The so-called Arab Spring that took place throughout 2011 created unforeseen ripple effects well beyond the post-colonial Arab-majority nation-states where the uprisings took place. While Cairo was busy recovering from large-scale protests that deposed the late Hosni Mubarak and still drenched in the spirit of revolution, the Ethiopian government, led by its then prime minister, the late Meles Zenawi, quietly took advantage of the Cairene chaos. A few short months after the tumult in Egypt, the Meles government began work on a grandiose, long-desired hydroelectric infrastructure project. It would be known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, as it is often referred to in the technocratic speak of negotiators and would become the largest hydroelectric dam on the continent.
Egypt’s ability to project power within the region was greatly weakened after the end of the Mubarak era. Less than six months after Mubarak's fall, Sudan, wedged between Egypt’s south and Ethiopia's west, was cleaved in two after the establishment of South Sudan as a sovereign republic in July 2011. These status quo disrupting shifts combined with the calcified policies of the continuous isolation of Eritrea and the deep reluctance of the international community to formally recognize Somaliland as an independent state all meant that Ethiopia’s position within the region was steadily strengthening. In light of these developments, its comparative stability in the East African context was being perceived as a valuable asset by extra-regional actors including China, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
"The GERD is being heralded in Addis Ababa as a technological marvel that will saturate a power-deprived state with clean energy and make Ethiopia a profitable net power exporter"
The time had come for Ethiopia to make a massive leap in its modernization while its distracted neighbors were unable to forcefully act to stop it, if only by default. A great deal of Egypt’s negotiating leverage had relied upon dusty agreements from 1929 and 1959 that failed to include an independent, then dynastic Ethiopia. For this simple reason, the modern Ethiopian state claims it needn’t abide by either the 1929 or 1959 agreements. These antiquated pacts favored Egypt in terms of the Nile’s allocation, with Sudan as a junior partner, but as Egyptian negotiators have been citing them, Ethiopia has been busy creating unstoppable facts on the ground. In 1999 Ethiopia would finally be included in a much broader post-colonial pact called the Nile Basin Initiative, which was meant to be a cooperative framework for the 21st century that would benefit all of the signatory states. But in 2010 the Mubarak regime stalled its participation in the initiative over wording that it feared empowered upstream states and could reduce its own allocation which Cairo perceives as nothing short of a fundamental, national right.
The GERD is being heralded in Addis Ababa as a technological marvel that will saturate a power-deprived state with clean energy and make Ethiopia a profitable net power exporter in the process. Ethiopia’s aspiration to become a renewable resource hydropower giant is a quite vulnerable prospect, however, as it must factor in consistent climatic variables in a wider region prone to drought and with massive variations in annual rainfall. The further it flows downstream from its source the more polluted the river becomes with ever-increasing wastewater generated by a booming Nile Basin population and rubbish often choking it in urban centers.
"Egyptian authorities have described the GERD project as a direct threat to the crucial water security of the Nile River Valley, the country’s agricultural heartland"
At the crux of the disagreement is how rapidly a massive reservoir will be filled, and the ways in which the speed of the filling will affect Egypt’s already strained agricultural sector and polluted drinking water source. In recent months, the White House has been attempting to mediate the deep riparian rift over the rate at which the GERD reservoir will be filled with little demonstrable success. While the US administration has inserted itself into the Blue Nile dispute partly because it has hard power security interests in both Egypt and Ethiopia, it also wants to undermine Chinese ambitions in Africa writ large when possible.
Since 2011, a rotating cast of Egyptian authorities have described the GERD project as a direct threat to the crucial water security of the Nile River Valley, the country’s agricultural heartland. For years, Egyptian and Ethiopian leaders have been at loggerheads as the former’s need for water security has been portrayed as irreconcilable with the latter’s desire for energy security. Both nations are African population behemoths, with Egypt’s having reached 100 million earlier this month, and Ethiopia’s estimated at being between 109 million and 112 million. When the 1929 and 1959 agreements were signed, the Nile Basin was a far less populated region with relatively stable climactic conditions. Neither is true today.
The political leadership of both states must contend with a massive youth bulge in their surging demographics. Neither government wants a return to the mass protest movements that have shaken Cairo and the Oromia Region to their respective cores in recent years. Until now, Egypt’s protestors have been mostly a mix of urbane millennials and savvy Islamists confined largely to Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez. A major disruption in the irrigation of the Nile Valley risks further disenfranchising the fellaheen, the agrarian peasantry that power the country’s breadbasket economy. As the dire case with the Islamic State insurgency in the Sinai demonstrates, containing antigovernment activity in rural Egypt is a far more difficult task than quashing demonstrations in the center of a major city with heavy-handed security forces. This is not a scenario the government of Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi will risk or tolerate, as the Egyptian strongman brooks no dissent among his countrymen. Therefore the Sisi government views the GERD as an existential threat not just to Egypt’s agricultural economy, but also to its security from the very population it is meant to serve.
