West Asia, North Africa and Afghanistan 

The Brewing Conflict of the Blue Nile: Egyptian/Ethiopian Conflict of Water Resource Control

by Luke Hally

Water rights and conflict are now an ever common undertone contributory pairing of contemporary disputes. This is certainly the case for regions that are at the forefront of water access and resource scarcity. Out of all these regions, the most pressing development of this scarcity can be analysed within the African continent. The most daunting of these conflicts on an interstate level revolves around the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which will directly impact the water rights of Sudan and Egypt. These Upper Nile nations face a daunting future of water scarcity, which will directly impact the stability of their respective populace. Construction of the US$5 billion dam began in 2011 and is currently ongoing, with the final phase of construction estimated to be completed in 2022. Diplomatic initiatives and talks have repeatedly broken down with the three affected parties, with Egypt’s position vehemently opposed towards the damming of the upper Nile, the Sudanese position swaying, and the Ethiopians assuring that there will be no threat to water access in the region. Both tripartite and U.S. mediated talks have collapsed, with the current situation becoming untenable in its deterioration at a diplomatic state. The current Sudanese position is one of belligerence and opposition towards the damming project, which heightens the present tension in the region. The final diplomatic port of call has arisen with the necessity for the U.N. Security Council to discuss the situation, with a region wide mediation body such as the African Union intervening in the dispute. With construction nearing completion, regional tension is rising alongside it and the risk of interstate military intervention increases in tandem.

The rhetoric of all parties has descended to one of animosity, particularly with regards to the often shifting views of the Sudanese delegation. With the transitional government replacing the dictatorship of Omar Al-Bashir, the military rulers alluded to the possibility of a rapid war to prevent the threat of water resource constraints in the already arid nation-state. Lt-Gen Abdel Fattah al-Burhan has stated that this intervention would be “more horrible than one could imagine”. The preliminary manoeuvres of Sudanese forces retaking the disputed border territory of al-Fashaga from Ethiopia reflect this rising probability, coupled with joint air force drills with Egypt. The further deterioration of the Ethiopian front against advancing Tigrayan forces, particularly in the Benishangul-Gumuz region where the dam is located, is a significant factor that further increases this probability of interstate conflict. The other parties to the dispute will be observing the development and will most likely utilise the collapsing regional integrity as a means of achieving state security aims in water resource access. The timing of all of these developments is in line with the sensitive seasonal change into the Ethiopian rainy season, known as the Kiremt, which runs from June to mid-September. This season means that the dam reservoirs will be fully operational for use and will reflect the realities of the downstream effect on water access.

Egyptian rhetoric has intensified in its threat of military intervention, with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi warning Ethiopia not to threaten Egyptian water access and that all options are open, including military intervention. This rhetorical point holds significant merit of concern for Egyptian national security, where freshwater access is already at a dangerous deficit. This threat is further compounded due to the high condensed population residing along the Nile delta and relying on a healthy outflow of freshwater. The implementation of the GERD in the upstream Blue Nile will directly affect the water access and stability of the 39 million Egyptian inhabitants of the Nile delta, threatening the Egyptian core. These looming challenges and Ethiopian leverage will be an environment completely unacceptable to Egypt, increasing the likelihood of intervention further as talks repeatedly collapse.  

When assessing Egyptian water table deficits, the current dispute becomes even more pressing in its potential for rapid conflict escalation. The deficiencies of water resource control are substantial due to the nation’s rapidly increasing population and the condensed layout of population density along the delta. Alongside these factors is the heavy reliance on freshwater to support an agricultural network that would sustainably support the populace. This reliance is further brought under threat by rising pollution levels making 40% of the Niles’ freshwater unsuitable for human consumption. Pre-established canal infrastructure projects off lake Nasser aim to counter this overreliance on the delta waterways; however, with the GERD being implemented further upstream, these canals have the potential to be rendered unusable. Fossil water mining is also being incorporated to bolster the deficit of water resource control; however, this finite measure means that it is extracted faster than replenished. Unsustainable water resource measures will do little to counter the current annual Egyptian water table deficit of 7 billion cubic metres. Further measures such as water desalination plants, of which 47 are to be constructed over five years, will do little to negate the growing deficit, with their combined output amounting to a mere 4 % of the current annual deficit rate. The implementation of the GERD poses a glaring threat towards an even more daunting security dilemma of complete water resource depletion, estimated in recent U.N. reports to occur by 2025.

As diplomatic talks continue to collapse and tensions build, the possibility of further escalation of interstate military violence is raised along the western Ethiopian border of the Benishangul-Gumuz Region, where the dam is located. Both Egypt and Sudan have recently signed two separate military cooperation agreements and have conducted three joint drills since 2020. The casus belli of intervention has been established due to the dire circumstances of water resource degradation, which the dam threatens. Sudan and Egypt also point to a legalistic basis for action due to the violation of the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement granting them full utilisation of Nile waters. This build-up of military activity has taken a cross border approach during the second filling of the dam in July 2021, with Ethiopian forces mobilising along the western border with Sudan. Ethiopian State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Redwan Hussein, has stated that a national threat is brewing due to the bilateral military drills of Egypt and Sudan in the region and has mobilised forces to prepare for potential territorial incursions taking advantage of the Tigrayan crisis. 

These recent developments of the regional conflict have all served to compound and contribute towards rising tensions and the potential for further interstate escalation. As time progresses regarding the furtherance of a variety of contributory factors, such as water resource degradation, climate change impacts on precipitation cycles, the Tigrayan offensive and the dam total operational capacity, the conflict risk escalates. The two downstream nations of Sudan and Egypt are both under severe domestic security threats regarding freshwater access. As consecutive talks collapse, military options will be considered by the two states if an agreement is not reached soon.

Photo by Copernicus Sentinel-2, ESA (Sentinel Hub)

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