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Photo: Abiy Ahmed (second right) with military commanders in February 2019 from Morning Star
Wars over resources have up-ticked post World War Two. Nations that sought to secure strategic interests have conflicted with oil, gas, and minerals—but a war over water could ensue along the Nile River.
Ethiopia and Egypt, two countries that have been in gridlock in Africa, have had several decades of conflict over the Blue Nile. This has heightened with the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). This conflict, which could become a war over water, wouldn’t be constrained to the region but could have global repercussions—something the United States must prepare for if it does.
The Nile River flows south to north, and eight different nations produce their agriculture from the basin. Egypt and Ethiopia, two countries who don’t ideologically align, had a lukewarm partnership as part of the Non-aligned Movement during the Cold War.
The last Ethiopian Emperor, Haile Selassie, had planned to create a dam to help the economically impoverished nation. Egypt would harshly criticize those plans, and successive autocrats, such as Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, would quietly back rebel movements in Ethiopia to destabilize these plans.
In the mid-1970s, Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown by the pro-Soviet Derg junta, who also planned to create a dam. Egypt and Sudan would continue to back movements that fought against the state. Due to Ethiopia’s drift into communism which simultaneously occurred when Egypt made peace with Israel, relations between Addis Ababa and Washington drifted while Cairo reaped the benefits.
Growing Conflict over the GERD
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam officially went through construction in 2011, which Addis Ababa has called an economic development project as it has created a plethora of jobs and energy for the nation. Cairo sees this as a threat to their economy and security as much of their country’s agriculture will depend on how much Ethiopia puts out along the Blue Nile.
The Nile River has historically correlated with Egypt’s hegemony over the region. It accounts for over 90% of the country’s water supply. With completion, the GERD will decrease the water flow to Egypt and Sudan while Ethiopia fills its portion. For Cairo, this would cause economic devastation, especially as their ever-growing and young population does not have great accessibility to jobs aside from irrigation.
Ethiopia sees the GERD as their best chance to escape their millennia-long poverty and put the nation at the forefront of rising African economies. Addis Ababa could extend its electrical grid to regions that have been historically cut off and also export energy to their nations. Any attempts at sabotage by Egypt would be a formal and economic declaration of war.
United Nations and American Mediation
Egypt has forwarded its concerns about the GERD to the United Nations Security Council. Stating an old treaty in which the British recognized Egypt’s claims to the Nile, Cairo has used this to argue against the dam. Nonetheless, this same treaty to the British ignored upstream countries such as Ethiopia, which was created during the age of colonization.
Egypt has argued to the United Nations that filling should be slow and take twelve to twenty years, whereas Ethiopia needs to show a return for the massive amounts of funds to create the dam in five to seven years. The point of negotiations has gone to a crossroads. The African Union and United Nations have failed to produce comprehensive results, and Ethiopia currently holds all chips on its side of negotiations.
The State Department attempted to mediate between both nations which currently receive billions in US foreign aid. Washington has attempted to mitigate Ethiopia’s ambitions by threatening to cut off some key assistance, in which Addis Ababa stated they would pull out of negotiations in return.
Over the past year, Ethiopia and the United States have slowly reconciled, while relations with Egypt have been lukewarm. With Egyptian President Sisi rehabilitating the Assad Regime and leaked documents showing Cairo planned to arm the Russian Military in Ukraine, this could be a major drift in Egypt’s hand in GERD negotiations.
What a War Could Look Like
Egypt, which has made it clear a military option is on the table, could potentially use Sudan’s airspace and close relations to attack Ethiopia. Sudan has been a hotbed of extremists and anti-Ethiopian government rebels, and both states have had armed clashes over the past several decades.
Any potential invasion plans of Egyptian forces using Sudan as a starving point would be easily seen by Ethiopia and satellite imagery by the United States. If relations between Cairo and Washington continue to drift, US intel could tip off Addis Ababa beforehand, giving them ample time to prepare their forces.
Geographically, both nations are separated by Sudan, whose lukewarm but pro-Egyptian stance could make the nation a potential battleground. The results would be another humanitarian catastrophe as Sudan, Ethiopia, and Egypt all have unstable situations held together by hardliners who have increasingly become unpopular by various factions within their respective states.
There is also the prospect of an Egyptian-Ethiopian war becoming a proxy of foreign peers. Erdogan’s AKP party backs the Oromo-led government of Addis Ababa and also has a regional dispute with Egypt in the Mediterranean and Libya. There is also the prospect of the disruption of the Suez Canal if both nations cripple each other’s resources, which would disrupt global trade.
With two ever-rapidly growing populations, both Ethiopia and Egypt could amass millions of conscripts—making a potential war between both states the largest between African nations in modern history. Negotiating a resolution recognizing Ethiopia’s right to fill the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam while acknowledging a proper timeline that wouldn’t cripple Egypt into war will become an utmost priority for the international community.
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