Ethiopia has completed the final phase of filling a reservoir for its highly controversial hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile River, much to the annoyance of Egypt who fear it could sever them from the Nile’s precious waters. Fueled by climate change and ongoing geopolitical tension, it's often been said that the problem of water scarcity in this fraught patch of Africa has the potential to spill out into a major conflict.
Ethiopia has been building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) since 2011 with the hopes of using its water for a hydroelectric power plant to address the country’s acute energy shortage.
On September 10, a new milestone of the GERD project was revealed by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed who took to social media to announce the “successful completion of the fourth and final filling of the Renaissance Dam.”
The latest move, however, was not welcomed by Ethopia’s neighbors downstream, namely Egypt. Two-thirds of all the water in the River Nile comes from the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia. If Ethiopia has the power to control this river’s flow then it would have a major influence on the River Nile, which has served as Egypt's “jugular vein” for thousands of years.
The Egyptian foreign ministry suggested in a statement on Facebook that Ethiopia's continuation of the dam’s construction showed a "disregard" for "principles of international law" and broke an agreement signed by Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan in 2015.
"The declaration of principles stipulates the necessity of the three countries reaching an agreement on the rules for filling and operating the Gerd before commencing the filling process," Egypt’s government posted.
"Ethiopia's unilateral measures are considered a disregard for the interests and rights of the downstream countries and their water security, as guaranteed by principles of international law."
Ever since it was proposed, the GERD in Ethiopia has threatened to spark a “water war,” conflicts in which states and/or militias fight for access to water resources. In 2013, Egyptian politicians, including President Mohamed Morsi, were caught on camera discussing whether to destroy the dam and threaten conflict with Ethiopia. One of them described water security as a “matter of life and death” for Egypt.
However, Egypt’s concerns about access to water have gone back even further. In 1979, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat famously stated: “The only matter that could take Egypt to war again is water.”
With climate change now impacting the Nile Basin, the fear of water scarcity in Egypt – and beyond – has become super-charged.
A study in 2018 looked at where in the world the future’s possible water conflicts are likely to take place. Along with the Indus Valley and the Euphrates-Tigris basin, the researchers found that the Nile Basin had a high likelihood of “hydro-political interaction” that runs the risk of spilling into violence.
With the GERD project seemingly steamrolling ahead, the odds of this disagreement ending in peaceful negotiation are shrinking away.