The escalation of tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt over the Nile water dispute has cast a shadow on the United Nations International Year of Water Cooperation.
Last May, when Ethiopia began diverting the course of the Blue Nile as part of a project aimed at building the biggest hydroelectric dam in Africa, Egypt’s reaction was fierce.
Following the June 1st report of the trilateral technical committee assessing possible repercussions on the other riparian states, the then-President Mohamed Morsi chaired a meeting of the Egyptian team, during which some members proposed military action to stop the project. While these heated reactions were later watered down, the subject remains delicate.
Ever since the project for the construction of the Grand Renaissance Dam was made public in 2011, Sudan and Egypt have strongly opposed it, protesting against the catastrophic impact it would have on the volume of water flow reaching the two countries.
Crossing eleven countries before flowing into the Mediterranean, the Nile has been the source of many conflicts between upstream and downstream states. Most of its water (85%) comes from the Blue Nile, which originates in Ethiopia near Lake Tana. For a long time, Ethiopia had lacked the resources and technology to exploit this precious resource, while 58% of its population continues to live without electricity, and the rest face frequent blackouts. Once completed, the Grand Renaissance Dam will have a capacity of almost 6 GW and, according to the government, enable the country to increase its energy supply fivefold by 2015. Ethiopia’s then-Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, insisted that all countries in the region would benefit from the dam, as they will have the opportunity to import cheaper energy. While Sudan was convinced and now supports the project, Egypt claims that there have not been any comprehensive investigations and is determined to fight the project.
Looking at the legal side of this dispute, both Egypt and Sudan base their claims on a 1959 agreement, which granted the two downstream users full utilisation of the Nile’s flow, 55.5 and 18.5 billion cubic meters of water respectively. In addition, colonial treaties with the United Kingdom protect the interest of the downstream countries. From a legal point of view, however, these treaties cannot bind Ethiopia. The Vienna Convention on the Law of the Treaties clearly states that a treaty binds only the signatories. Moreover, the treaties are invalid according to the “clean slate” doctrine, stating that when a state gains independence from a colonial power it is not bound by any agreement made during the colonial period. Above all, the Equitable and Reasonable Use principle of customary law establishes a common legal right of all riparian states to use the water flow, without any of them being privileged.
Ethiopia has opposed these treaties for years. In 1999 the Nile Basin Initiative, a framework for cooperation amongst all riparian countries (except for Eritrea who participates as a spectator), was established. But in 2010 Ethiopia and other six upstream countries set up a new ‘Cooperative Framework’ in their attempt to reshape the unfair repartition. Egypt and Sudan fought this initiative but now have to face the fact that the colonial legacy must be abandoned and that Ethiopia has the right to a sustainable development and to eradicate poverty.
The consequences of the dam for Egypt could be many. Despite the Ethiopian Water and Energy Ministry assurance, in the report submitted on June 1st, that there will not be any significant repercussions on the downstream countries and guarantees that the filling of the reservoir will not impact the volume of the water flow, it remains unclear how that is possible. The size of the reservoir is such that it would definitely reduce the flow of the Nile during the period immediately after the dam’s completion so as to permit its filling. The flow would also be decreased by the increased amount of water evaporating from the larger surface area of the reservoir. Further, despite the government’s claims that the only aim of the dam is to produce electricity, it is unlikely that Ethiopia will refrain from using it for irrigation in case of a dry season. As Egypt is 97% desert, and has an 80m-person population concentrated along the banks of the river, it is critically dependant on the Nile’s flow, hence its obvious concern.
This dispute over the Nile is one of several such conflicts over trans-boundary watercourses that are taking place around the world today. Indeed, the substantial lack of international agreements on this issue increases the risk of an outbreak of conflict over water—a legal inadequacy that can be partially attributed to the involvement of many states in the management of the same watercourse, thus making it difficult to reach an agreement.
The UN General Assembly officially recognized the human right to water and sanitation only in 2010. Before and after, there have been a slew of organisations, programmes, cooperative frameworks and global forums, many of which are guided by the UN in their aims to spread awareness, promote education and research, encourage cooperation and legal agreements. The International Hydrological Programme, including the From Potential Conflict to Cooperation Potential, The World Water Council, the Global Water Forum, and UN-Water are just a few examples. The UN-Water declared 2013 to be the International Year of Water Cooperation, an initiative aimed at raising awareness through a series of events throughout the year under the slogan “Water, water everywhere only if we share”.
Raising awareness and encouraging cooperation is undeniably of extreme importance and it has had good results, as testified by the numerous agreements completed in the past years (the NBI being one of them). But treaties on trans-boundary waters are frequently weak and “easy” to get around. There is a need for a body that can monitor and make sure that enforcement takes place.
Ethiopia’s willingness to cooperate and its openness to a joint assessment of the dam’s consequences seem to indicate a possible positive outcome. The question is whether or not Egypt’s political instability will enable the two countries to settle the dispute.