This is a guest post by Caila Glickman, volunteer intern for the Council on Foreign Relations’ department of Global Health. Caila is currently a pre-med student at Oberlin College studying chemistry and international relations. Her interests are in medicine, environmental science, and international law.
In a vicious dispute over water allocation of the Nile River, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan are wading through uncharted waters of international law. The dispute begins in Ethiopia’s attempt to regain control of its contributory river, the Blue Nile, by building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). However, the dam’s legality is being questioned by both Egypt and Sudan—two downstream Nile states eager to maintain the status quo of water allocation.
Many believe the Nile River is sourced in Egypt, but it actually stretches from Burundi to the Mediterranean Sea. Egypt receives well over half of the river’s water because the river flows north; however, its two biggest feeders—the White Nile and the Blue Nile—are located in Uganda and Ethiopia, two southern but upstream Nile states with limited access to the Nile’s water.
Historically, Egypt and Sudan have exploited the Nile through exclusive treaties that failed to include the upstream countries such as Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda. The main treaty, known as the 1959 Nile Waters Agreement, called for the unimpeded flow of Nile waters, but only included Egypt and Sudan in its negotiations and ratification. Egypt uses this treaty to object to the construction of the GERD. Sudan has essentially piggybacked off of Egypt’s objections, as the current system of water allocation benefits the Sudanese.
Ethiopia’s right to the dam lies in the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), which was adopted by Nile Basin Initiative member states, or all states that have some claim to the Nile. The CFA says that each Nile state is, “entitled to a reasonable share in the beneficial uses of water resources of the Nile system.” Ethiopia, a contributor of over 86 percent of the Nile River’s flow, receives only 5 percent of the Nile’s water, which is not enough to kick start its development.
An electricity deficiency currently ails upstream Nile states and stifles their economic growth capability with constant power shortages. Ethiopia sees the GERD as the answer to the country’s stifling electricity issues. This dam will be used to create the continent’s largest hydropower plant that will fill all demand, generating three times the country’s current electricity production and providing neighboring states with all surplus power.
Within the GERD dispute context, the greater issue at hand becomes clear—current international law does not reflect the less-developed riparian countries’ rights to water. In fact, many are cheated out of their water and the power it gives them to develop. As Zadig Abraha, deputy director of the dam’s public mobilization office, said, “To regain our lost greatness, to divorce ourselves from the status quo of poverty… we need to make use of our natural resources, like water.” The dam is a declaration of the country’s determination to pull itself up by its bootstraps.
Ethiopia has convinced Egypt and Sudan to sign a declaration of principles that approved dam construction under the condition that studies be done to assess the impact the project will have on Egypt and Sudan. Despite this compromise, the issue will be continually present as developing countries around the world seek to reclaim their water rights to the dismay of developed countries banking on their silence.