab Spring to make in-roads on GERD while Cairo was distracted. That move, they argue, was the only way to make headway given Egypt’s history of blocking similar upstream schemes – and they might be right, but it’s the sort of ploy that’s almost calculated to sow distrust. So too, Addis’ frequent foot-dragging as the dam has taken shape. By appearing to slow negotiations in order to create ‘facts on the ground,’ they’ve made it even harder for Egypt’s intensely nationalistic regime to prepare the country and, crucially, a public with a proprietary view of the Nile for a world with less water.
Perhaps most damagingly of all, Ethiopia has seemingly misunderstood how bound up Egypt is with the Nile – and by extension how difficult it will be for it to cut its consumption. Though it’s true that Egypt is extremely wasteful in its water use, as Addis frequently points out, that’s neither unusual for a country that’s seldom had water troubles in the past, nor the sort of thing that’s easily resolved. Changing habits, particularly among farmers, is a long, complicated process that requires the kind of infrastructure investment that Egypt doesn’t necessarily have at its disposal, and considerable popular buy-in, which Cairo’s non-democratic institutions can’t always marshal. The reality is that pretty much any country, when placed in Egypt’s position and with its water profile, would likely have reacted with similar venom.
Aware from the outset that the Nile was morphing into a nastier kind of dispute, voices both inside and outside the basin have tried to bridge divides from early on. They’ve had some success. Initiatives like that of IHE Delft have brought together journalists from up and down the Nile valley in a bid to foster improved understanding of one another– and in doing so reduce media sensationalism. Various cultural programs, like the Nile Project, have introduced Egyptian acts to Ethiopia and vice-versa. The Ethiopian and Egyptian Orthodox churches, too, have drawn off close historic links to act as backchannel go-betweens at times of high tension. Critically, Egyptian water experts appear to have succeeded in persuading the powers that be that the country will face a future water deficit, no matter what becomes of GERD. They’ve since begun to make some moves to rein in water consumption.
But in another telling illustration of the difficulties of reducing tensions in wrangles where emotions and rhetoric are almost tailor-made to run high, circumstances have often conspired against moderation as well. Egyptian journalists, and to a certain but lesser extent, their peers elsewhere often have no choice but to echo state talking points, many of which aren’t exactly calls for calm. Ever since the Nile issue got ‘securitized,’ Cairo reporters on the GERD beat have received frequent instructions as to which angles they should pursue, how they should present Egypt’s case, and when they should raise or lower the bombast.
Such also is the difficulty in maintaining good relations between all parties along the Nile that many of the experts who truly understand what’s going on won’t speak to the press for fear of losing access (in the case of foreigners) or running into trouble (in the case of locals). As a result, the airwaves have often been awash with subpar and chest-beating commentary at a time when accuracy and restraint are needed more than ever. It’s all helped get us to this dangerous inflection point.
That Egypt and Ethiopia will likely work something out (on GERD, at least), despite years of highly charged rhetoric, is a testament to the pull of a peaceful resolution. But punchy ‘Nile-style’ water disputes aren’t going away. Climate change and continuing population growth will further bolster the ranks of desperate, resource-hungry cotton mouths – and by extension the ranks of the fearful water-rich. And while few of these states will want violence either, events can quite quickly spiral when furious rhetoric, irresponsible politicians, and warped perceptions are left unchecked. Simply put, bad things can happen if the political stars aren’t aligned. For all the immediate challenges and dangers posed by water scarcity, the Nile is a jarring reminder that it’s our very human responses to the dislocation it represents that can be particularly perilous.
Peter Schwartzstein is Journalist in Residence at the Center for Climate and Security, an institute of the Council on Strategic Risks