In Depth

Are Egypt and Ethiopia heading for a water war?

Cairo warns of ‘consequences’ if fellow African nation takes control of Nile River

A long-running dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt over the construction of a new mega dam on the Nile River is threatening to erupt into a war between the two countries.

Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s prime minister, warned yesterday that his country is ready to mobilise “millions” of troops if necessary.

Meanwhile, Egypt has threatened “consequences” if the government in Addis Ababa tries to use Nile waters to fill Ethiopia’s new dam without agreeing a treaty.

What is the dam plan?

Ethiopia is preparing to start filling the reservoir behind its nearly finished Grand Renaissance Dam, which will be Africa’s biggest hydroelectric power plant.

The dam is half a century in the making and can hold 74 billion cubic metres of water - more than the volume of the entire Blue Nile, the tributary in the northern Ethiopia highlands from where 85% of the Nile’s waters flow.

Once filled, the $4bn (£3bn) dam is expected to produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity, doubling Ethiopia’s current power supply. 

While hydroelectric power stations do not consume water, however, filling the new dam will affect the flow of water downstream. The reservoir will eventually hold half the river’s annual flow, in an expanse bigger than Greater London.

The slower the reservoir is filled, the less the impact on the level of the river. Ethiopia wants to do it in six years, but Egypt has suggested a timetable of 12 to 21 years so that the level of the river does not drop dramatically, the BBC reports.

“We have a plan to start filling on the next rainy season, and we will start generating power with two turbines on December 2020,” Ethiopia’s Water Minister Seleshi Bekele said last September.

But Egypt is threatening “consequences” if Ethiopia does so without first agreeing a treaty to control the dam’s future operation.

Why is it so contentious?

The project will connect millions of Ethiopians to the electricity grid for the first time, and is also regarded as a symbol “of the country’s evolution from a symbol of famine and war to Africa’s burgeoning economic powerhouse”, says The Times

But in creating the dam, Ethiopia is viewed by Egypt as challenging its historic claim to dominance over the Nile, and its strong cultural association with the river.

“Over 90% of the country’s 100 million people live along the Nile or in its vast delta. The river, long seen as an Egyptian birthright, supplies most of their water. They fear the dam will choke it off,” says The Economist.

Addressing a UN security council special session convened last week to discuss the issue, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said: “Survival is not a question of choice, but an imperative of nature.” 

Cairo is also concerned that Addis Ababa could use its control of the Nile’s waters for leverage in future disputes, or to assert power.

Are the two countries heading to war?

Talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the dam have been going on for four years but little progress has been made.

“There are many technical items that the parties have not agreed upon and almost all the legal provisions have not been agreed upon,” Mohammed Nasr-Eldin Allam, former Egyptian minister for water resources, told The Times.

“Ethiopia imagines that it will be in a position of strength after building the dam, and that by controlling the flow of the Nile water it can force the downstream countries to submit to their will, including accepting a lower water share.”

The lack of agreement has triggered growing use of wartime rhetoric and threats. Even Ethiopia’s PM Ahmed, a Nobel peace prize-winner, has warned: “No force can stop Ethiopia from building a dam. If there is need to go to war, we could get millions readied.”

And Egypt has not held back either. During a recent visit to an air base, President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi told pilots to “be prepared to carry out any mission on our borders or, if necessary, outside our borders”. 

Lieutenant-general Birhanu Jula Gelalcha, Ethiopia’s deputy chief of staff, responded: “Egyptians and the rest of the world know too well how we conduct war whenever it comes.”

If war does come, it could be a one-sided affair. “Egypt’s military spend last year was $11.2bn; Ethiopia’s was a fraction of that, at $350m,” according to The Times.

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