Battle of the Basins: How the Nile Conflict Could Shape Africa’s Green Transition

The Nile dam conflict is more than a regional squabble over concrete and water. Its handling will leave its mark on future green projects in Africa and beyond. What is at stake and what should Europe do?

The conflict over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has drawn in riparian countries, regional powers, and the international community. As negotiations between Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt have been in a deadlock for years, attempts by regional institutions and international mediators have yet to produce tangible results. While the conflict could have major regional repercussions with knock-on effects for Europe, the GERD dispute might serve as a test case for future conflicts over shared resources.

At the heart of the dispute over the GERD are different views on the use and distribution of the Nile waterWhile Ethiopia insists on its right to develop its domestic resources for hydropower production, Egypt is highly susceptible to any changes in the Nile water flows caused by disruptions in the river’s upper reaches. Egypt sources 90 percent of its water supply from the Nile, the lion’s share coming from the Ethiopian highlands. Sudan, for its part, has not only been geographically trapped in between, but kept equidistance to both conflict parties. Lately, Sudan’s position has shifted in favor of Egypt, following the collapse of multiple tripartite negotiation rounds.

As the dam’s construction is nearing completion the pace of filling the enormous reservoir is now a critical issue in the negotiations. The positions diverge significantly: Ethiopia targets to finalize the filling within four to six years, Egypt last year proposed a prolonged timeframe of up to 21 years. Against the backdrop of deadlocked negotiations, Ethiopia started filling the dam’s massive reservoir in summer 2020 – without prior agreement with the other parties. The move raised concerns in Cairo, fearing the reservoir’s filling could significantly reduce the water volume available downstream. In July 2021, the second stage of the filling has been completed, again without trilateral agreement, enraging the conflict parties downstream. Reports of reduced water availability in Sudan and Egypt point to the direct repercussions of the uncoordinated filling of the dam’s reservoir. Egypt has repeatedly signalled its readiness for a more robust engagement in the conflict and has recently struck a series of military agreements with East African states. While experts have questioned the credibility of Egypt’s power projection, the conflict is heating up.

What’s at Stake – GERD as a Test Case

Not only are there profound risks emanating from the GERD dispute for each of the three parties. The conflict also puts the stability of a region which is host to more than 250 million people in jeopardy. Risks associated with the GERD conflict include the weaponization of water, i.e. withholding or releasing water to the detriment of downstream neighbors, as well as direct military confrontation or acts of sabotage between two of Africa’s largest military powers. The conflict adds a layer of complexity to the myriad connected conflicts in the Horn of Africa, making spill-over effects likely. In addition, the dispute creates inroads for major powers to gain foothold in the Red Sea region, a geopolitical hotbed and key global trading route, which is vital for Europe’s access to global markets.

But most importantly, the GERD dispute can be seen as a test case for the handling of future transboundary resource conflicts. In the face of climate change, countries will have to work together to expand renewable energy production, be it on transboundary waters or cross-border transportation of solar energy. In case Ethiopia finalizes the dam’s construction, fills its reservoir, and reaches full energy generation capacity without agreement with the riparian countries, this case might signal to other actors that unilateralism is a viable choice. In a broader view, this case can also be applied to other geographies, as will be shown below.

Geopolitical Implications – Powerful Allies

Other major powers follow the Nile dam conflict with interest. Both Russia and China are weary to support a solution to the GERD dispute through the UN Security Council. Due to their own transboundary river disputes, their interest in setting a precedent is limited. Both countries have been observing the negotiations closely, Russian President Putin signalling his readiness to mediate in the dispute during the Russia-Africa Summit 2019 – right before the Trump administration fielded its own, ultimately fruitless mediation attempt.

For its part, China has close ties to both Cairo and Addis Ababa. Being invested in the GERD’s construction and financing, Beijing has yet again underscored its dominant role in infrastructure development in Africa. Further downstream, Sino-Egyptian relations have been blossoming, too, not least with regards to the construction of Egypt’s new capital and the expansion of the Suez Canal. Russian relations with both Egypt and Ethiopia are substantial, not only in economic relations, but also in the realm of security. According to SIPRI, Russia is by far the largest arms importer to both main conflict parties (see below).

In a broader perspective, the Red Sea region – the Horn of Africa and the Gulf monarchies – has become a geopolitical flashpoint. It is not only host to China’s very first foreign military base, but it is also the theatre of competing regional heavyweights as well as a vital artery of global trade. Due to its strategic location, high density of foreign military bases (e.g. the permanent members of the UN Security Council apart from Russia, Japan, Israel, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Italy, Spain, and Germany), and vital importance for trade, a senior study group of the US Institute of Peace called the region an “integral part of and in fact the link among the security systems of the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific, and the Mediterranean.” It comes with no surprise then, that the European Council labelled the region “a geo-strategic priority” in May 2021.

More Than a Regional Spat

While the distribution of water is and will be at the root of many conflicts in the face of climate change, it also is a central pillar of renewable energy generation in Africa and the transition to a green economy writ large. Today, hydropower accounts for the largest share of renewables in continental Africa. Yet, less than 10 percent of Africa’s hydropower potential is currently being tapped, highlighting the significant unexploited possibilities. Ethiopia’s Nile dam is no exception: With a capacity of up to six Gigawatts, the GERD could supply half of Ethiopia’s 110 million citizens with electricity, 60 percent of whom currently have no access to electricity. Once completed, it will be Africa’s largest hydropower project and the world’s seventh largest dam.

