Northeast Africa is in the midst of one of the greatest intergovernmental crises of recent years. At the centre of the issue are the three major powers in the area: Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. The water resources provided by the Nile River are the cause of discord.
Diplomatic tension between the three countries has been going on for a long time and has its origins in one of the most ambitious engineering projects in history. The Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) is a giant facility that the Ethiopian government has built in the middle course of the Blue Nile River. When it becomes operational, it is expected to be the largest dam on the African continent. Its 16 turbines will produce enough energy to meet much of the electricity needs of the country's population.
What is the problem? That Sudan and especially Egypt have been extremely belligerent towards Ethiopia because of this big project. The administrations in Khartoum and Cairo fear that the dam will hold back so much water that the flow into their territories, located at the lower reaches, will be insufficient to satisfy their own water needs. The Blue Nile, where GERD is located, joins the White Nile in Khartoum, which originates from Lake Victoria in Central Africa. From the Sudanese capital, both courses join to integrate the great river that runs to the Mediterranean.
Although the Ethiopian government of Abiy Ahmed has reiterated many times that its neighbours have nothing to fear, Abdalla Hamdok and Abdelfatah al-Sisi are not so sure. It should be noted that, in both Sudan and Egypt, almost the entire population lives around the shores of the Nile. The same is true of their arable land, which needs the water of the Nile to be productive. Thus, a drastic drop in the flow of water could lead not only to water shortages but also to a food crisis.
With this approach, representatives of the two governments have been holding regular meetings with their Ethiopian counterparts for years to discuss technical details. The controversy has mainly been around two specific issues. The first is the rate at which the reservoir is being filled. Egypt and Sudan have insisted on slowing it down, but the government in Addis Ababa has not compromised. The second is Ethiopia's commitment to release part of its stocks in times of drought.
Dialogue has, unfortunately, been sterile to date. Even with the mediation of the White House - in particular, that of the Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin - the parties have not managed to reach agreement on the technical issues. And the Ethiopian executive seems to have grown tired of seeking agreements without success.
In early April, Prime Minister Ahmed announced that the filling would begin in the rainy season, i.e. between summer and autumn of this year. The month of July is considered the most plausible horizon. Recently, the president has reaffirmed his position and several high officials of his government have argued that "there is no reason to postpone" the beginning of the process.
Sudan and Egypt have been quick to warn of Ethiopia's unilateralist attitude. Tensions between the two countries have risen sharply since the beginning of this week and, worse, they have already gone beyond the level of purely political rhetoric. According to the Egyptian newspaper Al-Arabi al-Jadid (translated as 'The New Arab'), President Al-Sisi has expressly ordered his armed forces to be "on the highest alert". In Ethiopia, they are not far behind either. Sources at the newspaper point out that Addis Ababa has decided to deploy its missiles as a dissuasive measure.
The situation therefore threatens to get out of hand. Aware of the threat to world security that an armed conflict between two of the main African powers -and Sudan in between- would pose, the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres has shown hope that the leaders of the countries will once again choose the path of dialogue. However, it seems that there will be no progress, at least in the short term. Just over a week ago, Sudan rejected a new proposal for an agreement sent by Ethiopia that sought to resolve the differences between the different actors.
Ethiopia's departure from the multilateral dialogue process can be better understood by looking at the circumstances of national policy. Before the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, the country was planning to hold general legislative elections at the end of August. Despite the fact that the elections were postponed due to fears of the spread of the pathogen, Prime Minister - and Nobel Peace Prize winner - Ahmed was facing re-election.
Before the pandemic, Ahmed had already been criticized within his own country for the changes he had introduced in the electoral legislation. According to the opposition, the Executive was in a kind of constitutional limbo. This controversial reform, combined with doubts about the Ethiopian central government's treatment of separatists in various peripheral regions, left some doubts about the young leader's political future. His tougher line of action in foreign policy could therefore represent an attempt to reaffirm his questioned position at the head of his country.
For the moment, the distance between Addis Ababa, Cairo and Khartoum is not yet unbridgeable. It is true, however, that the exchange of strong statements is becoming increasingly strident. It is certainly the most tense point since the diplomatic crisis began.
A large-scale armed confrontation does not seem likely anyway. An open war would put at risk the stability of a region that is vital because of its geostrategic position between the Mediterranean, the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. This circumstance, which would have a particularly detrimental effect on Sudan's fragile democracy, could lead to the penetration of external powers into local politics, as is the case with Russia and Turkey, and the settlement of non-state actors, such as terrorist groups or organised crime.
However, even if it does not escalate into war, the conflict between the three countries already exists, at least on the diplomatic front. It is significant that the main asset at stake is water. The domination of natural resources has always been the fuel that has ignited conflicts between human communities. In the case of modern states, many experts have long warned that water wars will be an essential component of international relations within a few years, especially given the trends of exponential population growth and climate emergency that are already taking place in many corners of the world.
In fact, as international analyst Pedro Baños, a colonel in the Spanish Army, recalls, numerous multinational companies and venture capital funds have begun to invest consistently in what is already beginning to be known as "blue gold". In his work 'El dominio mundial', Baños specifically mentions the dispute between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt as a symptomatic episode of this new kind of international conflict.