Egypt and Ethiopia: Difficult Negotiations and an Uncertain Future

Water is the most important geostrategic resource, as it is a pre-requisite for life and economic development. This is why "water security" has emerged as a main component of the national security of any state. The Middle East and Africa are plagued by water disputes. According to the Arab Water Council, 18 Arab countries are below the water poverty line of 1,000 cubic metres per year, per person. Many analysts forecast that the two regions have the potential to become involved in water wars, due to rapid population growth and the lack of sustainable use mechanisms. Among most contentious areas in terms of trans-national water rights are the Jordan River basin, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and the Nile.

Since 2011, Ethiopia has been implementing a large-scale project to construct the Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. Its launch, according to experts, will inevitably lead to water shortages downstream, in Sudan and Egypt. Sudan would not be affected that much, as it has an abundance of rainwater and does not suffer from a large degree of population pressure. Egypt is slated to be the main victim of the dam, as it is totally dependent on the Nile. Rain is rare and 95% of its territory is desert, so access to the water of the Nile is a matter of life and death for it and its citizens.

A decade ago, Egypt was against the Dam in principle. Now, however, it accepts the status quo. Ethiopia has reneged on its commitments not to adversely affect Egypt's share of the water, and rejected Egyptian proposals calling for the Renaissance Dam’s reservoir to be filled within seven years instead of three. Egypt's proposal would guarantee the flow of its share of the water. Addis Abba considers it a sovereignty issue and the purview of the Ethiopian state alone.

Historic Russia-Africa Summit: A Long Way to Go
In late October, Sochi hosted the first Russia-Africa summit, which was attended by heads of state or government from nearly every country in the continent. Although experts have shifted their attention to the global results of the forum, the discussion at the Valdai Club, held on October 28, focused on bilateral relations between Russia and African countries, with all their political, economic and cultural aspects, as well as on the prospects for cooperation between Russia and the countries of the continent.
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Limiting access to the water of the Nile water would have a multi-dimensional effect on Egypt. First, it will deepen water poverty among the 100 million people living in Egypt, who are already below the water poverty line. Average water consumption per capita in Egypt has fallen to 500 cubic metres per year. Furthermore, the Ethiopian dam’s construction is expected to have other devastating repercussions: it will affect the ability of the Aswan High Dam to generate electricity, consequently curtailing economic activities in general and industrial production in particular, leading to higher rates of unemployment. The quality of life of the Egyptian people would also deteriorate as it affects their daily lives.

Second, Egypt's inability to pressure Ethiopia to reach a consensus would indicate a dramatic change in the regional balance of power and Egypt's status in the African continent. It would underscore the growing influence of Ethiopia and the relative decline of Egypt.

Third, in light of the above, it may lead to political instability in Egypt. Economic and social deterioration were a major factor during the 2011 and 2013 revolutions in Egypt. Despite all the measures taken by the authorities, a third revolution could take place, especially in light of the protests sweeping neighbouring countries for similar reasons.

There are two scenarios for the future. In the first, Ethiopia sticks to its position. In that case, Egypt may take hard steps, particularly if there is a great deal of popular pressure. In the second case, the two countries could reach a compromise.

Despite the meeting between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah ElSisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in Sochi and their agreement to resume talks, it is clear that the dispute won’t be easy to resolve. Only the intervention of foreign parties can assist. Russia has helped a lot in Sochi and can do more. Russian-Israeli cooperation could have an impact. Relations between Ethiopia and Israel are very deep and strategic, and Israel enjoys a considerable amount of influence in Addis Ababa.

However, the United States has invited Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to meet in Washington on November 6th. The question remains whether the United States is able and willing to push Ethiopia forward to pursue a fair settlement or not.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.