With negotiations stalled, speakers at conference on Renaissance Dam do not rule out war

From top left: Mohammed al Arousi, Yasin Ahmed, Hani Raslan, AJ Mubasher presenter Mostafa Ashoor (moderator), Amare K. Aweke, Ahmed al-Mufti, Badr Shafei, Charles Dunne, Safwat el-Zayat, Ismail Amin, Essam Heggy, William Davison, Jon Martin Trondalen and Rafael Lapin. [Al Jazeera]

Al Jazeera Centre for Studies and Al Jazeera Mubasher organised a conference titled, “The Renaissance Dam between Negotiated Settlement and Military Confrontation.” Held on Tuesday and Wednesday, 22 and 23 June 2021, the conference brought together experts on water and irrigation, law and military affairs as well as researchers and academics in political and strategic studies. The conference proceedings were aired live on Al Jazeera Mubasher and AJCS’s digital platforms.

Egyptian misgivings

Conference participants discussed the causes and ramifications of the crisis over the Renaissance Dam as well as ways to resolve it. For the Egyptian speakers, the problem is the lack of Ethiopian political will to reach a solution that will avert harm to Egypt in the case of a years-long drought like that seen in the 1980s. They also expressed suspicions about Ethiopia’s objectives in building the dam. Speaking in the first panel, Egyptian irrigation expert Hani Raslan said that if the goal were simply to generate electricity for development as Ethiopia claims, a reservoir capacity of 14 billion cu m would suffice, rather than the 74 billion cu m of the Renaissance Dam, which is far beyond the original specifications drawn up for the dam. According to Raslan, the goal seems to be to turn the Nile into an Ethiopian river and its waters into a national commodity it can control and use for political and strategic ends, both overt and covert. Egypt could not permit this to happen, Raslan said.

Ethiopian clarifications

Denying this claim, Yasin Ahmed, the chair of the Ethiopian Institute for Public Diplomacy, called it conspiratorial thinking. Ahmed asserted that the purpose of the Renaissance Dam is not to store water, but to harness it to generate the hydroelectric power that the country needs for development. He added that Addis Ababa does not consider the Nile an Ethiopian river, but shared, international waters. Nevertheless, it rejects the notion that it cannot use these waters to further its development. According to Ahmed, Ethiopia has no problem with reaching an agreement with Egypt and Sudan provided the agreement is “discretionary” and all three states equally shoulder the costs and share the benefits.

Ethiopian journalist Mohammed al Arousi’s talk made a similar argument, adding that his country does not recognise the colonial-era treaties that form the basis for Egypt and Sudan’s allotment of Nile water. Calling them unjust agreements, he said that Ethiopia was compelled to cede to them because it was weak and lacked national sovereignty. He added that if Egypt and Sudan wish to jointly administer the Renaissance Dam with Ethiopia, then by the same logic, they must include Ethiopia in the administration of the High Dam and the Roseires Dam.

Sudanese perspective

Conference participants from Sudan offered various assessments of the nature of the crisis over the Renaissance Dam and ways to resolve it. Indeed, they offered divergent views of the benefits and costs of the dam. Professor Sami Mohammed Ahmed said that the Renaissance Dam would not deny water to Egypt or Sudan, but had the sole purpose of generating electricity. Saying he had no issue with a dam per se, he nevertheless stressed that a binding agreement needed to be reached that would ensure “water fairness” and end the “injustice” done to Sudan with the 1959 agreement.

Legal expert Ahmed al-Mufti, director of the Khartoum International Centre for Human Rights, disagreed, asserting that negotiations would not resolve the problem of the dam without sufficient political will. He attributed the crisis to statements by senior Ethiopian officials who declared the Nile to be “an Ethiopian lake” rather than a shared, international river. Mufti, who has been involved in the dam negotiations for the last seven years, said the talks were destined to fail from the day that Ethiopian negotiators insisted that they were not binding and that construction on the dam would not be suspended while negotiations were underway.

“I have never seen such logic in any negotiations in the 214 internationally shared rivers around the world,” he said.

