This article was originally published here on Salon.com on Tuesday, January 16, 2018.
Around the time I was a Washington intern in the spring of 1989, I began hearing that the “next war in the Middle East will be over water.” These warnings continued fairly regularly throughout my years in graduate school and the early part of my professional career, but because there were thirteen wars (not including various skirmishes) in the region in the intervening decades that had nothing to do with water scarcity, it became easy to dismiss the “water war” reports and op-eds that came across my desk.
I have not heard much about the issue recently, with the exception of the hypothesis that drought in southern Syria was a contributing factor to the uprising-turned-civil-war that began there in March 2011. Now an actual conflict over H2O may be boiling, but no one in Washington has put down Michael Wolff’s book long enough to notice. Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia may come to blows—with the help of Turkey, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates—over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project.
This is a conflict that, if it actually comes to violence, is one that has long been in the making. In 1929, the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty gave Egypt the lion’s share of Nile River water—about 50 billion cubic meters, whereas Sudan was allowed just 4 billion. The Egyptians were also granted the right to reject upstream construction projects. Postcolonial Egypt and an independent Sudan signed a new agreement in 1959 that increased both parties’ share of the river’s flow but maintained Egypt’s overwhelming benefits. Other riparian states such as what is now Eritrea, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, and South Sudan had no say, either because they didn't yet exist or were not independent nations.
Over the years the Egyptians haven’t been terribly interested in altering the terms of the 1950s-era agreement for one simple reason: The Nile is a matter of life or death. Egypt gets negligible rainfall, and as a result has always relied on the Nile to feed itself and provide for the country’s economic well-being. The annual flood waters made it possible to grow fruit, vegetables, and cotton. These floods were life-giving but also dangerous: The annual deluge sometimes destroyed property and killed people. In 1956, the Egyptians began constructing the Aswan High Dam—with proceeds from the nationalized Suez Canal and the help of the Soviet Union—which would control the flood waters, ensure Egypt had adequate supplies of water during droughts, and provide hydroelectric power that would propel President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s plans for industrialization.
The Nile is so important that, setting aside terrorism and internal stability, Egypt’s most significant security concerns lay largely to the south and are directly related to the unimpeded flow of the river’s waters. At the same time, even though Sudan could often be a problematic neighbor, the idea that there might be a conflict over the Nile always seemed theoretical—until April 2011. That was when the Ethiopians began construction of the GERD project along the Blue Nile. Just as the Egyptians did in the 1950s with the Aswan High Dam project, Ethiopia’s leaders regard their dam as a critical component of development. They, and officials from other riparian states, reject the argument that Egypt should continue to enjoy the largest share of water. That was always based on an Egyptian position that essentially amounts to “We are Egypt and you're not; you get rain and we don’t.”
When GERD is completed, it will reduce Egypt’s share of Nile water by 22 billion cubic meters per year, devastating Egyptian agriculture and hydroelectric production, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources. This is obviously of critical concern to Egypt’s leaders, but they have not been able to reach a diplomatic solution to the problem. The country has been preoccupied with internal developments since the uprising in 2011 that pushed President Hosni Mubarak from power. In addition, the issue of the Ethiopian dam has been managed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is not as influential as it once was, especially in comparison to the Ministry of Defense and the General Intelligence Directorate. There was an effort to resolve the problem in 2015, with Sudan acting as a broker between Egypt and Ethiopia, but that failed.
Now the Egyptians and Sudanese are engaged in a spat that has become caught up in regional rivalries, and threatens to become intertwined with Ethiopia and GERD. The Sudanese recently welcomed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Khartoum, where he signed a number of security-cooperation agreements, including a provision to allow the Turks to administer Suakin Island, located at a strategic point in the Red Sea between Egypt, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia. The island used to be home to an Ottoman naval base, and the Egyptians fear the Turks plan to renovate the island and establish a permanent military presence there.
A few months earlier, Qatar also upgraded its security relations with Sudan. This has not made the Egyptians very happy, given Turkish and Qatari support for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has exacerbated tension between Cairo and Khartoum over the Hala’ib and Shalateen disputed zones, which are located on the border between Egypt and Sudan but administered by the Egyptians. Now Sudan is mucking about in the sensitive issue of the Sanafir and Tiran islands, implying that Egypt did not have the right to transfer them to Saudi Arabia—which caused an outcry among many Egyptians—because they may actually have been Sudanese in the first place. This is Sudanese trolling to malevolent ends.
In response to all this, the Egyptians deployed a helicopter carrier in the Red Sea and sent troops to an Emirati base in Eritrea. This in turn angered the Ethiopians. Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia in 1993 and the two countries fought a border war in the late 1990s that killed an estimated 80,000 people. In 2016 they briefly clashed again, killing hundreds more. In response to the presence of Egyptian troops in Eritrea, the Ethiopians not only rejected a Cairo proposal to cut Khartoum out of negotiations over GERD, but Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn hosted the Sudanese defense minister and vowed to speed up dam construction. All the while the Sudanese deployed thousands of troops to its border with Eritrea.
The Egyptians have both called on the World Bank to help resolve the impasse over Ethiopia’s dam and vowed to protect Egypt’s share of Nile waters. There is a certain amount of implicit bellicosity in this rhetoric, given that Egyptian leaders have openly threatened war in the recent past. But this is something they can ill afford, given the instability they face from an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula and a terrorist threat in the Western desert.
It is not hard to imagine how all this escalates into warfare. We are not dealing with the best militaries in the world, which reduces the margin for error and miscalculation. It is also a potential conflict that involves a number of important American allies against each other. Turkey, a NATO ally, and Qatar, which hosts the largest American military base outside the United States, have aligned themselves with Sudan and by extension with Ethiopia, another American ally. On the other side we have Egypt, a longtime partner of the United States in the Middle East, and Eritrea. The United Arab Emirates, a critical player in the Persian Gulf and beyond, would also likely be involved given its ties to Egypt and Eritrea.
This is a situation that calls out for American mediation, but the Trump administration has hobbled the State Department. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster have global portfolios in which conflict in the Horn of Africa rates lower than the North Korean threat and the ongoing protests in Iran. Everyone else in Washington seems to be rereading Fire and Fury for the second or third time. Perhaps sensing another opportunity to reinforce the idea that Russia, not the United States, is a broker of security and stability, Vladimir Putin might step in and stave off the conflict over water that finally seems to have ripened.