Why a ‘Water War’ Over the Nile River Won’t Happen

Regional Integration Needed

What, then, is the alternative? Egypt, Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan have some of Africa’s poorest populations and they face colossal challenges in reducing poverty, expanding public services and countering ecological degradation. As I outlined in a Chatham House report in 2011, regional integration would go a long way to help avoid the classic pitfalls of natural-resource development such as the resource curse.

Resource scarcity can trigger conflict, but it could also stimulate peaceful cooperation. Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan have much to gain from incremental closer cooperation and a grand energy deal that would put Ethiopia’s water resources at the disposal of the region. For all of Egypt’s apocalyptic rhetoric about Ethiopian selfishness, the little publicised truth remains that it will be cheaper to send the thousands of megawatts that the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam will produce to Sudan and South Sudan (and possibly to Egypt) than it will be ready to transmit the electricity to the Ethiopian highlands.

The very design of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam demands regional integration: Addis Ababa is desperate to sell much of its estimated hydropower potential (40,000-45,000 megawatts) to its neighbours to raise much-needed cash, to extend its diplomatic influence, and to develop more balanced trade relations with the outside world.

With the majority of those in the region still not connected to national grids, the Nile Basin sorely needs cheap power to improve living standards, to boost economic growth, to make industries more competitive and to modernise agriculture so that food security crises can be addressed more effectively.

The Ethiopian government must provide more technical details about the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and other hydro-infrastructure projects to assuage fears over cutting off Nile flows to Sudan and Egypt; it must understand that Egypt’s difficult domestic transition makes reform in the foreign policy arena particularly tricky.

At the same time, the onus is clearly on Cairo to bite the bullet and reverse its zero-sum water paradigm. It is high time for it to appreciate that the Nile is not Egyptian, but an African river. Egypt should not issue empty threats of war, but endorse Ethiopia’s dam programme and work together with Sudan and South Sudan to ensure its full potential is realised. More than any other gesture in international politics, this would mark a return of Egyptian statesmanship and pave the way for a future of resource abundance and regional peace after centuries of confrontation.


By: Harry Verhoeven