In the wake of last month’s groundbreaking agreement between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over the rights to develop a dam on a main tributary of the Nile River, scientists’ predictions that water will become the most sought-after commodity of the twenty-first century suddenly seem to be not so far off. On March 23rd, the three countries agreed to a “declaration of principles” that authorized Ethiopia to continue building its controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile, representing the first – albeit major – step towards diplomatic accord in a region where valuable natural resources are all-too-often associated with bitter conflicts, exploitation, environmental degradation, and wealth imbalance. In this regard, despite competing interests between Egypt and Ethiopia over the dam, the agreement signals an important shift towards political compromise to achieve tentative regional cooperation over resource and energy policy.

Ethiopia Waterfall

Image courtesy of gill_penney, ©2008, some rights reserved.

The “declaration of principles” is a preliminary agreement that ensures greater cooperation over the use of the Nile’s resources, particularly in the context of the GERD, in the near future. Under its terms Ethiopia will share electricity the GERD generates with Egypt and Sudan, the three countries will establish a diplomatic framework for resolving conflicts regarding water flow, and any country that causes significant damage to the Nile will compensate the other countries for this damage.[1] Thus, despite its relatively open terms, the agreement marks a rapid de-escalation of long-standing disputes between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Nile’s resources only two years after former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and other top Egyptian officials vowed to go to war with Ethiopia if the construction of the dam continued.

Indeed, the significance of the diplomatic agreement for Ethiopia matches the monumental structure of the GERD. Scheduled for completion in 2017, the dam is slated to become Africa’s largest power provider, and will generate 6,000 megawatts of hydroelectric energy. Despite construction costs of $4.8 billion dollars, the dam will reportedly give Ethiopia the capacity to export $1 billion in hydroelectric energy per annum, according to the World Bank.[2] Generating enough energy to fulfill the majority of the country’s demand and to provide a valuable source of export revenue, the project commendably does not receive foreign investment and is financed exclusively by Ethiopians themselves, largely in the form of tax revenues and the sale of government bonds. As such, the dam aims to solve two of Ethiopia’s largest problems facing the country’s economic development: firstly, a lack of energy to power the growing economy – estimated at 10.5% in 2013 – and secondly, an over-dependence on foreign countries to develop the country’s resources.[3]

However, history plays a critical role in the formulation of each party’s demands at the negotiation table. Arguably, the controversy over the dam’s construction arises from Egypt and Ethiopia’s different cultural identities and competing historical narratives, many of which are centered on the significance of the Nile’s resources. Egypt relies heavily on the Nile’s water as the basis of its agricultural output and energy production – not to mention as a vital drinking source – for its 82 million-person population.

Furthermore, Egypt considers controlling the Nile’s flow a top national security issue, and the country previously invoked two colonial-era treaties in an attempt to stop Ethiopia from building the dam. In the 1929 and 1959 Nile Water Agreements, Britain awarded Egypt and Sudan the sole rights to develop the Nile’s resources based largely on Ancient Egypt’s historical dependence on the Nile as a precedent, and they are being used to set a precedent more than 60 years later.[4] However, Egypt’s willingness to sign the “declaration of principles” suggests that the country will work to negotiate, rather than to conflict, with future economic developments along the Nile River and its tributaries. Most importantly for Egypt, which at this stage in the progress of the GERD does not have other realistic options other than to negotiate with Ethiopia, the treaty explicitly outlines cooperation based on the principles of “mutual understanding, common interest, good intentions, benefits for all, and the principles of international law.”[5] In light of this agreement, Egypt’s policy trajectory will aim to hold Ethiopia accountable to the aforementioned principles of the treaty, and Egypt will likely continue to take a firm position in future negotiations over the dam’s operation and the specific division of the Nile’s water flow.[6]

