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Egypt and Ethiopia’s potential water war: what will BRICS+ do?

Photo: Unsplash.com

We are in the first year and the beginning of the second month of operation of the organization of emerging countries in the BRICS+ format. The first official meeting of representatives of the BRICS+ countries took place in Moscow last week, and Russia, the country holding the BRICS+ presidency this year, was praised by all participants for the efforts made in strengthening the organization: the new member countries thanked Russia and China for the invitation to BRICS, declaring them the main sponsor of their candidacies. The expansion of BRICS+ was not without controversy, for instance the episode of Argentina, which after agreeing to be part of the organization backed out at the request of the new president Mila just 3 days before the start of the year. Last week’s meeting, which you can watch here, was focused on financial issues, specifically how member countries can avoid Western financial systems, and the case of Argentina was not discussed at all, with the BRICS+ countries mainly boasting that increasingly more countries (including developed Western countries) want to join the organization. The elephant in the room, however, was the conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia, the new BRICS+ members, a conflict not addressed by any of the BRICS+ representatives publicly. Although not much information appears in the mainstream media, the conflict is over a new dam built by Ethiopia that may limit the amount of water flowing down the valley to Egypt. The possibility of a steep decline in Egypt’s agricultural capabilities and Ethiopia’s need for energy are at the root of the conflict. I will quickly describe the geo-economic situation in Ethiopia and Egypt separately, and then I will more clearly describe the scenario of the conflict between the two countries (and its possible degeneration).

