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Geopolitical tensions surrounding the Nile River- What should Europe do?

In this first newsletter, we offer insights on the current tensions in Eastern Africa along the river Nile, and analyze the level of involvement of Europe in this conflict.

🕑 3 min

By Stefano Pennetta

1. The Situation

The river Nile runs through Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Egypt where it eventually empties into the Mediterranean Sea. The construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has sparked humongous international controversy. With Egypt being 90 % dependent on the water from the Nile River, with all its major cities having been built around the river, it is no surprise that the Egyptian Government is very protective of its natural resource. When Ethiopia announced the construction of GERD in cooperation with the Italian firm Salini Costruttori in 2011, Egypt raised concerns about its size and potential impact on the Egyptian's right to utilize the water. Ethiopia began the filling of the dam in 2020 and further continued it in 2021 with no prior international agreements with Egypt. Some might say this move was selfish from Ethiopia because it deprived Egypt of its water resources, however, Ethiopians argue that it is a necessary evil that had to be done in order for the country to prosper.

2. What are the stakes?

Many academics believe the Nile River has led Egypt to become one of the richest countries on the continent, Ethiopians feel they have the right to profit off the river for their own benefit as well. GERD will double Ethiopia’s electricity generation capacity and could potentially earn billions of dollars from energy exports, therefore raising the quality of life for many Ethiopians.

Many argue that despite the potential drawbacks of the dam for Egypt, the cheap green energy it will bring to eastern Africa will be crucial in the fight against climate change hence why the fast construction of GERD is of crucial importance to humanity.

3. Historical Background

Under the colonial rule in 1929, the British reached an agreement with Egypt that gave them complete control of the river. Further on in 1959, it was revised giving Egypt control of 66% of the river's flow, Sudan 22 %, and the rest was considered to be lost under evaporation. Many Egyptian diplomats argue that these are legally binding agreements that must not be changed.

Ethiopians on the other hand argue that, despite the source of the Nile coming from Ethiopia, it was never included in these agreements, therefore, arguing they now have the right to overrule these agreements. For Ethiopians who funded this project through taxes and government-issued bonds, it is a great source of national pride for the country and acts as a beacon of hope for many Ethiopians.

4. What Could Happen?

Many fear eventual military conflict between the countries involved, which will impact Europe and the rest of the world. In 2021, the European Council stated that a “negotiated solution to the dispute over GERD would contribute immensely to the stability of the region and sustainable development in the three countries concerned.” This leads us to the question: What should Europe do? While military conflict is on the table, western powers must perpetuate the message that such conflict will not be beneficial for either party involved and that multilateralism is crucial to overcome this. While Europe does not have the right to make any tangible changes, it can however support further expansion of governmental institutions that promote peaceful diplomacy and a solution for all. An example of this would be the African Union. These governmental institutions could not only resolve this dispute now but also provide a future for Africa to find “African Solutions to African Problems”. It must be noted that there is no one solution to such a complex geopolitical stalemate and it is crucial that as Europeans we look at this in a neutral manner. We must take this conflict seriously because a resolution to this problem will serve as a blueprint against future conflicts like this. As a human race we are becoming increasingly globalized and economically reliant on one another, isn’t it time to set our differences aside and find a middle ground?

Written by Stefano Pennetta

May 2022

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