By: Ivan Tommasi & Edoardo Casarotto

At the beginning of April, a meeting took place in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), organized by the president of the African Union and president of the DRC, Felix Tshisekedi, between the foreign ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.

The trilateral summit was the latest attempt to re-establish negotiations between the three main countries of the Nile basin who are fighting over a 10 year-long issue: the Ethiopian Great Renaissance Dam (GERD) project in the Ethiopian Blue Nile, near the border with Sudan.

This latest attempt to reach an agreement has been a failure and the dispute between the parties has intensified: Cairo and Khartoum accuse Addis Ababa of refusing any legally binding agreement on the shared use of Nile’s water.  The Ethiopian government, on the other hand, blames Sudan of changing its position on its water security and criticizes Egypt for rejecting any Ethiopian guarantees on Egypt's water security.

The latest round of negotiations ended with an escalation of statements even going so far as to intend the military option, a non-solution that would surely do more harm than good.

In order to understand what is happening today in the Horn of Africa, we need to take a few steps back.

Troubles began in April 2011, when the Ethiopian government started the construction of the GERD, the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa with a planned capacity of 6,5 GW with the goal of meeting the country's clean energy demand and beginning to export part of its surplus.

Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa and suffers from a chronic shortage of electricity caused by rapid economic growth - about 10% annually since 2004 - which requires more energy than the available supply, thus undermining the country's development. Ethiopia has the potential to utilize the water resource through eight major basins with exploitable hydropower potential around 45-50 GW. Currently, the installed capacity is 4,5 GW. After the last round of negotiations, Ethiopia unilaterally decided to start filling the dam reservoir starting next July.

While the project will surely support the Ethiopian economy, Sudan and Egypt beg to differ.

In truth, Khartoum has been accused of changing its position several times during the negotiation period, swinging from support for the project vis-à-vis vested interests in Ethiopian electricity exports to fear for water security and its own domestic dams. In this regard, Sudan counts 3 hydropower plants on the Blue Nile, downstream of the GERD, which may suffer damage from fluctuations in river flow caused by the upstream dam. For this reason, Sudan wants a legally binding agreement to avoid any unpredictable changes in water flow and, after the failure of the April dialogue round, is counting on the United States, United Nations, and European Union to work with the African Union to lead the Nile negotiations.

Egypt is the second major player in the game. The country has historically lived in close symbiosis with the Nile, also known as the “lifeblood river” for the ancient civilization of Egypt. Its waters account for 95% of the total water needs for 105 million Egyptians, and the country has already suffered in the past from the construction of other dams that have altered the flooding and flow of sediment its food supply rests upon: at least 30% of the country's working population is employed in agriculture dependent on the Nile.

In addition, Egypt defends and claims the agreements from the colonial era (1929 and 1959) granting water sharing with Sudan: 55.5 billion cubic meters per year for Cairo and 18.5 billion cubic meters for Khartoum, leaving out all the other riparian countries. Moreover, the old agreements granted Egypt the right to veto projects higher up the Nile that affect its share of the water.

After the colonial era, Egypt was considered the most powerful country in the region and shared control over the use of the river with Sudan until the mid-1990s. Today, the slow development of upstream countries has raised the need to find new ways to share and manage the waters of the Nile: this is when a new process for cooperation based on two parallel tracks started. One is technical in nature, with the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) functioning as a transitional cooperation agreement. The other track is more political, featuring the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), which is to promote the creation of a legal framework managing the basin. For the first time, countries upstream and downstream of the Nile Basin had a common, all-encompassing platform where they could discuss, consult, and implement effective techniques to manage shared water resources.

In 2010, this initiative was eventually discontinued due to irreconcilable differences. Still, it remain important, for it allowed upstream countries to fully realize what a critical resource the Nile River is. Within this framework, all riparian countries had the opportunity to strengthen relations, improve technical capacity, and learn new ways to exploit their natural resources, although the process yielded fewer results than expected.

Analyzing the recent history of the Horn of Africa, it can be concluded that the idea of GERD was born precisely as a result of this multilateral approach and the kind of awareness by upstream countries of the river’s immense potential. GERD could have been an opportunity to relaunch transnational management of those natural resources shared by the riparian countries instead of being held hostage by nationalistic political discourse that overlooks possible mutual benefits and remains tied to post-colonial agreements that cannot take into account the socio-economic needs of the region.

With mature political leadership, visionary regional cooperation and equitable international and regional leadership, the Nile could become an opportunity to create interdependence among the riparian countries and initiate a virtuous spiral for economic growth with positive impacts in several areas: shared management preventing climate change and drought, energy pools to meet the growing demand for electricity in the entire region, and sharing of sustainable agricultural methods with less water consumption, increasing industrial interdependence whilst creating new trade channels.

The hope of seeing a future of energy security, food security and economic development in a historically depressed area of the world is linked to the virtuous management of the lifeblood of the Horn of Africa, the Nile.