Ethiopia – the land of origin
Ethiopia is the second largest country in Africa, the only one to escape colonization, having a long history of its own great empires, and is seen as the birthplace of humanity thanks to the famous Lucy, the oldest human skeleton discovered boasting a whopping 3.2 million years of age. Ethiopia is also known as the country in Africa that has gone through the most armed conflicts in the last century – almost 150. Due to its size, founding status of the African Union and access to vast amounts of fresh water, Ethiopia is the most powerful country in the Horn of Africa. However, Ethiopia is in a precarious position geo-economically due to its lack of access to the ocean, hence its lack of direct access to the maritime trade routes through which 90% of its imports and exports pass. Thus, Ethiopia is forced to build alternative energy sources to maintain its independence and precarious stability. Its economic insecurity is compounded by the large number of civil wars between its internal factions: Ethiopia is currently facing two major rebellions, both of which have the potential to block the only road linking ports in Eritrea and Djibouti that Ethiopia uses for trade with the capital (https://africanarguments.org/2023/10/will-the-amhara-rebellion-unravel-the-ethiopian-state/). The rise in the number of separatist movements has been attributed to Egypt, which has encouraged rebel groups to erupt into conflict to weaken the Ethiopian government and discourage the construction of the Ethiopian Renaissance Grand Dam (https://www.ooskanews.com/story/2012/09/egypt-made-military-contingency-plans-attack-ethiopia-dam-wikileaks_152478). 
Egypt- the gift of the Nile
Almost as big a country as Ethiopia, Egypt is currently in a precarious position: it has lost its status as the „king of the Arab world”, and its influence in East African countries continues to decline. However, Egypt’s population is growing rapidly, and its economy depends on agriculture and the gauge of the Nile: 95% of Egypt’s population lives along the Nile. Egypt has recently distanced itself from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and Abdel el-Sisi’s policy is now aimed at rapprochement with Turkey, Qatar, and Iran, hoping that these allies will help him pull the country out of the perpetual financial crisis of recent years through FDIs. But regarding the dam, neither old nor new allies can help Sisi: Turkey and Iran invest in Ethiopia more than in Egypt, having even sent weapons to the internal opponents of the Ethiopian regime that were encouraged by Egypt to fight against Addis Ababa, and the UAE and Saudi Arabia are also among Ethiopia’s biggest investors (https://www.mei.edu/publications/realigning-priorities-egypts-strategic-shift-toward-qatar-turkey-and-iran). So, the conflict over the dam that will be deciphered below has great political and economic ramifications in the area.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)
Due to its lack of access to maritime trading routes, Ethiopia is trying to use its fresh water resources to provide power for its impoverished 120 million people. Its most important project is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), built on the Blue Nile, a tributary of the Nile that supplies it with 80% of its water. Ethiopia needs this technology to internally and externally stabilize its country: currently it is estimated that only 20 to 40% of Ethiopians have electricity, but the construction of the GERD would ensure that most of the population will have access to electricity and make Ethiopia an energy exporter to Sudan, the neigbor that has recently supported rebel factions against the Ethiopian government alongside Egypt. The dam sits at the heart of Ethiopia’s future, constituting an ace up the government’s sleeve in future negotiations with its untrustworthy neighbors and the key to a definitive break in the cycle of poverty and violence.
The GERD was completed in 2020 and filled to capacity in September 2023. The GERD cost $5 billion to build and is now the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa, its reservoir holding more water than the annual flow of the Blue Nile. The government is financing the project by selling bonds to international buyers, the largest of which is Djibouti, the alleged intermediary of Saudi Arabia (https://www.power-technology.com/features/featuregrand-renaissance-dam-ethiopia-greatest-risk/ ?cf-view). As a side note, it is interesting that an Italian construction company was awarded the greatly profitable contract to build the dam, which ironic given the tumultuous history of Italy and Ethiopia: Benito Mussolini invaded Addis Ababa in his attempt to to build a new Roman Empire in 1935, but was defeated by the Ethiopians and the British in 1941 and thus Ethiopia was never officially considered an Italian colony.
Water war
If the Nile continues to flow at only 90% capacity, as it is expected to now that the dam has been filled, 5 million Egyptian farmers would lose their jobs and Egypt’s agricultural output would be halved. While the 1929 Anglo-Egyptian treaty gives Egypt a veto over any attempt by an upstream state to build dams along the river, Ethiopia maintains it is not bound by the colonial-era agreement because it never signed it. The construction of the GERD set a dangerous precedent for Egypt, as other countries upstream of the Nile, such as Kenya, could build their own dams and further prevent water from flowing downstream. Without a steady flow of water from the Nile, Egypt, the „gift of the Nile”, will very quickly lose its position as a regional power.
Egyptian President Sisi has said he will use „all available means” to stop the construction and commissioning of the dam, which could lead to a „water war” (https://geographical.co.uk/geopolitics/the -grand-ethiopian-renaissance-dam). Although the GERD has already been achieved and no conflict has yet erupted, geopolitical analysts are concerned about the potential destruction that could be caused by a war between the two countries, both locally and globally. Of the two countries, Ethiopia is the one that does not hesitate to engage in military confrontations, and Egypt seems more peaceful and calculated (at least in recent history). But Egypt has already been involved in another „water war” with catastrophic consequences, so concerns are not unfounded: the 1956 Suez Crisis, triggered by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal, was due to Egypt’s need to raises funds for the construction of the Egyptian dam in Aswan, a dam needed to provide electricity to Egyptians. Nationalization led to the military invasion of Egypt by Israel, France and Britain, and the well-known subsequent wars. The Suez crisis is remarkably similar to today’s situation: the Aswan Dam generated substantial economic benefits for Egypt, establishing it definitively as a regional hegemon during a tumultuous period for its leadership, so exactly what the GERD has the potential to achieve today.
Peace talks so far have been numerous, led and mediated by many different intermediaries, including the US, the African Union, the World Bank and the United Arab Emirates, but so far no progress has been made as Egypt continues to claim that the intermediaries are on Ethiopia’s side and by no means neutral (https://www.eurasiareview.com/29042023-ethiopia-gerd-is-a-gait-accompli-so-its-time-to-get-real-analysis/). The current BRICS+ alliance limits the possibility of a „water war” and can impose itself as a neutral negotiator: a prerequisite for the admission of Egypt and Ethiopia to BRICS was allegedly a promise not to escalate the conflict over the dam. After all, many of the other BRICS+ members have made significant investments in both Egypt and Ethiopia: Moscow gave Egypt the money to build the Aswan Dam, and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and China have significant investments in both countries and are suspected to have financed the GERD itself alongside Turkey (https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20210607-egypt-mp-uae-financing-ethiopia-dam-project/). But Egypt seems destined to remain locked in negotiations where all middlemen have more investments and interests banking on the adversary, and tensions between the two countries will most likely continue to rise.
The high stakes of the GERD’s construction are thus obvious, alongside the fact that war between the two largest East African countries would not be tolerated by any of the other BRICS+ members. But even now, when the two countries are officially members of the same organization, negotiations continue to fail between them, neither willing to offer any kind of real compromise (https://www.aa.com.tr/en/africa/egypt-declares-dead-end-in-renaissance-dam-negotiations-with-ethiopia-sudan/3087456). Given the string of conflicts in the world in 2024, at the forefront of which are Gaza and Ukraine, the last thing the BRICS+ giants would need is conflict within their organization, especially considering the precarious political security in which all of the Horn of Africa countries find themselves in and the lethal consequences such a conflict would have throughout the African continent and the Middle East: both Ethiopia and Egypt are involved in financially, militarily or ideologically supporting many conflicts in the region (here you can access an interactive map with all of the conflicts that have occured in Africa in the last month alone, and here a map of the ones in the Middle East – over 300 in total). However, the danger of armed conflict is very high, and BRICS+ has a minefield to navigate this year: any wrong move that could spark a war between Cairo and Addis Ababa could mean a big step back for the organization that aims for peace and unification of all non-Western countries against the West. China and Russia will have to demonstrate that they can keep all member countries’ individual economic interests in check, and less powerful members like the UAE will have to put peace ahead of profit. Let’s see if this conflict can be bypassed diplomatically. If so, BRICS+ will be able to claim the title of „global peacemaker”.
By Daria Gusa

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