Developments in the crisis over Ethiopia’s construction of a dam on the Blue Nile and the potential existential threats to Sudan and Egypt that poses are crucial. They present the international community with a chance to demonstrate its ability to handle a conflict over water, the very key to life. The international community’s silence on this matter does nothing to serve the security and stability of East Africa or the resolution of other water conflicts in the world. Last week, Brigadier Tahir Abu-Hajah, adviser to the chairman of the Sudanese Sovereignty Council, warned of the possibility of a major war over water if the international community did not intervene to stop Ethiopian recklessness. “What is happening in Ethiopia is very dangerous. All options are open to Egypt and Sudan to resolve the crisis over the dam,” he said, adding, “deprivation of water is the most powerful cause of enmity.” This was the strongest statement ever by a Sudanese official since the crisis began a decade ago.
The list of options for resolving this crisis between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia is shrinking, however. In keeping with its intransigent ways, Addis Ababa is preparing for a second stage of filling the Renaissance Dam in July. Earlier this week Ethiopia tried to test the pulse in Cairo and Khartoum. It said that it was prepared to exchange information on the filling of the dam and invited them to nominate dam operators for the purpose before the beginning of the second filling when the rainy season arrives. Cairo and Khartoum naturally rejected the offer since it is clearly a ruse to waste time and avoid the essential demand for a tripartite agreement over the filling and operation of the dam beforehand.
Unfortunately, interventions on the part of the key international stakeholders in East Africa are still unconvincing. So far they have come up with only tentative and ineffective suggestions, despite the grave concerns aired by senior officials in those countries over the looming threat of water wars. US Vice President Kamala Harris, for example, recently warned that the next wars will not be over oil but over water. According to recent studies, global population growth will reach 10 billion by 2050, which will increase global demand for water from 4,600 billion m3 to 6,000 billion m3. The UN’s water resource development report predicts that, by 2050, four billion people will suffer from extreme water stress. There is a body of international laws that govern water uses and hydraulic projects on transboundary watercourses. The very purpose is to avert harm, especially life-threatening harm, to others and to promote peace and security. Clearly, therefore, the international community should see it as its duty to address the dangerous threat to 150 million people in the Nile Valley because of Ethiopia’s determination to withhold much more water than it needs for electricity generating purposes.
Ethiopia has no water scarcity problem. It simply wants to monopolise and control that resource, perhaps in order to force the downstream nations to purchase water from Addis at some future stage. Indeed, an Ethiopian Foreign Ministry spokesman let that notion slip out even though he later retracted the statement.
The international community, as embodied in the UN, must act immediately to bring a stop to the madness of Ethiopia’s futile negotiational behaviour and create a stricter international mechanism to enforce international law on matters related to the construction of dams and other hydraulic facilities on transboundary watercourses. Today one country thinks it can get away with depriving others of water ostensibly to generate electricity. If the international community allows this to happen, how will it act when water scarcity threatens to precipitate conflicts without end?
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly