Why a world facing water scarcity should focus on the Nile dam dispute

The Gerd project continues to divide Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan but resolving the issue would prove that wrangling over resources need not be inevitable

A broad spectral image shows the Blue Nile filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam reservoir near the Ethiopia-Sudan border in 2020. Unesco predicts that in less than two years more than 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity. Reuters
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Among the complications of the years-long disagreement between Cairo, Addis Ababa and Khartoum over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile is that everyone involved has legitimate concerns. Reports this week that a deadline set in July by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to resolve the dispute had expired without progress makes a closer look at this issue more important than ever.

The dam is an impressive 1,800 metres long and 145 metres high, and has a total volume of 74,000 million cubic metres. For Ethiopia, it holds the promise of supplying more of its citizens with electricity and clean water as well as supporting agriculture and reducing the effects of droughts and floods. Addis Ababa regards the dam as an important source of national pride and its operation a matter of national sovereignty.

Nevertheless, damming the Nile will have consequences for Ethiopia's neighbours. Egypt – a country of more than 100 million people who depend on water from the river – is concerned about any project that would put control over the Nile entirely in the hands of another country's government. Egypt faces significant environmental and economic challenges, including a new threat from Houthi Red Sea attacks that are jeopardising vital trade through the Suez Canal. According to a 2021 report from Unicef, Egypt also faces an annual water deficit of about seven billion cubic metres and the country could run out of water by 2025. These are critical issues that fuel Cairo’s call for a legally binding deal on the Gerd’s use.

The Gerd dispute is not just a regional issue; it is a snapshot of how water scarcity will affect international relations in the years ahead as countries vie for control and use of this precious resource. The sense of urgency is acute – Unesco predicts that in less than two years, more than 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity. Therefore, although this latest round of talks has apparently ended without agreement, it is incumbent on all parties to redouble their diplomatic efforts and show leadership by reaching a common-sense understanding on the Nile waters.

Given the current stalemate, now may be the time for greater mediation efforts from the African Union, the UN and other international bodies to help the three countries reach a modus vivendi. A resolution to the Gerd dispute is particularly critical because of the continuing war in Sudan; allowing a damaging situation over the dam to fester could further destabilise a country that is already in the grip of a devastating armed conflict.

River flows know no boundaries and people will always need water. In a world that seems set for further conflict over this life-giving resource, the time is now to reject maximalist positions and find common ground on which all the countries of the Nile basin can come together.

Published: December 21, 2023, 3:00 AM