Why an Ethiopia-Egypt war over River Nile dam might be ‘good’

Saturday May 23 2020

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a 145-metre-high, 1.8-kilometre-long concrete colossus is set to become the largest hydropower plant in Africa. PHOTO | EDUARDO SOTERAS | AFP

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Before the Covid-19 pandemic came upon us, Egypt was beating war drums loudly over Addis Ababa’s plans to fill the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).
Under construction since 2011, the $4.5 billion GERD will be Africa’s biggest hydroelectric power plant once completed.

The quarrel is over the rate at which Ethiopia fills the reservoir behind the dam and its effect on water supplies downstream in Sudan and Egypt—for who the Nile is the primary water source.

Ethiopia wants to begin filling from July. Egypt wants it filled from 10 years onwards. Sudan is in the middle, insisting the three countries negotiate an agreement over how to proceed.

On and off since construction started, Egypt has threatened to go to war to secure continued access to the Nile waters. It has long invested in a jungle brigade, and since it or its north African neighbours have no jungles, it has always been understood that the brigade is the core of a standing plan to fight for the Nile.
However, with a ballooning population, and over 60 per cent of its population without electricity, Ethiopia says the GERD is existential. That it will not perish nor condemn millions of its people to poverty, because Egypt thinks it has a higher right to the Nile. Additionally, it says the dam might actually even improve water flow to Egypt.
In recent months, after talks brokered by US President Donald Trump inevitably ended in a fiasco, Egypt has taken to the Arab League, and UN Security Council.
War noises and movements, however, have continued.

Last week Ethiopia announced it would not postpone the filling of the dam, and reportedly deployed missiles to protect it, and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ordered the Egyptian military to be on the “highest state of alert”.

It would be disastrous in the short term, but a war over the Nile might be a good thing. If Egypt attacked Ethiopia, the antiquated idea that the Nile is a common good to which all have natural rights would collapse. It would finally become a national asset to which countries along it, especially those which shed blood and spent vast treasures to secure, own.


The Nile and Lake Nalubaale (Victoria) are abused water resources, in part because of this idea that they belong to everybody and nobody.

Greater ownership would likely spark better stewardship and economics around the Nile.

The Nile has two major tributaries—the White Nile is the headwaters and primary stream of the river, and the Blue Nile, containing 80 per cent of the water and originates in Ethiopia.
Here in the East Africa Community, we will have to settle on the source and the economic rights that come with it. While Jinja is the popular world view of the Source of the Nile, good science suggests the most distant source is either in Rwanda or Burundi.
For now, Uganda should be able to collect custodian’s fees from South Sudan, Sudan, Ethiopia and Egypt, and invest it in protecting the polluted Lake Nalubaale from which the Nile flows, and the real estate of the river that sits on its territory as it flows north.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]