Hence, the GERD conflict is a prime example for the close nexus between conflict management and sustainability. The dispute has the potential to leave its mark on similar projects in three ways: the mode of conflict settlement, the role of regional institutions, and the substance of the agreement itself.

Firstly, how the conflict will be resolved – through negotiations or coercion – might serve as a blueprint for future disputes. As the US Congressional Research Service concluded in 2020, “failure to reach an accord could set a negative precedent for transboundary water cooperation at a time of growing global concern over climate change, demographic growth, and resource scarcity.” The previous inability to reach a negotiated agreement has resulted in unilateral action, waning trust, and threats of military action. What is more, the ongoing dispute creates obstacles to investments, strategic planning, and structural reforms.

Secondly, the role regional institutions play in solving conflicts today might pre-define their role tomorrow. The African Union (AU) or the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), both based at the Horn, have hitherto been unable to reach significant breakthroughs in the GERD conflict– although not for a lack of trying. While in the past years, IGAD’s role was limited to calls for negotiation, the AU fielded several mediation attempts, but to no avail. Experts noted, the continental organization would need to “overcome legal and capacity issues,” including the formulation of a strategy of dispute settlement for transboundary waters to establish itself as an impartial mediator.

Thirdly, the dispute will inform future cases with regards to the rights and obligations of up- and downstream countries in transboundary water projects. Hence, not only the civil or military settlement of the issue, but also its substance will become a point of reference. This includes the extent to which information exchange can be institutionalized, whether or not the agreement will have a binding character, or if the provisions will ensure long-term compliance.

These three factors can be applied to other regions. Though currently stalled because of domestic tensions, Sudan has its own hydropower projects on the Nile, as does Uganda. Looking beyond Africa, a renewed row over the Indus river between two nuclear powers India and Pakistan, the dispute over the construction of various dams along the Mekong, or the recent military confrontation between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan over shared water resources illustrate that the Nile dam conflict is not an isolated case. Its handling will be watched closely across the continent and far beyond.

European Interests and Inroads – Realizing the Benefit of the Basins

The Nile dam conflict is much more than a regional feud over steel, concrete, and water. While it is only one of many conflicts at the Horn of Africa, its transnational nature, the involvement of regional powers, as well as the long-standing engagement of international actors give this dispute its importance. As has been shown above, its settlement has the potential to shape the role of Africa’s regional institutions in conflict management and will become a reference point for future hydropower projects – a crucial pillar for the Green Transition in Africa and beyond. If the dispute can be resolved through negotiations, with a strong role by the AU or IGAD, and the agreement proves sound and sustainable, the Nile dam conflict could become a positive blueprint for other conflicts over transboundary resource sharing.

Germany, the EU, and the US have deeply vested interests in the Horn of Africa and are actively engaged in fostering a peaceful solution to the dispute. In May 2021, the European Council concluded that a “negotiated solution to the dispute over the [GERD] would contribute immensely to the stability of the region and sustainable development in the three countries concerned.” One month later, the EU and the US underscored their shared commitment to “sustainable and equitable economic growth and prosperity” in a joint statement on Ethiopia. This showcases the readiness of high-level decision makers from both sides of the Atlantic to work together to transform the Horn’s problems into prosperity and tap the enormous potentials of the conflict-torn region.

There are three concrete fields of action where Europe could cushion the detrimental effects of the conflict:

Mediation: In close consultation with Washington, Europe should leverage its role as a trusted mediator and should highlight that there is no military solution to the conflict. A negotiated settlement of the dispute will inform future disputes akin to the Nile dam conflict and would underscore the European pledge to multilateralism.

Institutions: Strengthening institutions like IGAD and the AU is aligned with the principle of finding “African solutions to African problems.” Germany and Europe have been ardent supporters of regional integration of the continent. This commitment must be renewed with offers of capacity and mediation support in the face of this crisis.

Investment: Europe should increase its support for the Green Transition in the region. Investments in the Horn’s power grids are but one example. By demonstrating its readiness to support infrastructure development and eased access to the international capital markets through debt relief, Europe can prove it is willing to become a credible competitor to Chinese pivots.

The conflict over the Nile dam is neither an isolated case, nor a purely legal-technical dispute. Its resolution will serve as a blueprint for future cases with regard to the way it is settled, the role regional organization are able to play, and the concrete mechanisms agreed upon. And, importantly, it will not be the last of its kind. As UN Under-Secretary-General Rosemary DiCarlo noted: “[…] climate change, combined with projected demographic growth and socio-economic changes, will increase water management challenges worldwide, not only for Blue Nile riparian countries.”

About the author

Luca Miehe

Researcher & Policy Advisor

Areas of Expertise: MENA Region (Focus on North Africa) | Horn of Africa | Human Security | Authoritarianism | Migration Governance

Luca Miehe is a Researcher & Policy Advisor with the Munich Security Conference (MSC). Before joining the MSC, he was Research Assistant in the Middle East and Africa Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. He studied Political Science in Berlin and Cairo. During his studies, he gained work experience in, amongst others, the German Bundestag, the Federal Foreign Office, and the International Organization for Migration. Added to recent MSC releases, his latest publications cover Algeria, Egypt, and the conflict in the Nile basin.


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