When the term “water wars” is mentioned, we usually refer to coming conflicts in some post-apocalyptic reality, where climate change, man’s devastation of the environment, and demographic changes have brought about a chronic deficit of crucial natural resources, among them water. But such conflicts are already occurring today, when the shortage of such resources is not yet too acute, international as well as national political institutions are still relatively stable (or existing), and it seems that the world order is still operating as if it were business as usual.

One of these (contemporary) conflicts is a roughly decade-long tension between Egypt and Ethiopia regarding the construction of the so-called Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile. The two countries have been engaged in negotiations for the entire time of the construction about various parameters of the project, but now that the construction is nearing its end and the dam is almost operative, it is increasingly clear that negotiations haven’t succeeded, and the conflict is escalating. The main problem, of course, is the effect that water collection in the dam’s reservoir will have on the amount of water available downstream. Namely, downstream nations like Sudan and Egypt will receive a smaller share of water in the Nile than usual. Let’s take a closer look at why both countries seem set in their course, even if it means a collision in the near future.

For Ethiopia this megaproject is crucial. Unlike other countries in the nearby region, Ethiopia is a rather fertile and mountainous land. Many rivers that irrigate the whole of East Africa spring in Ethiopia, which is why the country is also nicknamed “the water tower of Africa.” But these rich supplies of natural resources have not (yet) been fully utilized, and the construction of this dam is an ambitious step towards addressing key social problems through infrastructure projects. The government in Addis Ababa must first and foremost address two issues. First is the fact that only about 45% of the population has access to electricity, with the countryside being particularly poorly covered. The dam should improve this statistic considerably, since it would quadruple the amount of electricity generated in the country. Millions of people would be lifted out of poverty, and the state could offer basic services in remote regions.

The latter brings us to the second problem, namely ethnic diversity and fragmentation in Ethiopia, which is reflected in the federal political system of the Ethiopian state; due to rivalries between various ethnic groups and/or regions the state is unable to generate national unity or consolidate power. Addis Ababa is therefore hoping that a state which can ensure basic services like electricity to people can also inspire a greater national sentiment, as opposed to ethnic loyalties. The latter problem has become further exacerbated with the recent conflict in Tigray province, where government forces, aided by forces from neighbouring Eritrea, tried to stifle secessionist tendencies of the local population, while international media reported on war crimes (summary executions, rapes) and waves of refugees, streaming across the border to Sudan. The authorities hope that the dam’s success would contribute to consolidating political power in Addis Ababa, greater national unity, and a considerable decrease in poverty rates due to better electrical coverage in the countryside.

On the other hand, the construction of the dam is potentially catastrophic for Egypt. Less than 3% of Egyptian land is inhabited, the rest being desert. Almost the entire population of Egypt therefore lives on the banks of the Nile, which represents a source of life for the country’s 100 million citizens, which number is projected to rise to 200 million by 2075. By the way, much the same is true of Ethiopia, which also has over 100 million citizens and is set to break the 200 million mark by 2050. This means both countries must ensure sufficient natural resources to sustain these populations. But when the dam is opened on the Ethiopian side of the Nile, Egypt will be in a difficult position because the water collection in the reservoir would decrease the share of water that Egypt will receive; water which the country needs for farming purposes. It’s not unusual, then, that Egypt has argued against the dam since day one and has initiated negotiations as well: the initial idea was to prevent construction altogether, then talks turned to diminishing the proposed size of the dam, and now that the project is nearing completion, the negotiations are centred around the speed at which the reservoir is to be filled. Ethiopia, for their part, has participated in these negotiations more in order to buy time rather than find a suitable compromise. They are aware that Egypt has little leverage to make Ethiopia accept any of its terms.

According to international law, Ethiopia has every right to pursue this project. There is no international convention out there preventing a country to build a power plant on its own rivers, nor do Ethiopia and Egypt have any bilateral agreements about the share of water from the Nile that each nation is entitled to. So despite the negotiations, Ethiopia has already completed the first stage of filling the reservoir in July 2020, and completed phase two a year later, which already provides enough water to begin harnessing power. At this rate the dam will be fully operational in two years. Given the lack of a proper international-legal argument, Egypt is at a disadvantage when it comes to negotiations, which is why in the endgame of this conflict it is resorting to more and more aggressive rhetoric.

Since diplomacy failed, Egypt has begun to arm itself, mostly with rockets and war planes that can back up the aggressive rhetoric. This initiative is even more understandable given the fact that global superpowers are largely taking a back seat in this conflict, most notably the US and Russia, both of whom are not looking to open another front in their rivalry. Regional players like Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf nations have different priorities, among them improving relations with Israel. Among European powers, Italy and France are involved. An Italian company called Webuild (previously Salini Impregilo) was selected to build the dam, while France is playing the usual neo-colonial game by providing hydro-electric infrastructure to Ethiopia, while also selling Egypt military equipment. If French war planes end up one day bombing French infrastructure, that hardly hurts French GDP.

Although Egypt has considerable military capabilities that could enable it to destroy the dam, it may very well be too late for such measures. Considering that the reservoir is (partly) full already, an attack could cause the most damage in downstream nations like Sudan and Egypt, due to flooding. Any attack would therefore have to be surgically precise and not destroy the dam entirely. Perhaps it is more likely that Egypt will carefully observe the internal political situation in Ethiopia and attempt to use separatist struggles to achieve its own ends, namely concession about the technical parameters of the dam. The eventual operational capacity of the dam seems inevitable at this point.