“The Nile constitutes a common destiny; we either sink or swim together, and we chose to swim together.”
Ethiopia’s Former Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, Speech at Egypt’s Economic Conference, March 13, 2015.
“I invite you to write a new chapter in the history of Egyptian-Ethiopian relationships… We have the opportunity today to set a new vision for the future…to transcend the mistakes of the past that should not constrain the present and hinder our aspirations for the future.”
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, Speech at the Ethiopian Parliament, March 25, 2015
These statements by the Egyptian president and Ethiopian prime minister promised a new spirit of cooperation between Egypt, the downstream riparian state that depends almost entirely on the Nile to meet its water needs, and Ethiopia, the upstream riparian state from which more than 85 percent of the Nile’s waters originate. El-Sisi’s statement came after the three Eastern Nile countries—Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan—signed a Declaration of Principles on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), the mega project on the Blue Nile that sparked off tensions between Cairo and Addis Ababa since its launch in April 2011.
The Declaration, signed in Khartoum on March 23, 2015, stipulates that the three Eastern Nile countries would cooperate to conduct the required studies on the downstream impacts of the project, and agree on the guidelines for the first filling and operation of the dam based on these studies. Countries are committed, according to the declaration, to mitigate any “significant harm” that could result from the project, and to negotiate compensation in case this harm occurred. The Declaration, followed by El-Sisi’s visit to Ethiopia to discuss bilateral relations and other steps to foster integration between Ethiopia and Sudan, created a momentum for resolving the historical disagreements between upstream and downstream countries regarding the utilization of the Nile’s waters.
Three years after signing the declaration, little progress has been made to implement it. Technical talks about the baseline for assessing the project’s impact and the scope of these impacts became deadlocked last November. Egypt voiced concern over this stalemate with its president emphasizing that “no one can touch Egypt’s share of the Nile water.” In turn, Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson stressed that Ethiopia “does not need permission from any country” to use its natural resources. At the same time, relations between Egypt and Sudan, the historical downstream allies, have turned sour due to Khartoum’s position on the GERD and other divisive issues such as the border dispute over the Halayeb triangle.
The meeting between the Egyptian and Sudanese presidents and the Ethiopian Prime Minister, on the margins of the African Union (AU) Summit in Addis Ababa last January, deescalated the diplomatic row between Egypt on the one hand, and Ethiopia and Sudan on the other. However, the divisive issues regarding, and beyond the Nile, are far from being resolved and will continue to undermine relations and prevent any progress in cooperation between the three countries.
As far as the GERD and utilization of the Nile’s waters is concerned, failing to commit to the implementation of the Declaration of Principles as a consensual document would be a serious set-back to efforts exerted for over four years and seventeen meetings involving members of the tripartite national committee and ministers of water resources of the three countries. Underpinning the disagreements on the baseline and scope of assessing the GERD’s downstream impacts are long-standing differences over the principles that should govern the utilization of the Nile as a shared river, and their link to historical agreements and current uses. Settling these disagreements was never expected to be an easy task; however, unilateral actions will only return the parties to ground zero.
But tensions over the Nile are not just about water. Water is a single element in a complex web. There is also the heavy baggage of historical grievances in the relations between the three countries. Over the past few months I have been speaking with policy makers and experts from the three Eastern Nile countries on the challenges facing cooperation on the management and use of the shared resources in the sub-basin. The perceptions of the three countries, though divergent, are not necessarily irreconcilable. Egyptian officials are not only concerned about the country’s water scarcity, but also about the use of the Nile water as a political card by Ethiopia and Sudan to put pressure on Egypt in current talks on the GERD, and on other regional issues. Sudan’s and Ethiopia’s recent rapprochement with Egypt’s regional foes, Qatar and Turkey, is seen by Cairo as one manifestation of the politicization of the waters of the Nile.
A number of Sudanese officials and intellectuals have criticized Egypt’s political elites for their narrow, securitized approach and paternalistic attitude towards Sudan. This perception reduces Sudan to a “sidekick” that is expected to support Egypt’s Nile policy, rather than an equal partner and independent country with interests that may set it apart from Egypt. Regimes in both Sudan and Ethiopia believe that Egypt continues to support the political opposition in their countries to weaken them and influence the results of ongoing talks on the GERD, an accusation that Egypt has repeatedly denied.
Ending the stalemate requires committing to new principles, including refraining from using water as a political weapon and from interfering in other countries’ domestic affairs. Joint cooperation based on equal partnership is also needed to optimize the use of available, including alternative water resources in Eastern Nile countries. These principles can guide a new comprehensive deal that offers real benefits to each side in return for concessions. Given the sensitivity of the Nile issue, these benefits would enable each side to sell the deal to its citizens. Otherwise, each side will continue to use its regional policies to seek more leverage to pressure the other parties. They can also benefit from non-cooperation by mobilizing the public against a common enemy threatening the country’s water security or depriving it from using of its natural resources. In a larger Middle East plagued by instability and militarism, the region cannot afford an escalation of conflict over the Nile’s waters.