Water Wars on the Nile

How Water Scarcity and Middle Eastern Influence Are Reshaping Northeast Africa

Construction on the Renaissance Dam in Ethiopia, March 2015. REUTER/Tiksa Negeri

In Ethiopia, Africa’s largest-ever dam and hydroelectric power plant is inching closer to completion. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile River has the potential to transform Ethiopia’s economy and revolutionize the agricultural sector of its northwestern neighbor Sudan. But further downstream in Egypt, where 95 percent of the population live on the Nile’s shores or along its delta, many object to the dam, which they see as a fundamental threat to their way of life. As Ethiopia prepares to operationalize the dam and divert Nile waters to fill its massive reservoir, the international dispute over the river has reached a make-or-break moment. In the coming year, Egypt and Ethiopia will either set their differences aside and forge a cooperative path forward together—an outcome that is technically feasible but politically fraught—or face a diplomatic downward spiral. 

The story of the dam dispute, however, is also increasingly inseparable from the intensifying “great game” unfolding across eastern Africa: as Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt all jockey for influence, Middle Eastern geopolitics have jumped the Red Sea, militarizing and polarizing the Horn of Africa. Middle Eastern powers are scooping up real estate for military and naval bases, claiming arable farmland and reportedly cultivating proxies to pressure their rivals.

In some cases, Gulf countries’ growing influence and resources have helped broker constructive compromises that move eastern Africa forward: July’s historic peace deal ending a two-decade-long state of war between Ethiopia and Eritrea was facilitated by the United Arab Emirates’ mediation efforts. In other cases, such as Somalia, Middle Eastern involvement has made already volatile local politics even more explosive by exporting bitter geopolitical disputes across the Red Sea.

Today, both paths—escalating conflict and constructive cooperation—are distinctly possible, in the dam dispute as in the region as a whole. The risks of resurgent violence in eastern Africa, instability in Egypt, mass migration, and threats to key Red Sea chokepoints all suggest that

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