Crisis of the Dams: Is Egypt on the Threshold of a War with Ethiopia?

Egypt is on the brink of war with Ethiopia because of the Ethiopian construction of a large hydroelectric dam on the Nile.


For Egypt, the implementation of this project is without exaggeration a question of life and death. And for Ethiopia – a new national idea.


What are the chances of a new hot spot on the world map?


Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has already left for negotiations in Addis Ababa, but de facto the situation is deadlocked, writes the daily Vzgliad.


Some Egyptian political forces openly call for launching military operations against the neighboring country. The fact is that, in case of construction of this dam on the Nile, the country could be without water or electricity and become dependent on Ethiopia, which claims the role of a new regional leader.


The dam built by Ethiopia is so huge that it would have attracted the attention of the international community regardless of political resonance and conflict with Egypt. Notably, because the Ethiopians sought to keep the details of the project secret for a long time.


The estimated total cost is already approaching $5 billion, nearly 10% of the national GDP.


In 1929, the United Kingdom, Egypt and Ethiopia signed an agreement giving Cairo the right of veto over any project of neighboring countries on the Nile. In 1959, this agreement was overhauled, but the fund remained the same until recently. In other words, the colonial-era regime of agreements applies in virtually unchanged form in the twenty-first century.

Ethiopia decided to unilaterally get rid of colonial restrictions immediately after the appearance of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project (also called the Renaissance Dam).


In 2013, the country’s parliament ratified a controversial law calling for the replacement of colonial agreements with new agreements which allow the country to legitimately dispose of the waters in the Nile and in Lake Tana.


The Egyptian president at the time, Mohamed Morsi, had other problems and declared that he did not want to get involved in a war with Ethiopia, but that he would not be able to question water supplies in Egypt. Knowing that many 2013 Egyptian politicians openly and publicly called for an immediate declaration of war against Ethiopia.


Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has embarked on the modernization of all aspects of Egyptian life, from birth control to economic diversification. In these circumstances, being faced with a shortage of water and energy is the last thing the Egyptian leader wants.


Al-Sissi launched a vast diplomatic activity and, in the spring of 2015, he managed to sign a new trilateral agreement on the Nile with Ethiopian Prime Minister Haile Mariam Dessalegn and Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. But his text was vague and did not impose any direct engagement in Addis Ababa.


Egypt found itself isolated. Even Sudan, which borders the Ethiopians, turned their backs on Egypt. Khartoum unilaterally annulled the “Strategic Pact” with Cairo, which resumed overall colonial agreements in exchange for which Addis Ababa promised to build a “counter-dam” on the Sudanese territory and share the revenues.


For Ethiopia, the dam of the Renaissance has become a kind of a national idea. “The roadblock we are building with joint efforts is part of the mega projects not only to Africa, but to the whole world as well. So, this project became a source of our national pride,” and this was how the situation was discussed by the country’s prime minister Haile Mariam Dessalegn.


The infrastructure project of this magnitude required enormous efforts. Nearly $2 billion has been invested by Chinese banks, the rest Ethiopians have managed to get by tightening their belts with some involvement of the African Development Bank. But it is promised that all spending will be largely amortized, which will make Ethiopia the second largest electricity producer after South Africa to make it a regional leader, especially in the political sphere, by rejecting the former indisputable leader – Egypt.


Cairo’s fear and panic is growing exponentially. First, Egyptians fear a sharp decline in the flow of the Nile after filling the dam reservoir. Secondly, the concentration of water in the tank will lead to its reduction due to evaporation.


Third, the dam is appearing to Egypt as a “death star” – a water release from the dam by Ethiopia could kill two-thirds of Egyptians by river tsunamis.


Addis Ababa thus misses international conventions and UN General Assembly resolutions on the use of water resources.


Cairo is not yet inclined to a military settlement of the situation, especially as results are not obvious. Admittedly, the army and the capabilities of the two countries are incomparable, but what are we proposing? Occupy the Ethiopian province of Benishangul-Gumuz? Install in Addis Ababa a puppet government? Both options are a real headache, not to mention that much of Ethiopia’s population is Christian, and such a conflict would quickly backlash as a serious problem to Egypt.


However, a succession of minor frontier conflicts is possible. They could destabilize the region where construction is taking place, which could influence project participants, including the Chinese. The prospect of a long armed conflict because of the dam is, unfortunately, quite feasible.


On the other hand, Egypt is clearly not ready for such a scenario, and Ethiopia will not let it go.


For the moment, various diplomatic missions are hopeful that the negotiations between Cairo and Addis Ababa will continue. The World Bank has decided to act as a mediator, but its services often seem doubtful. The mission of Minister Shoukry is not over, and will certainly be postponed to next year.