Blue Nile Dam Nears Completion; Tripartite Agreement Remains Contentious

Building site machines stand on the construction site of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in Guba in northwest Ethiopia in November 2017. The dam is on the Blue Nile and is going to be the largest dam in Africa. (Gioia Forster/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project—due to be completed later this year—has required lengthy negotiations between Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. In recent weeks, the government of Sudan has attempted to continue tripartite meetings after talks stalled in November. The $5 billion project reached 60 percent completion the same month and is expected to take between five and 15 years to fill—in a process Egypt is certain will jeopardize its primary water supplies.

Located in the headwaters of the Blue Nile, the main feeder for Egypt’s Nile Basin, the dam is due to produce over 6,000 megawatts of electricity for Ethiopia. This will make Ethiopia a major powerhouse in the region, allowing the country to export electricity across the region. Meanwhile, the third main party to the development, Sudan, is caught in the middle, with Egypt convinced that Sudan’s support for the GERD forms part of greater disputes between the two countries.

Ethiopia ultimately hosts the source of the Blue Nile, which transcends Sudan before joining the White Nile and entering Egypt, and supplies 85 percent of Egypt’s water. The three countries, and their respective water supplies, are inherently linked. This interdependence has previously encouraged several agreements aimed at fair and efficient means for the states involved to benefit from access to the Nile. Yet, since Ethiopia laid down the cornerstones for the GERD in 2011, the three states have been at loggerheads over securing equitable utilization of the dam, despite numerous talks aimed at resolution and the March 2015 Tripartite Declaration of Principles. Now, with Ethiopia expected to start filling the dam as early as July 2018, the issue has become a focal point in worsening relations between the three parties.

Amid a range of other issues, Egypt and Sudan have also been at loggerheads over the Halayeb Triangle border territory. Ahead of the impending launch of GERD, it is unsurprising that this protracted dispute has again come to the fore. Recent political posturing has not only seen the withdrawal of the countries’ respective ambassadors, but also the co-opting of other regional countries. Sudan has accused Egypt of deploying troops along the border between Eritrea and the government responded by deploying troops on its side of the border. This move is likely to exacerbate historical grievances between Eritrea and Ethiopia, amid Egypt’s ongoing claims that Ethiopia and Sudan have joined forces against Egypt in the GERD dispute.

However, leveraging these historical tensions is not solely confined to the Nile Basin, and the region is fast becoming a proxy stage for the wider Gulf diplomatic crisis, between the Saudi Arabia-led bloc, which includes Egypt, on one side, and Qatar on the other. Despite claiming neutrality, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has sought to grow ties with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—an ally of Qatar—after the two countries reached a lease agreement for Sudan’s Suakin Red Sea Island. The deal regarding Suakin has raised concerns in the region that Turkey will look to establish a military presence on the island. Eritrea will play a pivotal role on behalf of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in counter-balancing a Turkish military presence in the region. Meanwhile, Ethiopia, like Sudan, has positioned itself on Egypt’s opposing side.

The parties have also traded accusations of their counterparts supporting domestic rebels to undermine their authority within their respective territories. Sudan accused Egypt of supporting rebels with military equipment in its own Darfur region, where Sudan has been waging a protracted war against rebel groups. There have also been rumors of an Egyptian military base in Eritrea, as well as alleged Egyptian support for Ethiopian rebels. On the other hand, Egypt accuses Sudan of supporting the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Still, the likelihood of a military conflict between the countries is low. The primary deterrent to this are the human and economic costs of war and its ramifications on all parties. Egypt, which has been shaken by a series of political setbacks since 2011, has struggled to revive its long-ailing economy and attract much needed foreign direct investment. A huge budget deficit, external debt sitting at $80 billion, and budget constraints all restrict Egypt’s appetite for cross-border ventures.

Similarly, in October 2017, the US lifted a long-standing sanctions regime against Sudan. A regional conflict at this time would prove highly detrimental to Sudan’s economic prospects and discourage much needed investment, particularly when there have been increased protests against the al-Bashir government.

In Ethiopia, current political uncertainty in the wake of the resignation of former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, and the implementation of a second state of emergency in under two years, means its own domestic challenges will discourage participation in an interstate conflict. The Tigray Peoples Liberation Front is already seeking to balance a perception of reform within the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front government, while maintaining its political and economic influence, and is unlikely to jeopardize this through war. Additionally, wider regional developments, in Libya, Yemen and Syria, de-incentivize the war option, particularly in a period of augmented international scrutiny, and the current intercontinental migration issue.

What we are likely to witness, however, are less forceful measures. Political posturing and aggressive rhetoric are likely to continue, and relations between the three countries will remain strained. Nonetheless, the countries are still opting for dialogue to settle the current crisis. In addition to Sudan’s recent invitation, for example, Egypt proposed the World Bank to join negotiations on the GERD as an arbitrator. Even though Ethiopia later rejected this proposal, this still suggests a desire to resolve the crisis within a peaceful framework.

Yet, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan are likely to focus on smaller political wins that add to their leveraging power during negotiations. Knowing that internal instability will weaken opposing countries’ negotiating powers is likely to result in clandestine support for domestic rebel activity and opposition groups.  Troop deployments along strategic borders— such as that of Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia—increases the likelihood of localised skirmishes. While a resolution to this complex issue is unlikely over the coming months, GERD coming online will mean tensions are likely worsen, before they improve, over the course of 2018.

Gabrielle Reid is an associate with S-RM, a risk consulting firm that works with leading businesses, governments, and private clients worldwide. Bilaal Bassiouni is an analyst in S-RM’s Middle East and North Africa division.