By Nick Kimble
The Tigray War in Ethiopia has dominated discourse about East Africa for the last several years, but another crisis is bubbling beneath the surface, and its is centered around hydrology. Ethiopia’s completion of a massive dam on the Nile River has led to severe tensions with Egypt. Despite repeated efforts to reach an agreement, the two countries remain at an impasse.
Notwithstanding current tensions, Egypt and Ethiopia have a long history of ties as the first independent African nations to establish diplomatic relations and two of the four founding African countries of the United Nations in 1945. Nevertheless, the Cold War eventually complicated this relationship.
Ethiopia has long chosen the opposite side of Egypt in disputes, ranging from alignment with Israel and the United States during the Arab-Israeli wars to realignment with the Soviet Union after the Camp David Accords. Throughout this history of contention, control of the Nile River was key. Ethiopia controls one of the two tributaries of the Nile River, and a dam project could have a considerable impact on Egyptian food security.
Today, the Nile supplies almost 97 percent of Egypt’s drinking water and nearly all the water required for cultivation today. Ethiopia similarly regards the river as a vital resource due to the nation’s high-water demand because most of its population relies on agriculture for its livelihood. Irrigation is one of several opportunities that Ethiopia envisions for the Nile.
Ethiopia’s economy has experienced a tremendous rise in energy consumption but an inadequate supply to meet growing demand. In fact, according to government estimates, just half of the population has access to power today. The Ethiopian government has long recognized the possibility of using the Blue Nile as a source of hydroelectricity, creating decades of tensions with Egypt.
Egypt became worried in the middle of the 1950s that, at some point, Ethiopia could try to construct a dam. Although previous Ethiopian administrations had the capability to build a dam earlier, they reportedly refrained from acting out of concern about potential Egyptian retaliation. For example, Egypt threatened war if the project moved forward in the 1970s. This aggressive opposition persisted well into the twenty-first century, with voice recordings of Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt, purportedly indicating that Egypt would be ready to attack any new dam constructed on the Nile River.
When the strongman regime of Mubarak fell in the 2011 Arab Spring movement, Ethiopia saw an opportunity. It moved on with building what is now known as the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD. The project is now over 150 meters high and will eventually hold 74 billion cubic meters of water and occupy an area of 1900 square kilometers, or 720 square miles, by 2024.
Once completed, it will be the biggest hydropower project in Africa and one of the largest hydroelectric projects in history. This size makes the dam nothing less than a representation of Ethiopia’s expanding aspirations. Moreover, Addis Ababa may use this to help tens of millions of its residents escape poverty. Yet, all of this comes at the cost of regional stability. Consider that the announcement of the project resulted in a serious escalation of hostilities between Ethiopia and its two neighbors, Sudan and Egypt.
Khartoum initially opposed the project, but it has since changed its position several times and currently favors the dam as it may receive energy resources. Egypt, however, adopted a more flexuous response. While political turmoil complicated its reaction early on, Egypt eventually claimed that the project needed to consider the legitimate interests of the other affected nations, even though it stressed that it supported Ethiopia in achieving its development ambitions through the dam. The two countries agreed on a preliminary deal in 2015, which many regarded as a crucial step toward a comprehensive solution, but diplomacy quickly unraveled.
In 2016 Ethiopia publicly accused Egypt of aiding separatist organizations, particularly the Oromo Liberation Front, which the Egyptian government vigorously refuted. Despite this refutation, there were hints of cooling tensions two years later when Abiy Ahmed, the new prime minister of Ethiopia, and Abdul Fatah El Sisi, the President of Egypt, met amicably in Cairo in June 2018.
Emphasizing the ancient connections between the two nations, a bond forged by the Nile River, the leaders stated they were prepared to agree on the project. After the event, during the joint news conference, Abiy Ahmed reaffirmed that Ethiopia would never harm the Egyptian people. Yet, once again, optimism for a resolution fizzled quickly, and tensions began to rise. By the end of 2019, there was no longer any communication, and Abiy Ahmed had threatened war if Egypt took action against the project.
Rumors surfaced in July 2020 that the parties had once again reached “a key common understanding” that would pave the way for a game-changing accord through mediation by the African Union. Even if it appeared that the two nations had resolved essential components of the problem, several crucial details remained, including information on the quantity of water that would be provided in the event of a severe drought and the resolution of any future disputes, with claims that Ethiopia rejected the idea of binding arbitration.
Since these talks, Egypt has been adopting a more rigid stance on the project in addition to renewed Sudanese concerns. In 2021, Egypt’s foreign minister explained that more than a 100 million Egyptians faced an existential threat from the construction, which would block “the artery that feeds them life.” Growing international awareness of the situation has also served as a further indication of the problem’s severity.
The UN Security Council examined the issue between 2020 and 2021. It issued a presidential statement, a document without a formal resolution, urging the parties to begin talks with the help of the African Union. But there must be more indications of progress notwithstanding the need for diplomacy. With failures in diplomacy, the level of pressure has increased.
Ethiopia has already started filling the dam now that construction is complete, a step Egypt strongly denounced in July 2022. Most recently, while attempting to draw attention to the matter in various international venues, Egypt accused Ethiopia of impeding negotiations. After the African Union did not side with Egypt in February, Egypt began appealing to outside groups like the Arab League and UN Security Council. Ethiopia has long received money from the Gulf states, but this appeal from Egypt may not lead to change.
Egypt frequently underscores that it cannot accept such a fundamental affront to its interests, implying a veiled threat of direct action. These persistent tensions have made the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam one of Africa’s most significant potential flashpoints. While it may seem improbable that the project would lead to a full-scale war, the dam is filling up, and experts expect it to be completely operational in 2024. If Ethiopia completes the project in whole outside of Egypt’s terms, there is a risk of direct conflict between two of Africa’s most powerful nations.
Nick Kimble is a writer for the Realist Review. He studies International Relations and Diplomacy at Seton Hall University. He is a Harvard Public Policy Leadership Scholar. He has a research background on East/West African Affairs and has won a distinction award from Stanford University on his policy memo on how the US can strengthen relations with Kenya.