In the 21st century, water could emerge as a more precious commodity than oil. As populations rise, albeit at a slower rate than in the previous century, water becomes a more valuable and critical resource. This is especially true if certain models of climate change portend drought here and there. Wars may not occur because of water; but water, nevertheless, can emerge as both a more important factor and a constraint in geopolitics. A telling example of this has been the increasing tension in the last few years between Egypt and Ethiopia over the use of the Nile River.
These are two highly populous and poor countries we are talking about. Ethiopia has 92 million people and Egypt 81 million. Egypt is a downstream country dependent on the flow of the White Nile from Uganda, South Sudan and Sudan, and on the flow of the Blue Nile from Ethiopia and Sudan. The White and Blue Niles meet outside the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. But there is a great imbalance here: 85 percent of the water of the Nile flowing into Egypt comes from the faster moving Blue Nile in Ethiopia. And Ethiopia, with help from China, is in the process of building a massive hydropower project in its northwest near Sudan, the Grand Renaissance Dam.
Ethiopia hopes to finish the project in the latter part of this decade. When completed, the Grand Renaissance Dam will have the capability to store one year's worth of discharge — that is, the amount of water that flows in a given year past the point near where the dam is located. This could dramatically reduce the amount of Nile water flowing north that Egypt desperately requires for both irrigation and drinking.
The situation is complicated, though. Ethiopia's new dam will be able to generate electricity by diverting the water, while still allowing it to eventually flow north to Egypt. This would not necessarily hurt Egypt too much. But if Ethiopia ever decided to disrupt the Nile flow so that it could use the water for agriculture or drinking, then that could really hurt Egypt. There have been intense water politics going on between these two poor and desperate nations. A solution is technically possible if the operations of Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam can be coordinated with those of Egypt's Aswan High Dam, which can also store a year's worth of water.
A recent agreement between Egypt and Ethiopia allows for the introduction of an independent consulting firm to draw up binding recommendations regarding water use by both countries. This appears to be a conciliatory gesture by Ethiopia, the builder of the new dam. But tensions and the implicit threats that come along with them still remain.
Egypt is a stronger military state than Ethiopia. But Egypt's military option against the Grand Renaissance Dam is problematic. Egypt would have to bomb the dam before construction is completed to prevent an environmental and human catastrophe both in Ethiopia and Sudan. Bombing the Grand Renaissance Dam would also require Egypt to have the cooperation of Sudan in order to use the latter's air bases for refueling. Given that Egypt is governed by a secular-trending military regime and Sudan by one more or less aligned with the views of the Muslim Brotherhood, such a level of cooperation is unlikely. Another problem is that both Egypt's and Sudan's regimes are presently inwardly focused with overwhelming domestic problems. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is preoccupied with improving the Egyptian economy in order to keep himself in power, as well as stamping out the brush fires of Islamist resistance to his rule. Sudan's President Omar al Bashir is preoccupied with arranging a transition after a quarter-century in power, and in dealing with the new and hostile state of South Sudan. Historically, Sudan has been part of Egypt's sphere of influence. But that is less so now compared to other eras. So neither country should want to create a crisis over water at this point.
In some sense, Ethiopia is in a stronger position than Egypt. Even if both countries were to find their way to a permanent agreement over the use of Nile water, the very existence of the new Grand Renaissance Dam offers Ethiopia significant leverage that it did not have before — for if such an agreement were ever to fall apart, Ethiopia would retain the ability to divert or disrupt massive quantities of Blue Nile water. At the end of the day, Ethiopia remains the upstream country and Egypt the downstream one. The Grand Renaissance Dam thus becomes for Ethiopia sort of what Gazprom is for Russia: a vehicle to exact revenge on countries or a country that does not comply with its wishes. And again, climate change has the possibility to make all of this more dramatic.
Moreover, Ethiopia is slowly emerging as a strong state and regional power of some dimension. Ethiopia's road and rail link with Djibouti ensures it a viable port at the confluence of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Moreover, the very diverse ethnic and tribal makeup of Ethiopia requires a form of strong imperial-like rule from the capital of Addis Ababa, which potentially and somewhat counterintuitively stabilizes its central government. Egypt, on the other hand, is beset by Islamic militants in its Nile Valley core, as well as in the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula. The idea of Egypt effectively losing control of Sinai would have seemed an impossibility as recently as a decade ago — but no more.
Northeast Africa in a word, though out of the news, offers a microcosm of today's world. Environmental factors have simply aggravated, or at least complicated, political ones. Neither the United States nor Russia project the same level of power in the region that America and the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. The Chinese (who are building the Grand Renaissance Dam) are a new player in the drama. And the sum result is more tension, with the possibility of interstate water war never completely off the table.
In the past, the United States, as a strong historic ally of both Egypt and Ethiopia, would have already settled the issue through expert diplomacy conducted at the State Department in Washington. That could still happen were tensions over the new dam project to considerably worsen, despite the recent appointment of a third party expert group. But more likely, Egypt and Ethiopia will now be more or less on their own. Egypt will be forced to dramatically improve the efficiency of its available water use, and Ethiopia will over the long term have to calculate perfectly just how far it can push Egypt on the issue. In any event, the Nile Valley will increasingly provide an insightful laboratory for the effect of the natural environment on geopolitics and international relations. The Nile must be shared, or the results will be catastrophic.