The Renaissance Dam and Renewal of Regional Diplomacy in East Africa

The Grand Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile Basin, which is currently about half-complete, is the cornerstone of Ethiopia’s plans for a new economic age. But what Addis Ababa sees as a development renaissance, Cairo perceives as a major threat to its lifeblood, the Nile River, and a regional challenge to Egypt’s sovereignty.

The unsolved murder of the dam’s chief engineer, Simegnew Bekele, who was found shot dead in his car Addis Ababa in late July, has cast a cloak-and-dagger pall over the project, but the very real disagreements at its foundations have been clear for many years. The dam has long symbolized the chronic lack of cooperation in East Africa, yet with international coordination and new leadership, it also now presents a potential model for strategic collaboration.

Ethiopia started building the Renaissance Dam in 2011 and began filling the reservoir without prior consultation with Egypt or its neighbors in the Nile Basin. The action stands as one of many examples of how countries in East Africa often act individually on vital regional issues despite the interconnecting geopolitical factors. The trend reflects a lack of a clear strategic vision rendering joint coordination bodies very weak in both the military and economic spheres.

That weakness is exacerbated when compromise is needed to reconcile conflicting interests. Egypt will inevitably be affected by the dam’s construction. This will see Egyptreduce its share of the river’s water, set by international agreements in 1929 and 1959 and which now stands at 55.5 billion cubic meters per year. That blow comes at a time when Egypt is already struggling to achieve economic stability after severe political crises triggered by the Arab uprisings in 2011 and its aftermath.

On the other hand, Ethiopia has since 2004 increased its economic growth rate, with GDP reaching $73 billion in 2016, according to the IMF (although that still represents just a fraction of Egypt’s GDP of $335 billion in the same year). Its economy has been classified as “fast growing,” although that rate of growth has also resulted in runaway inflation. On the political front, Ethiopia recently experienced a major transition after Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed took office, the first premier from the country’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, breaking the previous ruling coalition’s decades-old stranglehold on power with promises of multiparty democratic political reforms.

Those domestic developments have already had historic implications for foreign relations, with Ahmed and his Eritrean counterpart, President Isaias Afwerki, jointly declaring the official end of decades of conflict. Egypt’s internal dynamics are also reconfiguring regional relations, in particular as Saudi Arabia and the UAE take a greater role in offering support to President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

Previous multilateral efforts to find compromise on joint management of the Nile River have often foundered. The 10-nation partnership of the Nile Basin initiative, which was founded in 1999, has not to date played a significant role in resolving the crisis between Egypt and Ethiopia related to the dam. On the contrary, a 2010 side agreement among only five members – Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania – asserted their rights to claim more water from the Nile, particularly at the expense of Egypt.

More recent consultations between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, which took place in May this year, reached a decision to establish a technical group to present proposals on filling and operating the dam in accordance with the principle of “fair use,” although the meaning of the principle varies from one state to another. For Ethiopia, “fair” is filling the reservoir to its maximum level in the shortest possible time to produce hydropower, while Egypt advocates incrementally fillingthe dam over an extended period to minimally affect water flows to the Nile Delta and soil salinity. Sudan’s position is less clear-cut, given its volatile differences with Egypt, particularly regarding a long-running border dispute, although the country does stand to benefit from the dam’s energy exports and expected flood control.

Breaking the impasse may depend on broadening the diplomatic efforts beyond the traditional neighboring parties and moving out of the circles of traditional alliances. The agenda set by each country within the old partnerships must be changed on the basis of compromise – or else everyone stands to lose.

The recent détente between Addis Ababa and Asmara, which was facilitated by the UAE, reflects a precedent in African relations and expands the Gulf states’ role in resolving the difficult problems that have existed for decades without reaching consensual solutions. For the UAE in particular, this goes hand in hand with its greater engagement in the Horn of Africa.

To date, the multiparty consensus approach has been unable to bridge Egypt’s concerns about the possible impacts of the Renaissance Dam with Ethiopia’s hydropower-generation priorities. However, by taking a regional, rather than adversarial bilateral approach, there are more options to find possible common ground.

Haifa Ahmed AlMaashi is director of geostrategic studies at the Dubai Public Policy Research Centre.