can South Africa resolve the conflict over the waters of the Nile?

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On the site of the Great Renaissance Dam (GERD), built in Ethiopia, where one of the two tributaries of the mythical river flows, the Blue Nile. The GERD must be put into water from June 2020. EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP

The old tension is stubborn. On the eve of the deadline of Wednesday January 15, no technical agreement has yet been found between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia in view of the completion of the works of the Great Renaissance Dam (GERD) , in Ethiopia. The three countries are however primarily concerned by the dispute over the sharing of the waters of the Nile and time is running out. The impoundment of this structure should start in June. When full, the GERD is to become the continent’s largest dam, changing the course of the Blue Nile, on which it is built, just 48 km from neighboring Sudan, with direct consequences for the flow of the river. The Blue Nile and the White Nile meet in Khartoum, Sudan, before ascending all over Egypt until it reaches the Mediterranean.

Read also Ethiopia: Nile Dam: Ethiopia Calls on South Africa to Facilitate Agreement with Egypt

The entry into service of such a reservoir is likely to disrupt the water volume available to Egypt, which benefits by far from the largest quota since the Treaties of 1929 and 1959. The prospect of a decrease is therefore again and again likely to cause a conflict, as recalled in a forum in October 2019, the think tank International Crisis Group, which notes however: “It is still possible that an agreement can be reached. “

Bombing of works

This is not a new issue: it has been poisoning relations between Ethiopia and Egypt for decades. In Addis Ababa, there is no hesitation in qualifying Egypt as“Hereditary enemy”, the interests of the two countries have seemed to clash in the past on this intractable issue. The largest volume of the Nile comes from the Blue Nile, which originates in Ethiopia. Until now, because of Egyptian pressures, and while the country did not have a quota in the 1959 “partition”, Ethiopia had had to give up building a hydroelectric structure of this importance on its part of a river often considered the longest in the world.

Threats of armed intervention, of bombardment of the works by fighter planes were repeatedly made. One of the last had been through the voice of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, in 2013. Two years earlier, Egypt, in the midst of a revolutionary whirlwind, had been unable to play on its regional influence or its attempts to intimidation to oppose the start of work in Ethiopia. On the initiative of the former Ethiopian Prime Minister, Mélès Zenawi, the country had decided to concentrate all its resources in order to finance the 4.8 billion dollars (4.3 billion euros, 7% of Ethiopian GDP in 2016) necessary for the construction of a dam likely to change its destiny.

Read also Dam on the Nile: “progress” in negotiations but no agreement

Ethiopia has emptied its coffers to build the GERD, banking on the possibility of electrifying part of the country, and fighting poverty. With a forward production of 6,000 megawatts (MW) tripling current production, the GERD must also promote industrialization and become a source of export earnings thanks to energy supply contracts already signed with Djibouti, the Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan and Tanzania.

For its part, Egypt still depends on the water of the Nile in an absolute way, both for its agriculture, for the water consumed by its population which lives more than 90% in a region close to its banks and for its electricity production. Pending the ramp-up of alternative energy sources, the level of the Aswan Dam is an element of national concern, and the Egyptian delegation demands that it be now at a level of at least 165 meters.

Egyptian “all or nothing”

Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt are not alone. Six of the eleven countries bordering the Nile had signed, in 2010, an agreement paving the way for a more equitable and more extensive sharing of waters. Some of these countries have tributaries of the Nile on their territory. The total population of the riparian countries, counting large, represents 40% of that of the continent. This deal, unlikely to calm the spirits in Egypt, opened the way to more sophisticated negotiating formulas than the “all or nothing” prevailing so far.

In 2015, in a phase of relaxation, a “Statement of principle” was then signed in Khartoum by Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. In the process, technical committees from each country were set up to lay the foundations for a watershed agreement – and therefore the functioning of the Renaissance dam – with the support of international experts.

Read also Farmers in Egypt fear that Ethiopia may cut them off

In Ethiopia, the coming to power in April 2018 of new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed had even hinted at the possibility of an accelerated settlement of this issue. In May, negotiations in this direction began. On a highly emotional visit, Abiy Ahmed went to Cairo and delivered a speech of almost delusional optimism, promising that Egypt would be assigned “More water” to the one she enjoyed so far.

The lack of concrete results had again led to tensions, which were only eased at the Africa-Russia summit in Sochi in October 2019. Then, the following month, an American initiative was launched . Led by the Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, with the assistance of the World Bank, it is still in progress and plans, precisely, that the three countries concerned will reach an agreement on January 15. Agreement intended to regulate the conditions for filling the dam (and not to discuss its merits), establishing a water sharing policy.

Fall of a quarter of the volume of water

Technical discussions are complicated by the fact that, with climate change, forecasting the impact of droughts is becoming more complex, and all the more vital. The last negotiating session, which concluded in Addis Ababa on January 9, did not allow the Egyptian and Ethiopian delegations to agree on the speed with which the impoundment of the dam should take place to preserve a sufficient flow at the Blue Nile. Ethiopia would have liked the filling to be carried out over a period extending between four and seven years, the second half of which is considered to be the most water-hungry.

The Nile, its delta and the city of Cairo, Egypt, seen from space. This night shot shows the concentration of the population along the banks of the river.
The Nile, its delta and the city of Cairo, Egypt, seen from space. This night shot shows the concentration of the population along the banks of the river. Thomas Pesquet / ESA

For their part, the members of the Egyptian technical committee estimate that this period should extend from twelve to twenty-one years to protect the interests of their country. As announced at the end of the Addis Ababa meeting, the Ethiopian water minister: “This is by no means acceptable, at no cost. “ According to a report by the Geological Society of America, it would take in theory between five and fifteen years on average to fill the dam, but this estimate could, under certain climatic conditions, lead to a fall of a quarter of the volume of water reaching Egypt, “With a 25% drop in electricity production from the Aswan dam”.

Read also Dam on the Nile: Ethiopia wants electricity, Egypt is afraid of running out of water

In the event that no agreement is reached by January 15, an international mediator should be appointed. It is in this context that a visit by the Ethiopian Prime Minister to South Africa took place on Saturday 11 and Sunday 12 January. Abiy Ahmed offered South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to play the role, saying he had the advantage of being “A friend of both Ethiopia and Egypt”, and that, taking the rotating presidency of the African Union in early February, he was fully qualified to start negotiations ” in order to resolve the problem peacefully. “

In the complex part that is played out over the waters of the Nile, where the main stakeholders intervene, bordering countries of various weights, but also influential Gulf countries in the Horn region and North Africa, the choice of the Africa as a mediator, if confirmed, would not be obvious: the country does not have the necessary expertise and suffers from a continental influence strongly eroded since the period of the former president , Jacob Zuma. Two assets, however, essential to overcome the contradictory aspirations of Ethiopia and Egypt.


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