The dispute over the Nile: Can the African Union succeed where the West failed?

Anet McClintock | Middle East and North Africa Fellow

In mid-July Ethiopia began filling its controversial yet humbly named, Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD). The hydroelectric dam, located upstream on the Nile river, promises to power the country’s economic ambitions and provide electricity to millions of impoverished Ethiopians.


For almost a century, water management agreements in the Nile Basin have tended to favour downstream countries, such as Egypt and Sudan. These agreements - largely brokered by Western countries - have caused increasing tensions, including the current disagreement about the GERD between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan.


Following almost a decade of failed talks between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over the GERD (including talks hosted by the US in 2020), the African Union (AU) has now stepped in to attempt to help reach agreement. The GERD will prove to be a critical case study for the emerging regional institution, not only in potentially putting an end to decades of disagreement, but also in demonstrating its diplomatic peace-keeping capabilities.


A history of controlling the Nile


Part of the reason a resolution between these countries has been so difficult to reach is due to the complex history of water management in north-east Africa. A colonial-era agreement in 1929 between Great Britain, Egypt and Sudan, followed by a 1959 addendum, ensured Egypt and Sudan would receive 67 per cent and 22 per cent of the water supply from the Nile, respectively. Great Britain made no provision for upstream countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda or Tanzania.


These early colonial-era agreements thus failed to create comprehensive legal frameworks for the equitable distribution of Nile water between all Nile Basin countries and are a key reason why Egypt and Sudan feel like they have historical rights to the Nile river. Ethiopia feels these agreements are especially egregious given 80 per cent of Egypt’s water originates in Ethiopia.


In an attempt to renegotiate the agreements, most Nile Basin countries signed up to the Cooperative Framework Agreement; a 2010 agreement which aims to ensure the equitable distribution and sustainable use of the Nile water. But Egypt and Sudan have to date refused to sign on.


Why the stakes are so high


Water and energy security are crucial issues for Ethiopia. The country is already Africa’s second most populous, and recent modelling from the Pew Research Centre predicts it will be the eighth-most populous country in the world by 2100. The energy produced by the GERD will assist Ethiopia in diversifying its growing economy. The GERD is predicted to produce 6.4 gigawatts of electricity, which is enough to supply power to every Ethiopian citizen in a country where only 45 per cent of people currently have access to electricity.


With the colonial-era agreements so disproportionately favouring Egypt, it has the most to lose in these negotiations. Although the GERD won’t use large quantities of water, it will control the Nile’s water flow. Egypt is reluctant to place its faith in Ethiopia by letting it control the river which provides 90 per cent of Egypt’s water. Symbolically, the GERD will also be the first mega-structure on the Nile to rival Egypt’s Aswan Dam built in the 1960s, possibly signalling the end of the 70-year long Egyptian hegemony in the region.


Sudan is in a more conflicted position. While the country does have concerns surrounding water security, especially during the years the dam is being filled, the GERD could also provide a reprieve from the devastating seasonal flooding it experiences by controlling water flow. For these reasons, Sudan has attempted to maintain a relatively neutral position, whilst caught in the crossfire between Ethiopia and Egypt.


Can the AU achieve a resolution?


Since the construction of the GERD began in 2010, 90 per cent of the technical issues causing disputes between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have been resolved. The primary problem remaining is how to address the issue of droughts.


For a country that is over 90 per cent desert, Egypt wants to ensure it will have access to water if it needs it – but Ethiopia is reluctant to promise large quantities of water if it impacts its electricity output. In January, talks hosted in Washington failed to deliver consensus on this linchpin issue.


Half a year later, Trump threatened to withhold aid to Ethiopia over the GERD, partially because of Egypt and America’s aligned interests, and partially because Ethiopia rejected the final agreement proposed by the US. Many in Ethiopia interpreted this as support for Egypt’s position, and that the West (particularly the United States), cannot be trusted to be impartial on this issue. This opened an opportunity for the AU to step in.


The AU’s aims are “to promote the unity and solidarity of the African States” and “to eradicate all forms of colonialism from Africa”. The GERD will be an essential case study on whether, and how, the AU can achieve these goals.


Tripartite negotiations under the auspices of the AU began in early July. While the first round of talks failed to reach a decisive agreement, with Egypt and Sudan at times threatening to pull out of negotiations altogether, the AU has managed to keep all parties at the negotiating table thus far.


The GERD is the AU’s prime opportunity to flex its diplomatic muscle as an emerging regional organisation, while achieving its vision of pan-Africanism. All countries involved are invested in reaching a resolution to this issue that has long wrought the region. The GERD presents a chance for the AU to succeed where the West has for so long failed.


Anet McClintock is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.


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