HAFED AL-GHWELL. March 30, 2024

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March 22 was World Water Day. The theme this year was “Water for Peace,” emphasizing the critically important role of water diplomacy in efforts to foster cooperation and avert conflicts related to the intensifying hydro-politics of our planet.

The dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam serves as a pertinent case study for understanding the ever-evolving dynamics of hydro-diplomacy during mediation processes, and promoting the sustainable management of transboundary water resources.

The prolonged back and forth between Cairo and Addis Ababa is not simply an isolated squabble in a rather restless part of the world. At its core, the dispute over the dam encapsulates a complex interplay between the urgency of developmental aspirations and the imperative of water security.

The dam project represents a watershed moment, no pun intended, for Ethiopia and potentially the entire Nile Basin. As the country grapples with the imperative need to foster development amid the recurring specter of severe drought, the dam represents a centerpiece of its strategy to harness the resources within its borders to help uplift the nation.

More than 85 percent of the Nile’s waters originate from the Ethiopian highlands, and the nation’s desire to capitalize on this resource reveals a broader regional narrative: the right to development balanced against the imperative of equitable water utilization.

From Ethiopia’s perspective, the dam is not merely an infrastructure project, it is a national endeavor that embodies the country’s aspirations for economic development. The project promises to double the nation’s capacity to generate electricity, while providing a significant boost to the economy and substantially reducing poverty rates.

It has galvanized Ethiopians at home and abroad, fostering a sense of national unity of purpose in efforts to finance its construction. Beyond the provision of electric power, the dam is envisaged as a mechanism for better management of Nile waters, offering potential benefits such as drought mitigation and reduced salinity for countries within the river’s basin.

The implications of the project extend far beyond the borders of Ethiopia, however, inspiring other Nile Basin countries to contemplate similar initiatives. The construction of the dam provides a blueprint for harnessing river resources for developmental purposes, which stands in stark contrast to the situation in previous decades when diplomatic and legal hindrances, rooted in colonial-era agreements, stifled such ambitions. Countries upstream of the Nile, which historically have been sidelined from utilizing the river’s resources as a result of geopolitical constraints, might view Ethiopia’s endeavors as a precedent for championing their own hydroelectric projects.

Nevertheless, the trajectory of the dam project underscores a critical need for a new paradigm in Nile Basin cooperation. The concerns over the effect of the dam on water flow into Egypt, a country almost entirely dependent on the Nile for its water supply, highlights the complex nature of transboundary water management in a region where historical rights, developmental needs, and climate change intersect.

One does owe it to Cairo to lend an empathetic ear to its protests. The upstream location of the dam presents a rather complex dilemma because the Nile is not merely a river for Egypt, it represents the very sinew of Egyptian civilization, supporting the agricultural and economic activities of a country in which rainfall is rare.

The increasing incidence of droughts and unprecedented flooding as a result of climate change further complicates disputes related to transboundary water resources. 

Hafed Al-Ghwell

The construction and filling of the dam by authorities in Ethiopia have therefore stirred deep-rooted fears within Egypt, which is the 10th-most water-stressed country in the world. Given its almost total reliance on the Nile for water, any disruption or alteration to the flow of the river is perceived as a direct threat to its national security, by potentially exacerbating an already precarious water-scarcity situation.

The essence of the dispute hinges on the tricky balancing act between Ethiopia’s legitimate aspirations to utilize its own natural resources to help combat widespread poverty and stimulate economic growth, and Egypt’s critical need to ensure its access to Nile waters remains unimpeded.

Ethiopia’s stance, fueled by a desire to improve the living standards of its people through the hydroelectric power provided by the dam, stands in marked contrast to Egypt’s sense of apprehension that the dam will significantly affect a water supply upon which it depends heavily for household and commercial uses.

The effective application of water diplomacy is therefore imperative for fostering regional stability, trust, cooperation, and sustainable development across Africa’s second-largest hydrographic basin, which is home to nearly 600 million people and which generates a combined gross domestic product of $985 billion.

Such diplomacy, grounded in the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization that causes no significant harm to any party, emerges as the most viable path for resolving this dilemma. After all, the very essence of water diplomacy lies in its ability to recognize and acknowledge the entwined fates of riparian states bound by a shared, critical resource, and to capitalize on them. It thrives on the principle that cooperative engagement and mutual understanding can open the sluices in channels for the de-escalation and resolution of disputes.

However, it requires a shift from zero-sum perceptions toward a more cooperative, basin-wide management approach that recognizes both the developmental imperatives of upstream countries, such as Ethiopia, and the water-security concerns of downstream nations, such as Egypt.

A cooperative approach, underpinned by a clearly defined legal framework for the management of the Nile, can provide a pathway to address the competing interests of Egypt and Ethiopia, and ensure the sustainable utilization of shared water resources while promoting regional stability.

Such a framework could include mechanisms for the regular exchange of hydrological data between Ethiopia and Egypt, assurances about minimum flows of water during periods of drought, and a collaborative decision-making process governing the operation of the dam.

Furthermore, such constructive engagement could also explore other related mutual benefits beyond operation of the dam itself, such as joint investments in water efficiency, renewable energy, and climate-adaptation projects across the Nile basin.

It should be emphasized that water diplomacy does not merely imply negotiations about the technicalities of dam operations or water allocations, but also encompasses efforts to reconcile the identities that upstream and downstream countries have crafted around a shared water resource.

Used effectively, hydro-diplomacy will provide the bridge between Egypt’s legitimate concerns about its hydro-political stability in a water-stressed region, and Ethiopia’s sovereign right to pursue national development, given the prevailing socioeconomic problems it faces.

Beyond those two countries, clever diplomacy will also afford all Nile Basin countries the opportunity to transcend a zero-sum game by forging a narrative of shared benefits and collective security against the backdrop of the intensifying effects of climate change.

By facilitating inclusive dialogue, fostering mutual understanding, and promoting equitable sharing of benefits, hydro-diplomacy can become a lynchpin in efforts to mitigate enduring tensions by steering disputes toward sustainable solutions before it is too late.

The increasing incidence of droughts and unprecedented flooding as a result of climate change further complicates disputes related to transboundary water resources. As climate- and water-related challenges grow, the imperative need for proactive, strategic water diplomacy to address the multifaceted effects of an increasingly variable climate on shared resources becomes apparent.

  • Hafed Al-Ghwell is a senior fellow and executive director of the North Africa Initiative at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. X: @HafedAlGhwell
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