Abiy’s hostility towards el-Sisi: Rises along with the water in the Grand Renaissance Ethiopian Dam

  • + In the making since 2011, the Grand Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia is supposed to start filling up this July. 
  • + The dam will allow ⅔ of Ethiopians to be connected to the electricity grid and is a source of national pride.
  • + Egypt and Sudan fear water scarcity and all diplomatic talks have ended in deadlock. 
Source: RAIA Group

Why is Abiy hostile towards el-Sisi?

Answer: Abiy, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, is claiming the rights to the waters in the Blue Nile by constructing a massive dam. 

The Grand Renaissance Dam in northern Ethiopia carries as much national pride as its name conveys. This dam has been a national objective since the ‘60s; however, under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, a decade ago construction began. The funding for the $4.6 billion project came mostly from Ethiopian donations. This massive project is supposed to be a game-changer, not only for Ethiopia but for the entire region. 

Once it starts filling up, it will produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity, doubling Ethiopia’s current power supply. This could mean millions of people would now be connected to the grid considering 2/3 of the country’s citizens do not have access to electricity. Besides internal consumption, the dam will make Ethiopia the largest energy exporter of the continent. 

In the making since April 2011, the Grand Renaissance Dam is the largest hydro-electric dam in Africa capable of holding up to 74 billion cubic meters of water in the Blue Nile River. This river provides around 85% of all the water of the Nile. The Nile is not only the longest and oldest river on Earth, but it is also the only one that flows from South to North. This river, which has been the birthplace of one of history’s most impressive and long-lasting civilizations, is now at the heart of the conflict. 

While the hydroelectric plant will not consume water, the speed of filling the dam will affect the flow downstream. Egypt and Sudan see this as an existential threat. Research has found that the faster Ethiopia fills up the dam, the more damage will come to Egypt. For example, if Ethiopia takes 21 years to fill it up, only around 2.5% of Egypt’s agricultural areas will be lost. In contrast, if Ethiopia takes only 5 or 3 years, the damage to Egypt’s agricultural lands will be from 50 to 67%. Both Ethiopian and Egyptian leaders have tried for years to carry out diplomatic talks on how the dam would operate. However, these talks have been largely unsuccessful and time is running out as the rainy season approaches. 

What does Abiy want? 

Answer: To start filling up the dam now. 

Abiy wants to start filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam in July until December. El-Sisi, on the other hand, wants this time to be longer to have fewer disturbances in their flow of the Nile. There is no agreement between the leaders , however, this might not matter. Abiy promised the Ethiopian nation to start collecting water as the rainy season starts, regardless of an agreement being reached with Egypt. The stakes are too high for him to retract his promise. It is also very dangerous for Abiy to postpone filling the dam in July. Politically, postponing the project is impossible as internal pressure is enormous. Support for the dam united every faction within the country. Additionally, according to the leader, no external force can stop this project either. 

What does el-Sisi want? 

Answer: To secure Egypt’s water.

This project could be a source of great danger for nations down the stream, specifically Egypt and Sudan. These nations fear the vital stream of the Nile may dry up. Over 90% of the Egyptian population lives along the Nile or its deltas which comes directly from the Blue Nile upstream. This river, which has historically been the lifeline of the Egyptian civilization, currently provides 98% of the country’s water. Therefore, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s objective is to secure this essential resource for his country.

What worries the leader most is how multi-year droughts will be handled. El-Sisi wants Ethiopia to ensure there will always be enough water running downstream. Notwithstanding, Ethiopia does not want to “owe” anyone water or to damage their energy supply out of commitments. However, even if Ethiopia starts filling the dam without an agreement, the Nile will not dry up completely for Egypt. The Egyptian Aswan High Dam holds enough water to make up for the dam upstream. Still, Egypt is already running short in water with or without the dam. 

Some argue this problem is Egypt’s own making given that almost 80% of the water is used for agriculture. Not only are irrigation channels in the country leaky, but the water is used for thirsty crops that misuse the resource. While the government tries to deter these practices, water security is not guaranteed in Egypt. Still, el-Sisi could do much more than complain. Prohibition of wasteful agriculture and investment in better irrigation could help Egypt much more than a water war with Ethiopia. 

What is el-Sisi doing? 

Answer: Trying to assert Egypt’s right to the waters of the Nile. 

Historically, a 1929 treaty gave Egypt and Sudan the right to most of the water of the Nile as well as veto power over any projects upstream. However, the legal strength of this colonial-era document is doubtful at best and does not apply to Ethiopia. When the construction of the Grand Dam began, Ethiopia stated it was not bound to the treaty and did not consult with el-Sisi. According to Abiy, this colonial stance actually denies them from the natural and legitimate rights over the water in the Blue Nile River.  

In any case, el-Sisi has tried many diplomatic paths to resolve this conflict and have a say on how the dam will be filled and operated. He has not been successful.  El-Sisi has suggested the countries resolve this conflict through binding international arbitration, however, Abiy has not agreed to this procedure. 

Who is winning and what about you? 

Answer: Is a water war coming as Abiy acts unilaterally? 

Deadlock has been a constant result of any type of talks between the countries involved. In 2018,  Abiy reassured Sisi that the dam would not harm the country. However, ever since the Prime Minister of Ethiopia has become more and more “inflexible”. This dam means too much for the Ethiopians to delay filling it. Later on, in 2019, another round of talks was held between the countries with the US as a mediator, however, the long-standing impasse remained.

The African Union, headed by South Africa, has also tried to act as a mediator earlier this year, with similarly low levels of success. During a final round of talks that took place on June 26, all three countries involved pledged to reach an agreement within two weeks, just before Ethiopia starts filling up the dam. Still, there is no agreement in sight.

The situation is critical; even the Security Council has been called upon to intervene. In late June, Sudan sent a letter to the Security Council voicing concerns that millions of lives could be at risk due to flooding if Ethiopia starts filling the dam. However, the opposite is true making Sudan’s position better than Egypt’s. The dam might actually help out with irregular and deadly floods experienced every year. The country could also import some of the electricity the dam creates. However, there is fear that mismanagement of the dam may lead to floods and endanger the lives of millions in Sudan. 

Later on, as June ended, el-Sisi stated that Cairo asked the Security Council to intervene too with the aim of reopening talks. For the Egyptian leader, a diplomatic path should still be pursued. Regardless, many issues make the escalation of conflict worrisome. Could this issue escalate into a war? In 2013, a report showed Egyptian politicians proposing very hostile acts against Ethiopia, and el-Sisi himself has stated Egypt will take all necessary measures to protect their rights to the water in the Nile. As the rainy season begins and water starts filling up the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the shortages of water down (or up) the Nile are still to be seen along with the hostility escalation between the two leaders. 

Maria Paula Jijon

Research and Analysis Intern