On the other hand, Ethiopia’s historical narrative largely revolves around its perception of the country as a former regional power. The GERD – in particular the ‘R’ in GERD meaning ‘renaissance’ – manifests a crucial landmark in Ethiopia’s vision to “recover its past glory” in its path to become a regional power.[7] From a cultural perspective, the fact that much of the Nile’s tributaries derive from watersheds on Ethiopian territory gives the country the imperative to build the GERD; furthermore, from a legal perspective, Ethiopia’s minister of water, energy, and irrigation, Alemayehu Tegenu, rejects the colonial basis for the 1929 and 1959 treaties as “obsolete.”[8] Under current Prime Minister Haliemariam Desalegn, Ethiopia conjures its historical right to build the dam in order to present the project as a vehicle for energy independence and as a symbol of nation building, a vision that many Ethiopians – although information and free speech in the country is restricted – support.[9] Thus, the recent agreement with Egypt and Sudan over the Nile’s resources represents a major step forward for Ethiopia’s policy trajectory – both for the continued development of the dam itself, as well as for the country’s regional aspirations, as the agreement sets the precedent for much more robust Ethiopian control over the Nile’s resources. Thus, at least in the short-term, Ethiopia will likely continue to advocate for trust and cooperation between the countries, and will approach future negotiations with the confidence and leverage that this agreement provides.

            Both physical power and political power flow from the banks of the Nile. Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia’s transition to a constructive dialogue over the development of the Nile symbolizes a regional recognition that the center of physical and political power is shifting upstream; yet at the same time, the agreement proves that the countries recognize that water is a precious resource over which multilateral cooperation is necessary. Ultimately, all countries involved need to work to avoid the pitfalls of the notorious ‘resource curse’ – the economic paradox of plentiful resources albeit low economic development – at all costs. According to the agreement, “The purpose of the Renaissance Dam is to generate power, contribute to economic development, promote cooperation beyond borders, and regional integration through generating clean sustainable energy.” While the dam is still under construction, whether these promises will be fully upheld remains to be seen. However, the cooperative framework established in the “declaration of principles” represents a good foundation from which to start.

[1] http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/125941/Egypt/Politics-/Full-text-of-Declaration-of-Principles-signed-by-E.aspx

[2] http://www.cnn.com/2015/03/06/africa/grand-reneissance-dam-ethiopia/

[3] http://www.cnn.com/2015/03/06/africa/grand-reneissance-dam-ethiopia/; http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG/countries

[4] http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/03/egypt-eastern-nile-water-agreement-ethiopia-sudan.html#

[5] http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/125941/Egypt/Politics-/Full-text-of-Declaration-of-Principles-signed-by-E.aspx; http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2015/0327/Egypt-signs-Nile-dam-deal-with-Ethiopia-after-years-of-dispute.-What-changed-video

[6] http://www.npr.org/blogs/goatsandsoda/2015/03/26/395321624/dont-torpedo-the-dam-full-speed-ahead-for-ethiopias-nile-project

[7] http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/jul/14/ethiopia-grand-renaissance-dam-egypt

[8] http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/jul/14/ethiopia-grand-renaissance-dam-egypt

[9] http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/jul/14/ethiopia-grand-renaissance-dam-egypt

[1] http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/125941/Egypt/Politics-/Full-text-of-Declaration-of-Principles-signed-by-E.aspx

[2] http://www.cnn.com/2015/03/06/africa/grand-reneissance-dam-ethiopia/

[3] http://www.cnn.com/2015/03/06/africa/grand-reneissance-dam-ethiopia/; http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG/countries

[4] http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/03/egypt-eastern-nile-water-agreement-ethiopia-sudan.html#

[5] http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/125941/Egypt/Politics-/Full-text-of-Declaration-of-Principles-signed-by-E.aspx; http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Africa/2015/0327/Egypt-signs-Nile-dam-deal-with-Ethiopia-after-years-of-dispute.-What-changed-video

[6] http://www.npr.org/blogs/goatsandsoda/2015/03/26/395321624/dont-torpedo-the-dam-full-speed-ahead-for-ethiopias-nile-project

[7] http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/jul/14/ethiopia-grand-renaissance-dam-egypt

[8] http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/jul/14/ethiopia-grand-renaissance-dam-egypt

[9] http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/jul/14/ethiopia-grand-renaissance-dam-egypt