Egyptian political leaders may have hit upon a novel solution for resolving the ongoing civil unrest that has plagued the country since 1902: Send rebel factions to sabotage an Ethiopian dam.

Politicians on all sides of Egypt’s internal factions united on Monday to condemn Ethiopia’s planned “Grand Renaissance Dam” on the Blue Nile. Leaders worry that the project will reduce the volume of water flowing through the Nile into Egypt. If those worries are correct, the dam could devastate Egypt’s agricultural base and threaten its capacity to generate electricity.

As tensions increase, the rhetoric is growing more ominous. Embattled Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi warned that “Egypt will never surrender its right to Nile water and all options (to safeguard it) are being considered.”  

A Nation at Risk

The Nile is the only source of fresh water for 95% of Egyptians and is the sole source of water for the nation’s agriculture.

The potential impact of the Grand Renaissance Dam project on Egypt is unclear.  Although Ethiopia’s Energy Minister asserts that the dam’s construction “does not cause any harm on any country,” a tripartite report by Egyptian, Sudanese, and Ethiopian representatives suggests otherwise. If the Dam’s reservoirs were to remain full during periods of drought, the water flow could slow enough to prevent Egypt’s Aswan Dam from generating electricity at full capacity, and would probably also decrease the water Egypt has available for irrigating crops.

The dam’s potential impact on Egypt’s electric and agriculture infrastructure are especially alarming in the face of Egyptian officials’ predictions that by 2050 the country’s annual water needs will increase by 40 percent due to population growth.

Moreover, the report contends that Ethiopia did not conduct sufficient studies to demonstrate just what impact the project may have on other Nile riparians (meaning the countries through which the Nile flows).

“All Options Are Being Considered”

Egypt does have some legal recourse, but the issue is complicated.

The only existing agreement between Egypt and Ethiopia on water rights was signed in 1902, when Egypt was effectively a British protectorate. That treaty requires Ethiopia

not to construct or allow to be constructed any works across the Blue Nile, Lake Tsana or the Sobat, which would arrest the flow of their waters into the Nile except in agreement with His Britannic Majesty’s government and the government of the Sudan.

A later series of bilateral agreements between Egypt and Sudan (in 1929 and 1959) split Nile water allocations exclusively between the two nations, leaving nothing for the nine other countries located on the river.

In recent years, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, and the eight other riparians have attempted to create a new governance framework for the region. In 1999, the countries established the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) with the goal of creating a

regional intergovernmental partnership that seeks to develop the River Nile in a cooperative manner, share substantial socio-economic benefits and promote regional peace and security. 

The initiative created a temporary, transitional body to govern water rights until the riparians agreed upon a Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) that would permanently govern the Nile River Basin. Negotiations for the CFA fell apart when participants could not agree to a clause that bound the signatories “not to significantly affect the water security of any other Nile Basin State.”

In the absence of a more recent agreement, the 1902 and 1959 treaties continue to govern Ethiopian water rights.

The Limitations of International Law  

In 1997 the United Nations adopted “The Convention on the Law of the non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourse,” a framework that might apply to the Grand Renaissance Dam project. Two problems loom regarding applying it to the Nile problem.

First, and most daunting, the document remains 5 signatories short of the 35 required for the framework to take effect. Tellingly, none of the Nile riparians have signed the treaty.

Even if the law were in effect, it might not resolve the current dispute. The law provides seven factors for countries to take into consideration when determining “equitable and reasonable” use of the water such as ecology, social and economic needs, and existing and potential use. But the law does not specify any weighting for these seven factors, suggesting instead that

the weight to be given to each factor is to be determined by its importance in comparison with that of other relevant factors.  

The law’s lack of specific guidance is problematic.  

For example, the requirement to consider “existing and potential use” doesn’t specify whether Egypt’s “existing” use of the Nile as its water supply or Ethiopia’s “potential” use of the water to create hydroelectric power should be prioritized.

Next Steps

Right now, the increasingly aggressive language from Egypt is only exacerbating the problem. Egypt’s ominous warnings triggered Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailermariam Desalegn to threaten to file a complaint with the United Nations. Egyptian opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei called on the Egyptian leaders to apologize to Ethiopia. Nour party spokesman Nader Bakkar deemed the suggestion “disgusting.”

Morsi has demanded that Ethiopia provide more information about the dam’s potential effects, as well as an internationally accountable document guaranteeing that the dam will not harm Egypt or Sudan. He also suggested the formation of a technical committee to supervise the project.  

But before the committee is formed, Egypt and Ethiopia have some diplomacy to do. Both can and should make a show of good faith.

Egypt could begin by by looking for water sources in addition to the Nile, such as desalination plants. The Egyptian government should also de-escalate its rhetoric. Ethiopians are rightly spooked by Egyptian posturing; in 1976 Egypt reportedly bombed dam construction in Ethiopia. Egyptian officials should take military option off the table in discussions of the Renaissance dam.

Ethiopia, for its part, needs to demonstrate that the Renaissance Dam won’t negatively impact Egypt by conducting better studies of its potential effects. Halting construction until the studies are released would demonstrate the Ethiopian government’s commitment to such studies.

Developing a more cooperative approach to Nile basin agreements would avoid diplomatic skirmishes and promote fair use of this fundamental natural resource.