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Dammed If You Do, Damned If You Don’t: Cooperation in the Nile Basin

Water cooperation: vital but elusive

When people talk about climate change they often emphasize interdependence. In biological terms, the Earth works in a systemic fashion. With a changing climate, we are likely to see all sorts of interactions that could lead to unpredictable physical phenomena.

Yet, politically, the world is singularly unprepared for such systemically generated dynamics. Perhaps no other example illustrates this better than the struggle over water in the Nile basin. While nature knows no borders, the political world sure does. In fact, the international system is by definition characterized by borders. When it comes to environmental cooperation in the Nile basin, climate change is increasing the pressure to find mutual solutions.

Dam(n) Diplomacy

Ethiopia is currently constructing what will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric dam. The so-called Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), to be completed in 2017, will provide a massive upgrade to the country’s electricity supply. Given the paucity of energy supply in Ethiopia, such plans make sense. With a planned capacity of 6000 megawatts, GERD is slated to triple electricity output.

For a country in which less than half the population has access to electricity, that is a big deal. Significantly, Ethiopia will be able to export excess power to neighboring countries in the short-term. When completed, GERD will be Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant, although there are questions whether it will actually be able to operate at peak capacity.

Bereft of funding by the traditional channels of development financing, and also more confident in its own ability to stamp out giant infrastructure projects, the Ethiopian government has come up with an ingenious system to pay for its plans. It requires banks lending to private borrowers to provide credit equivalent to 27% of their loan books to the government at a low return. This model enables it to cover the almost $5 million it takes to complete construction of the dam.

This signals a sea change. Countries like Ethiopia are now confident enough and sufficiently capable of developing projects such as GERD by themselves, without the help of the World Bank, bilateral aid agencies, or indeed Egypt. Ethiopia spurned the Egyptian offer to co-finance the dam, denying the Egyptians the chance to have any say over siting and construction matters.

Egypt, fearing a reduction of water availability as a consequence of the dam, has opposed the project. In 2013, then Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi made it known that from his perspective Egypt’s water security could not be violated at all. Other countries in the Nile Basin region, including Sudan, view GERD in a much more positive light. They are expecting to benefit from the excess power the dam will generate, lowering electricity tariffs. Sudan could also reduce flood risks along the river banks.

Egypt, by contrast, has seen Ethiopia’s plan as a security risk. Egyptian leaders have expressed concerns that the dam could threaten both water supply and power generation capacity downstream. Egypt relies on the Nile for almost all its agricultural water supply. Given recent droughts, further reductions in supply may put the country in a bind. Some estimates indicate Egypt will require an extra 21 billion cubic meters of water per year by 2050. This is a function of rapid population growth. Demographic shifts in the Nile basin will continue to add pressure on the region’s water supply.

Colonial history looms large in the Nile basin. Egypt’s claims to its rights over the Nile are to a significant extent based on a 1929 treaty concluded between it and the British colonial administration. The treaty recognized Egypt’s historical rights over the Nile’s water. Later, Egypt and Sudan concluded a second treaty in 1959, which reinforced Egyptian control over the Nile.

Yet, other riparian states do not acknowledge the validity of those treaties. They can hardly be blamed. Neither the 1929 nor the 1959 agreement made any allowances for the water needs of upstream states. Although Egypt claims natural rights over the Nile, Ethiopia alone accounts for over 80% of the river’s water supply. Now, with more economic power comes increased political confidence for many states in the region. This means that Egypt has to wrestle with competing claims over water usage.

Water, Energy, Food

The emerging situation is one characterized by the interaction of different issues. Analysts have come up with the term Water-Energy-Food Nexus to describe such complexity. Alternatively, they speak of a “trilemma”: how to square the circle and come up with a sustainable environment in which goals in all three of these areas can be pursued simultaneously. What complicates matters in this context is that, in addition to managing the demands of all three issues, the situation requires diplomatic solutions between multiple countries. A potentially explosive mix between water insecurity, rapidly increasing energy and food demand, and population growth could put regional stability in dire straits.

Unfortunately, humans are notoriously bad at thinking in complex systemic terms. Add climate change to the mix and the situation becomes more precarious still. This is one of the uncomfortable realities of a changing climate. In addition to causing its own idiosyncratic problems, climate change tends to have the nasty habit of making everything else worse at the same time. It also increases the amount of uncertainty and decreases predictability. This is why diplomacy is vital to reduce tension in the absence of predictable natural patterns. By putting extra strain on an already delicate situation, climate change is thus likely to force leaders to put more effort on cross-border environmental cooperation.

Prospects for Governance and Diplomacy

Construction of further hydroelectric dams in the Nile basin is likely to continue. Ethiopia has already announced further projects to be added to the pipeline. Of course, putting all your eggs in one basket is seldom a good idea. Brazil has found out the hard way. While its hydro-powered electricity system is low on emissions, it is also highly dependent on predictable rainfall. Changing seasonal patterns and drought, likely induced by massive deforestation in the Amazon, have already led to massive blackouts.

This has left the national government scrambling to find alternatives such as solar and wind power to guard against continued over reliance on the country’s hydroelectric infrastructure. Nonetheless, to a significant extent the Brazilian response has also been characterized by simply building more dams. The saga that is the construction of the Belo Monte dam illustrates the fact that large infrastructure projects always generate opposition, however. That goes doubly for projects subject to cross-border implications.

That said, transboundary river cooperation is quite common. One such example is the Indus Waters Treaty, one of the few agreements respected by both India and Pakistan. In the Nile basin, institutionalized cooperation has emerged since 1999, when the river’s riparian states signed on to form the Nile Basin Initiative. While comprehensive agreement over how to share the Nile’s water remains elusive, Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia appeared to come to terms over GERD in 2015.

Yet, in order to guard against the prospects of prolonged droughts or other environmental changes due to climate change, more fundamental cooperation is necessary. In this context, countries in the Nile basin would be required to cooperate not only in the water sector, but on energy and food as well.

The upshot is that climate change is more than a technical problem. In many instances, it will require innovative political solutions. It throws up challenges that add to and exacerbate pre-existing tensions. The Nile basin is but a microcosm of the more general climate change exigency. While last year’s climate summit in Paris has demonstrated that environmental cooperation is possible, there is much more to deal with than just emissions.

Regionally, issues like water governance and cross-border coordination of food and energy supply are likely to become much more thorny diplomatic exercises to deal with. Whether diplomacy can keep up with climate change remains to be seen.



Tim Pfefferle

Tim Pfefferle writes about the politics of climate change, the United Nations, as well as US and African politics. Originally from Germany, Tim has studied in the UK and in the US, and has also worked in Uganda and Brazil. He holds a BA in International Relations from the University of London, and is a recent graduate of the MSc Global Governance and Diplomacy program at the University of Oxford. He's currently a consultant working on climate change. When he is not thinking or writing about foreign policy, Tim enjoys the lighter sides of life, like pop culture.