How an African dam endangers peace in the region

The level of the project was always a measure of the potential for conflict. Now that the largest dam in Africa, a dam across the Blue Nile in northern Ethiopia, could be filled with water, this conflict threatens to escalate. After a long dispute with Egypt and Sudan, Ethiopia created facts: The reservoir was filled with 4.9 billion cubic meters of water without interrupting the water flow downstream, wrote Water Minister Seleshi Bekele on Twitter.

“We successfully completed the first filling of the dam without disturbing or injuring others,” Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said on Wednesday. The Nobel Peace Prize winner spoke of a “historical” moment.

Since 2011 the 1.8 km long and 145 meters high dam. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, called “Gerd” in Ethiopia, is said to generate the electricity needed for the economy. 6000 megawatts to the development of the 105 – million inhabitants -Powering the country, still largely an anchor of stability in the region. But the building, which will soon be completed, causes trouble. While Ethiopia considers the dam to be essential, Sudan and Egypt fear for their water supply, that too little water flows downstream – the Nile is their lifeline. After all, Egypt draws more than 90 percent of its water requirements from the river.

The structure is has long become a question of security policy

Since the start of construction on the continent's largest electricity project almost ten years ago, the governments in Cairo and Addis Ababa have been struggling for an agreement on the amount of water that Ethiopia has to offer must flow further north. While Addis Ababa never left any doubt that the river would begin to be dammed without agreement, Cairo even kept the option of military intervention open. The building and the dispute over water have long become issues of security policy in times of climate change. Is war now threatening in the Horn of Africa?

At least experts know that Ethiopia cannot do anything about the damming of the water – to a certain extent. Now, at the beginning of the rainy season, more water flows from the highlands anyway than can flow through the two channels left open next to the dam. Satellite images indicated rising water levels at the end of June.

Addis Ababa recently emphasized that no water was being actively dammed up. However, Ethiopia also planned to close the locks a little later this month in order to finally fill up the 74 billion cubic meters of water accelerating the dam. The dam should be filled at the latest after seven years.

Graphic: Ulla Schilli

Egypt wants a legal agreement on the flooding

Addis Ababa, however, does not want to act irresponsibly. The refill should only take place in the rainy season: the removal of 18 trillion cubic meters of water over the course of the first two years has an effect a total flow of almost 100 trillions is by no means life-threatening for the states located downstream. You could also use your own full dams to regulate any bottlenecks. In addition, meteorologists predict above-average rainfall in the Horn of Africa for the next two years. There is no better time for filling the dam, according to Addis Ababa.

Until the end, attempts to reach an agreement that the United Nations (UN) also pushed for have failed. “Unresolved technical and legal disagreements can be overcome with political will,” said UN Undersecretary Rosemary DiCarlo at the end of June.

On Tuesday, the African Union (AU) had a summit to settle the matter of the dispute took place, including representatives from Kenya, Mali, South Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After the conference, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan announced that they would continue the talks. The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on Wednesday that it considered a binding legal agreement for the flooding and operation of the dam necessary. But Egypt wanted this before the flooding, which Abyi now announced.

“We urgently need a peaceful solution here”

The negotiations are quite far. In the end it was still controversial what will happen in the event of a year-long drought and whether Egypt should be guaranteed a minimum amount of Nile water. Ethiopia fears that electricity generation will have to be stopped in droughts. Then around half of the population would lack electricity – and the state would have to forego planned income from electricity exports. The question of how to settle disputes was also long left open.

In the Bundestag, developments are viewed with some concern. “The dam must not lead to another, even armed conflict in a region that has already been battered,” FDP deputy Ulrich Lechte, member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told Tagesspiegel. Lechte brings the Federal Government and the EU into play if the AU does not make any progress with the mediation. “We urgently need a peaceful solution here so that East Africa can continue to stabilize,” said Lechte.

Upstream Ethiopia will no longer want to be dictated by the Nile water use. The Nobel Peace Prize winner wants to present a political trump card with the prestigious building. The prime minister could still play a decisive role in the premier's success in the coming years. Conversely, Egyptian military president Abdel Fattah al Sisi also believes that he cannot afford any weaknesses: the hurdles for an agreement are therefore high.