When Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed got the Nobel Peace Prize last year for ending his country’s 20-year military confrontation with neighbouring Eritrea, Donald Trump got quite cross. Trump said he should have got the prize, because he had prevented a war.
“I made a deal, I saved a country, and I just heard that the head of that country is now getting the Nobel Peace Prize for saving the country. I said: ‘What, did I have something to do with it?’ Yeah, but you know, that’s the way it is,” said Trump. Real superheroes know saving countries is a thankless task, but they do it anyway.
But Trump was talking about the wrong country. War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography, but Trump missed all his generation’s lessons. Eritrea, Ethiopia, Egypt, what’s the difference? They’re all in Africa, and they all start with “E.”
The conference where Trump allegedly saved a country was about preventing a war between Ethiopia and Egypt, not Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Nobel committee can’t give him a prize for his walk-on role in those talks because Egypt-Ethiopia is not a war-that-didn’t-happen, just a war-that-hasn’t-happened-yet.
Three months later, that war still hasn’t happened, but it might. Ministers from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan met in Washington this week and agreed to meet later this month to put the finishing touches on an agreement on a giant hydroelectric dam on the Nile that is raising fears of our first real “water war.”
Various think-tanks have been touting the idea of water wars for decades. But this time, they might hit the jackpot: a war between Egypt and Ethiopia, each with 100 million people, with Sudan in the middle.
It would be hard to arrange, since Egypt and Ethiopia don’t share a border, but they do share a river: the Nile. Ethiopia is building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile, and Egypt is very unhappy about it. So unhappy, in fact, it would be no surprise if there were Ethiopian anti-aircraft missiles hidden in the hills around the dam site.
Egypt depends on the Nile for almost all of its water. The branch flowing out of the Ethiopian highlands, the Blue Nile, accounts for 85 per cent of that flow, so Cairo is bound to get twitchy when Ethiopia starts damming it.
On the other hand, the GERD is strictly a hydroelectric dam, meant to double Ethiopia’s power supply. They’re not taking any water for irrigation, so all the water should just flow through, spin the turbines, and carry on down to Sudan and Egypt. The only water lost would be the relatively small amount that evaporates in the reservoir.
That’s the theory; in practice, there are two problems. One is filling the dam’s immense reservoir. That’s 74 cubic kilometres of water that will never flow down the Nile, a full year’s flow if you took it all at once. By then, everybody in Egypt would starve, so the dam must be filled during a period of years. The dispute is about how many: Ethiopia wants four to seven years, Egypt is talking 12 to 21 years.
That’s even before they get into the details, like what happens if there is a succession of drought years? Does Ethiopia keep filling the reservoir, or does it stop, risking big power cuts because the dam is still not producing its planned electrical output?
With goodwill, it all could be sorted out, but goodwill is notable by its absence.
Egypt is a brutal military dictatorship; Ethiopia is a democracy. Egypt is the traditional great power of the region; Ethiopia is the rapidly rising rival. And the Egyptians, naturally enough, are paranoid about the Nile, even without the dam, their rising population means they will face grave water shortages within five years.
In 2013, at a conference to discuss the dam, senior Egyptian politicians discussed ways of destroying it with then-president Mohammed Morsi. (They didn’t realize the meeting was being televised live.) The preferred method seemed to be backing Ethiopian anti-government rebels, but as Morsi said, “All options are open.”
The man who overthrew Morsi, Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is certainly no stranger to violence and Ethiopia will start filling the reservoir this summer.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London, England.