A Different Approach
Meanwhile, Ethiopian prime minister Abiy Ahmed took a polar approach to his Egyptian counterpart by containing activism in Ethiopia more broadly by instituting democratic reforms with correlating promises of demonstrable progress, which rolled the country back from the brink of internal conflict. Therefore, Ethiopia is determined to complete the GERD as central tenet of its long-sought path to progress whose narrative is to gradually emancipate its people from severe poverty.
Both leaders are cognizant of the fact that the protest movements brought about the regime changes in their societies, and can quickly be reconstituted should they fail to deliver on issues of national stability in the case of Egypt and a more open society in the case of Ethiopia.
Often-fraught negotiations over the GERD have limited the debate to one of national sovereignty when the inherently intertwined nature of transborder riparian issues likely requires a supranational solution. The enormous cost of the project, estimated at between US$4 billion and 5 billion depending on sources, is being shouldered by the Ethiopian public at large, so the GERD’s completion is perceived as both a matter of national prestige and a necessary return on the nation’s collective investment. Addis Ababa has thus far funded the construction through selling bonds to citizens as well as foreign entities, including the Djiboutian government. Abiy’s government is therefore under internal and external pressure to deliver results on the immense dam which is said to be 70% complete at the time of this writing to which his country has tied its future.
The Third Party
"Sudanese people have become pragmatically aware they could stand to gain from increased partnership with a rising power-exporting Ethiopia"
Starting at Lake Tana in Ethiopia’s Amhara Region in the northwest of the country, the river rises at the Blue Nile Falls just downstream and winds south and then west to the Benishangul–Gumuz Region along Sudan’s eastern border. Sudan has been a de facto pivot state in the tense talks between its neighbors, as it initially sided with Egypt in the dispute but later made a calculated move in line with the Ethiopian vision for power and progress in the greater Nile Basin. As Cairo and Addis Ababa have acted solely in their own interests, decision makers in Khartoum have been caught in the middle in terms of both physical geography and diplomacy.
Despite Sudan’s long-standing cultural, linguistic, and political ties to regional hegemon Egypt, as the GERD has come closer to a finished reality the Sudanese people have become pragmatically aware they could stand to gain from increased partnership with a rising power-exporting Ethiopia. Much of the media coverage of the GERD project has framed it as a primarily bilateral dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia, with Sudan featuring almost as a downstream bystander transit country for the Nile Valley and Nile Delta’s agricultural irrigation supply. The pessimism over the GERD controversy has been in an almost exclusively Egyptian context in terms of media coverage, but there are in fact many questions with regard to Sudan’s fate and its own highly fissiparous internecine dynamics.
As the GERD’s construction steams ahead, Sudan is undergoing a delicate political transition after the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir last year after having ruled the country for some thirty years. Blue Nile State in the southeast of the country had been the scene of fighting between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) and the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) of the al-Bashir regime. The SPLM-N in particular rejected the top-down implementation of sharia law upon the multi-confessional populace of Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, which were not included in the secession of South Sudan in 2011. After years of battling the SAF, the SPLM-N split into two factions in 2017 after an internal leadership fragmentation over the idea of a right to self-determination for the two war torn states. This fissure has greatly complicated the creation of a formal peace settlement with Sudan’s transitional government, known as the Sovereign Council. In the wake of al-Bashir’s ouster, the fighters along the Blue Nile have far less reason to continue their armed struggle. Thus the Sovereign Council is involved in separate negotiations with the two SPLM-N factions while dealing with the transnational issues of Nile Basin water rights. For Sudan, the Blue Nile is not only a hydrological artery but also an eponymous region that is synonymous with internal strife where the Sovereign Council is in no position to manage more needless violence between the SAF and either of the SPLM-N factions.
Toward a Balancing of Interests
A common reality for all three countries is that the GERD is now a hard reality. In all the years of often tense talks, Ethiopia has continued to build while Egypt has gone from threatened anger to today’s more resigned reality. Whatever the outcome of a future tripartite agreement, it will ultimately be about how the Egyptians and Sudanese cope with Ethiopia in control of the flow of the fabled waters that have shaped the course of Nilotic history and culture for millennia.
Once the GERD project began, authorities in Cairo and Addis Ababa too often struck an adversarial tone that characterized the Nile’s future as a zero-sum game rather than abide by a cooperative mechanism that would work to the benefit of both of their vastly underserved populations. Today, power, in every sense of the word, lay with the upstream countries. Uganda has been cutting deals with China for it to build hydroelectric dams along the White Nile and its tributaries without much concern for downstream sensitivities.
From national pride in Ethiopia to concern in Sudan to dread and sabre-rattling in Egypt, the hydrological mega project has increasingly been seen as an inevitability by the three parties. Contrary to the bellicose rhetoric by Sisi and Abiy alluding to the potential for armed conflict, these larger-than-life leaders are more likely to move forward in the far blander name of state stability after so much sustained volatility that has swept across the entire region for close to a decade.
Derek Henry Flood is a security correspondent focusing on transnational terrorism and geopolitical fault lines. Twitter: @DerekHenryFlood