Roiling waters as Egypt and Ethiopia face off over the Nile

The dispute is the backdrop to general geopolitical uncertainty in the Horn of Africa, which analysts said could lead to open conflict.
Sunday 28/01/2018
Simmering tension. Members of the Sudanese border security patrol the Sudan-Eritrea border near the eastern border town of Kassala in Sudan.(AFP)
Simmering tension. Members of the Sudanese border security patrol the Sudan-Eritrea border near the eastern border town of Kassala in Sudan. (AFP)

LONDON - Decades-old tensions over rights to the waters of the Nile heightened in recent weeks with shifting alliances and much posturing among the riparian countries, including Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.

Attention has focused on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project, which the Ethiopian government expects to complete by the end of this year. Egypt is worried it will end up with less water from the Nile basin.

The dispute is the backdrop to general geopolitical uncertainty in the Horn of Africa, which analysts said could lead to open conflict as Gulf countries, led by Saudi Arabia, seek alliances and military bases in the region.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Egypt’s strategic choice was peace, not war. “We are not prepared to go to war against our brethren or anyone else for that matter. I am saying this as a clear message to our brothers in Sudan and Ethiopia,” Sisi said in televised comments January 15.

Several days previously, Khartoum admitted it had deployed troops along its border with Eritrea after what it called military threats from Asmara and Cairo. Sudan reportedly closed its border with Eritrea in December after Egyptian troops were said to have been deployed.

The troop deployments have not been independently verified and the military movements may have more to do with preventing smuggling and trafficking, analysts said, but there is no doubt they raised tensions.

The Egypt-Sudan dispute started last summer with trade boycotts. More recently, Khartoum recalled its ambassador to Cairo. Aside from the dam issue, the two countries are at loggerheads over Turkey’s incursions into the region. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Sudan in December when he won rights to develop the Red Sea island of Suakin.

Reports in the Ethiopian media that Egypt sought to sideline Sudan from talks over the dam were denied by Cairo but still generated a great deal of anger in Khartoum, said Salman Salman, editor of the International Water Law Journal.

“There is talk about war but I doubt this will happen soon,” he said in a telephone conversation from Khartoum. “People here are angry but eventually things have to calm down and the parties have to negotiate.”

The $4.8 billion dam on the Blue Nile is more than 40% complete and Cairo is worried Ethiopia might start to fill its 74 billion-cubic-metre reservoir this summer. That process could take three years under average hydrologic conditions or as long as 15 years if Ethiopia chose but analysts say the latter is unlikely.

Addis Ababa said its dam will not affect downstream countries while failing to recognise what Cairo calls its entitlement of 55.5 billion cubic metres of water from the Nile basin under a 1959 agreement between Egypt and Sudan — an agreement to which Ethiopia was not a signatory.

Sudan has moved closer to Ethiopia and away from Egypt partly because more water would allow it to boost its agricultural sector, with two or three crop rotations annually instead of one, said Salman.

“There has been a lot of talk in the Egyptian media, on TV and by officials claiming the dam isn’t safe but I’ve spoken to people who told me Ethiopia approved a $300 million design change just to make sure there isn’t any catastrophic failure,” he added.

Egypt’s fears about the dam are “existentialist” because of its concern about water and energy security, said Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen and now senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “We were in Cairo a year ago and saw Sisi just after he returned from an African Union summit and when he was optimistic about agreement on the dam that has not come to fruition,” he said.

“I don’t think active combat, directly or by proxy, will come soon but there are lots of triggers and rivalries and the dam is a flashpoint.”

Ahmed Soliman, a research associate at London’s Chatham House Royal Institute of International Affairs, said he expected to see a lot more posturing on the issue ahead of this year’s presidential elections in Egypt.

“One bright spot is countries in the Horn of Africa have a lot more agency than they used to and they are forging ahead with integration and infrastructure that could be very beneficial while there are political bodies such as the African Union that can play a role in defusing tensions,” he said.

Military movements may have more to do with preventing smuggling and trafficking but there is no doubt they raised tensions.

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