By Alexander Allen and William Christiansen, Ph.D., Mount St. Mary’s University
Background on the GERD Dispute
Despite repeated threats of armed conflict from Egypt, the Ethiopian government began construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in 2011 near the Sudan border on the Blue Nile River. The Ethiopian government recently stated seasonal rains resulted in the dam’s filling. Initial operations began in February, signalingthe arrival of a critical juncture in the dispute with Egypt and Sudan.
The downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan continue to express concern about the impact on their water supply, citing predictions that the dam could divert up to a quarter of the downstream flow. Though militarized conflict remains an unlikely outcome before the dam begins operating, the initiation of dam operations represents a turning point for the dispute. Ethiopian leadership recently restated their resolve for completing the dam despite Egypt’s warnings of violence if a “drop of Egypt’s water” is touched. Alongside dam operation, increasing tensions due to rising water scarcity, evolving power dynamics of each country, and weakness of existing agreements all pose challenges to peace.
Analyzing the Prospect of Armed Conflict
Estimates that the GERD would divert as much as a quarter of the river’s flow downstream suggest that the dispute will not be easily resolved. Research by Lee and Mitchell indicates that in instances where the downstream power (i.e. Egypt) possesses sole access to hydroelectric resources, disputes are most likely to settle, as downstream states “can offer oil and natural gas side payments to upstream states in exchange for greater water supplies.” However, this research also finds that “militarized conflict and water related conflict events are most likely in joint energy dyads,” where both parties possess energy resources. This implies the operation of the dam will increase the possibility of conflict, as Ethiopia will gain hydroelectric power at the expense of Egypt’s ability to leverage hydropower for regional influence.
We spoke with Dr. Sara Mitchell about her extensive research on this topic:
“We found there is less militarization and more cooperative events when you have a downstream state that is an energy producer while an upstream state is not. We did find that particular configuration to better promote peace over time…”
In contrast to regional power dynamics, the domestic political context of these countries suggests that conflict is unlikely in the near future. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has openly stated his desire for regional stability, though it is not clear whether el-Sisi sees the dam’s operation or military conflict with Ethiopia as a larger threat to Egyptian security. El-Sisi’s legitimacy was questioned from inception after his coup d’etat to remove former President Mohammed Morsi involved suspending the constitution. While el-Sisi may seek to divert attention from controversy over his rise to power, this is a risky tactic that may backfire.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia is currently struggling to win a civil war with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). In the event of a violent development in the GERD dispute, Ethiopia would have to face Egypt (and potentially Sudan) while simultaneously fighting the TPLF. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed stated that “no force could stop Ethiopia from building a dam” and that he could ready millions of troops if needed. Sudan’s position in the GERD dispute is a question of whether the energy produced by the GERD is worth the risk of reduced freshwater and regional instability. An ongoing war in its Western province of Darfur has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. Sudan also faces a number of border conflicts with South Sudan suggesting that all three parties face internal issues hampering their willingness to become involved in a regional conflict.
Dr. Mitchell stressed that the GERD dispute could intensify these issues:
“…we could imagine Egypt using force eventually to protect its water supplies, it certainly has the capabilities to do that. What is potentially more likely is intrastate violence. The lack of water leads to internal grievances and both governments experience more pressure at home.”
While we argue that the chances of full-scale war (i.e. 1000 casualties or more) are low, the possibility of escalation to small-scale violence between military forces or local non-state actors cannot be ignored, as factors such as water scarcity and changing power dynamics only serve to exacerbate the situation.
Paths to Peace
Research by Owsiak and Mitchell examining types of settlements likely to emerge in riparian disputes identifies an important pattern: states are most likely to pursue resolutions that are formal, arbitrated by a third-party, and are non-binding in nature. Since the World Bank arbitrated recent commitments to negotiation, it is the natural choice for arbitration moving forward. If the conflict escalates, it will begin to encompass issues that are beyond the specialized capacities of the World Bank.
In January of 2020, the parties issued a joint statement with the World Bank, stating their “joint commitment to reach a comprehensive, cooperative, adaptive, sustainable, and mutually beneficial agreement on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.” Although the statement indicates a desire for cooperation on all sides, the date of operation for the GERD continues to approach without a comprehensive deal that contains specific information on what each side is committing to and how these commitments will be monitored and enforced. We agree with recent calls to use the Nile Basin Initiative’s Cooperative Framework Agreement as a model for future negotiations.
The dispute is not simply an issue of water and electricity, but one of power and precedent. Egyptian leadership may be concerned that accepting the GERD’s operation without an established formal agreement may incentivize other powers in the region to begin similar projects (i.e. Sudan or South Sudan damming the White Nile). An expedient resolution is therefore imperative, as it may serve as a powerful precedent for the region.