Mufti emphasised that Nile water agreements are legally binding, including the 1902 agreement, under which the Sudanese territory of Benishangul—on which the Renaissance Dam is built—was ceded to Ethiopia in exchange for the latter’s commitment to allow for the free flow of the Blue Nile into Egypt and Sudan. The 2015 tripartite agreement, also legally binding, bars any single party from filling or operating a dam unilaterally without the consent of the other two parties. Ethiopia, Mufti said, has violated that agreement.

Mufti called on Egypt and Sudan to take several measures in response to Ethiopia’s refusal to reach a legally binding agreement, including withdrawing from the Declaration of Principles agreement, thereby revoking legal legitimacy from the Renaissance Dam and rendering it unlawful, and “forcing” Ethiopia to immediately suspend the second stage of filling pending an agreement. If this entails financial losses, the international community could contribute to compensation for Ethiopia, Mufti said.

Military action

The conference discussed the likelihood of the crisis devolving into violence, possibly with an Egyptian-Sudanese military offensive targeting the dam. Three different perspectives were offered: an Egyptian-Sudanese perspective, the Ethiopian view and the opinion of an American expert.

The Ethiopian view was offered by Amare K. Aweke, a senior researcher at the Ethiopian Institute for Strategic Studies, who ruled out war as too politically and economically costly for Egypt and Sudan; such action might raise the possibility of Ethiopia changing the course of the Nile, which would be catastrophic for the two Nile Basin countries. Aweke added that a war would not be easy: Ethiopia would zealously defend its national interests and could “mobilise 80 million fighters,” as well as striking Egyptian and Sudanese dams if the Renaissance Dam was hit. Aweke also asserted that Sudan could not bear the political costs of such a war in the midst of multiple domestic crises.

Two counter-perspectives were offered by Sudanese General Ismail Amin, an expert in crisis management and negotiations at the Centre for International Studies in Khartoum, and Egyptian retired General Safwat El-Zayat. Amin said that Sudan was severely prejudiced by the Renaissance Dam and that some Sudanese people had already experienced tangible harm in the first filling stage (which Addis Ababa initiated without first coordinating with Khartoum) in the form of water shortages and damage to the Roseires Dam. Later, when Ethiopia opened the sluice gates of the dam—again without prior coordination—the flooding also damaged Sudanese lands and crops. According to Amin, Sudan cannot live with “a water bomb” just 35 km from its borders and the risk that the country could be drowned in 74 billion cu m of water if the Renaissance Dam suffers a structural breakdown. If Sudan took military action, Amin said, it would be in defence of its own interests and water security, not as a proxy for another party.

General Amin added that in the event of military action by Egypt and Sudan, Ethiopia could be consumed by its domestic problems: the Ethiopian regime might collapse and the unity of the country would be sorely tested by likely secessionist movements in Tigray, Afar and Benishangul. Amin added that there is also a difference in the military credo of the Sudanese and Ethiopian armies; the Sudanese fight to defend their land and their Nile, while loyalties within the Ethiopian army are split along ethnic lines. The Sudanese economy has also begun to recover, Amin said, particularly after the lifting US sanctions and the cancellation of Sudan’s debt. The new power-sharing government of Sudan, brought to power by a revolution, also provides a measure of stability to the country. Sudan has “the determination, will, and manpower for the military option if Ethiopian intransigence persists,” Amin said.

Concluding his talk, Amin said that the current US initiative could offer an acceptable solution to the problem in the month remaining of the second filling phase, provided Ethiopia immediately suspend the filling and agree to serious negotiations with a defined timeline for reaching a binding agreement on all outstanding issues.

General el-Zayat said that whereas the Renaissance Dam is a matter of national interest and development for Ethiopia, for Egypt, which relies on the Nile for 97 percent of its water, it is “an existential issue.” If the Nile runs dry, it means the end of life, “which Egypt cannot allow.” He added that Egypt showed good faith in signing the Declaration of Principles in 2015, but that Ethiopia had not complied with the agreement. According to el-Zayat, Cairo would not permit “a nuclear water bomb” to threaten Egypt and Sudan. Egypt chose the path of negotiation seven years ago, he said, but Ethiopia used this to stall for time, in order to confront everyone with a fait accompli—something Egypt cannot abide.

