The 4,000-year-old hieroglyphs inscribed on a stone on the Sehel Island along the Nile River in southern Egypt reveal the devastating effects of drought and famine on ancient Egyptians. Poor flooding seasons during the time of the Egyptian King Djoser is one of the oldest reminders of Egypt’s existential concerns about water security and drought.
Apart from the anomalies of nature that caused the seven-year drought 4,000 years ago, Egypt now contends with two crises that could worsen its water problems: climate change and the newly built Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). At the moment, the latter appears to be the most imminent concern for Egyptians.
With a semi-desert climate, Egypt relies on the Nile River for 95 percent of its water supply. More than 85 percent of Egypt’s agriculture depends on the water from the Nile, which is revered as a father of African rivers due to its length that stretches for 6,670 kilometers (4,160 miles) and flows through ten African countries. Egypt is bound to further increase its water consumption to feed its growing population with what appears to be a shrinking water supply. Climate change is expected to lead to increased sea levels, loss of arable land, and reduced access to freshwater in Egypt.
On the one hand, extreme weather events could inundate coastal agricultural land with a flooding of the Nile, leading to crop failures and food insecurity. On the other hand, Egypt is afraid of droughts worsened by intense and prolonged heat as well as reduced water supply from Ethiopia’s massive hydropower dam, GERD. It appears that the animosity between Ethiopia and Egypt on the issue of water use is approaching a deadlock with potentially dangerous consequences.
Egypt is afraid of droughts worsened by intense and prolonged heat as well as reduced water supply from Ethiopia’s massive hydropower dam.
Ethiopia considers GERD, which cost US$4 billion to build, as its national treasure and pride that will lift more than 65 million people from poverty through mass electrification. Addis Ababa has pinned its hope on GERD as a catalyst for its economic development. Many Ethiopians paid for the construction of the giant dam by buying government bonds. So, it will stick to its plan to deliver on the promise of electrifying the country regardless of disagreements with downstream countries such as Egypt and Sudan.
Ethiopia filled GERD the first time with 4.9 billion cubic meters of water in July 2020. It completed the second filling with nearly 13 billion cubic water this July, which has caught Egypt and Sudan by surprise and further inflamed the tensions. Hence, authorities in Cairo and Khartoum sounded an alarm about the unilateral actions of Addis Ababa and its lack of transparency, coordination, and agreement on water use with them.
Faced with the deadlock after negotiations through the African Union (AU) collapsed in April, Egypt brought the dam dispute with Ethiopia to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) this June. Members of the Arab League gave their support to Cairo and Khartoum on the Nile issue in June 2021 and called on all sides to stop unilateral actions.
Cairo’s decision to bring the issue to the UNSC was to highlight the gravity of the water dispute.
Backed by Arab countries, Cairo’s decision to bring the issue to the UNSC was to highlight the gravity of the water dispute and urge the world powers to use diplomacy to prevent a possible military conflict. Egyptian authorities believe that the UNSC could help ward off a war with Ethiopia and use this case as a diplomatic precedent to any future inter-state disagreement involving a shared water resource.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry expressed hope that a Tunisian draft Security Council resolution would mandate a legally binding agreement between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan within six months upon signing it, to ensure “Ethiopia’s ability to generate hydropower . . . while preventing the inflicting of significant harm on the water security of downstream states.” According to the resolution, such an agreement would be negotiated through the AU.
However, Egypt’s permanent representative to the UN, Mohammed Idris, was less optimistic that the Security Council had the appetite to address the GERD dispute. So far, he has been proven right – the world powers have remained largely neutral on the worsening tensions over the Nile waters. The UNSC in particular has not shown any desire to be involved in the matter. In fact, the UNSC members have not put any pressure on Ethiopia to stop its unilateral actions regarding the operation of the dam, which remains at the heart of the problem for Egypt and Sudan. Thus, the latter states have been dissatisfied with the UNSC’s weak response to the issue of such a vital national interest to them.
Ethiopia bemoaned Egypt and Sudan’s push for the UNSC resolution, arguing that the solution would not come from the Security Council, but from direct talks. In addition, Ethiopian Minister of Water Seleshi Bekele Awulachew stressed that the AU was capable of negotiating an agreement, despite the failure of the Union’s previous attempts to do so. According to the AU President, Felix-Antoine Tshisekedi, Ethiopia was open to sharing information about the dam’s operation and reaching an acceptable compromise on the dam under the auspices of his organization.
While the U.S. warned before that Ethiopia’s decision to fill the dam could inflame the frictions, it has abstained from active intervention.
There is conspicuous lack of U.S. leadership involved in resolving the dispute as well. While the U.S. warned before that Ethiopia’s decision to fill the dam could inflame the frictions, it has abstained from active intervention, particularly after Ethiopia pulled out of the negotiations brokered by the U.S. in 2020. This July, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, echoed the voices of other Security Council members by stressing that the matter must be handled at the regional level under the AU auspices.
As the opposing sides of the dispute dig into their respective arguments and accuse each other of lacking the political will to achieve a compromise, the hostilities continue to deepen. Without an active international involvement and assistance to negotiate a deal, it seems that the world might be missing an opportunity to prevent the first major inter-state war over water. Passing the Tunisian draft resolution at the UNSC could be a good starting point, to avoid a new conflict from emerging in Africa.