Discussing the likelihood of a war with Ethiopia and whether Egypt has the military capabilities to destroy the Renaissance Dam, el-Zayat said that while the former Soviet Union and the United States had denied Egypt long-range bombers, Egypt had remedied this situation in recent years with the purchase of French Rafale and Russian Sukhoi aircraft as well as submarines and aircraft carriers. According to him, Egypt could launch military strikes from its own territory or territory adjacent to Ethiopia. It would be preferable militarily to use Sudanese territory as the launching area and Egypt could use various types of ammunition, he said.

Addressing the nature of the war if Egypt found no other choice, el-Zayat said that Egypt had never attacked another country and that all its wars had been just and defensive. “Our war against Ethiopia, if we are forced into it, will be a defensive, just war, in which we defend our existence and preserve our fair share of Nile waters.” He said the war would resemble “a surgical operation,” with the goal of disrupting Renaissance Dam facilities and its operation, and would not target civilians or other regions of the country. He added that the strike might target Ethiopian air defences, some infrastructure and hydroelectric transport in order to disable the dam. The final objective would be to prevent Ethiopia from building a dam with a capacity of 74 cu m—“a nuclear water bomb”—but that it could construct a smaller dam with a capacity of no more than 14 billion cu m. Saying that the goal would be to force Addis Ababa to a second round of negotiations based on new rules, he said that a second military strike was possible if the new negotiations failed.

El-Zayat concluded by saying that Egypt does not seek war, but peace, cooperation, construction and development. But Ethiopia, with its intransigence and insistence of inflicting extreme harm on Egypt and its people, was forcing Egypt’s hand. If a war did erupt, however, it would be more of a surgical strike and would be a just war, not an aggression.

Charles W. Dunne, a researcher with the Middle East Institute who spent three years US embassy in Cairo and was involved in Egyptian-US arms issues, said that Egypt has the ninth most powerful army in the world in terms of military capabilities, while Ethiopia’s military ranks number 60. With its long-range bombers, submarines and aircraft carriers, Egypt could strike Ethiopia’s transport, communications and electricity lines and infrastructure as well as launch cyber attacks that could inflict serious damage on Ethiopia.

But, he added, Ethiopia could withstand the attack, turning the action into a prolonged state of war. As such, a military strike may not achieve its objectives but simply derail negotiations and exacerbate the crisis. For this reason, the Biden administration prefers a negotiated resolution. According to Dunne, the United States views both Egypt and Ethiopia as “allies working with it against terrorism.” If war became a reality, it would threaten US interests in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, which Washington “does not want.”

Potential for a peaceful resolution

The final panel of the conference was dedicated to a discussion of diplomatic resolutions. Some experts expressed their optimism, saying negotiations could shift the way we view the issue, exploring ways to cooperate rather than conflict. NASA scientist Essam Heggy said that the party most harmed by the conflict between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia was the peoples of these countries and the Nile River itself. He asked conference attendees to imagine if the three countries were a single country with the goal of making the Renaissance Dam work for the whole territory. If the three countries cooperated, he said, the dam could achieve development for all their peoples, generating electricity for Ethiopia and providing Sudan with regular irrigation and flood control. Egypt could lease agricultural lands in Ethiopia for 50–60 years and grow crops to ensure its food security. All of this would be possible if the issue stopped being viewed as a crisis and came to be seen as an opportunity for cooperation.

Similar ideas were explored by the other speakers on the panel, including Rafael Lapin, a South African expert on conflict resolution and negotiations; Jon Martin Trondalen, an expert on water conflicts in the Middle East; and William Davison, the director of the Horn of Africa program at the International Crisis Group.

You can watch the conference panels at the following links:

Session One

Session Two

Session Three

Session Four