Conflict Over the Nile River: An Intersection between Climate Change and Geopolitics

Written by: Canaan Odeh

Geopolitics has traditionally focused on territorial autonomy and enforcement of state interest through militaristic hegemony, evolving to nuclear threats and deterrence. In recent years, climate change is emerging as another source of conflict to global security. For example, territorial disputes in the South China Sea have fueled tensions among the Philippines, Vietnam, and the People’s Republic of China due to fishing insecurities. Unfortunately, natural resource competition is not a phenomenon only applicable in the South China Sea. In Ethiopia, the 2011 construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) raised water supply concerns from its neighbors. The 6,500-megawatt project is intended to meet the energy needs of Ethiopia’s rapidly growing population of over 110 million people, of which only fifty percent have access to electricity. This pattern of contention, spanning not just from the South China Sea to Northern Africa, foreshadows a new generation of interstate conflict. 

When the GERD was announced more than a decade ago, Egypt and Sudan objected to the project due to potential limitations to their water supply. Although the dispute has not escalated to armed conflict, tensions remain. Egypt depends on the Nile for approximately 90 percent of its water needs. That is precisely why the construction of the GERD worried Egypt’s leadership, who fear that drought conditions, like those that occurred in the 1970s and ‘80s, will lead the project’s impact to be potentially catastrophic.

Egypt is the dominant economic and military powerhouse in the African continent. As of 2020, Egypt’s annual GDP was $363 billion, over three times as much as Ethiopia’s. The construction of Ethiopia’s dam–at a time when Egypt was in turmoil during the Arab Spring–showcases the fascinating ways in which less powerful nations are beginning to assert claims to their fair share of natural resources. In fact, the Ethiopian Highlands supply more than 85 percent of the water that flows into the Nile. In this context, it is no wonder that Ethiopia pursued such a project.

Ethiopia’s filling of the dam in 2020 prompted new escalations. Egypt requested the intervention of the United Nations Security Council to stop Ethiopia’s unilateral actions and urged it to discuss and commit to an agreement that equitably allocates the Nile’s waters. The United States, under President Donald Trump, subsequently threatened to withhold economic aid to Ethiopia if it did not cooperate. Unfortunately, the request for U.S. intervention perpetuates the idea that strong nations control, police, and enforce international norms and laws, despite legitimate objections from smaller, weaker nations.

There have been some reports on Ethiopia insisting the dam will benefit its regional partners, but details about that have not been comprehensively clarified. Egypt previously offered a proposal that guarantees the country access to 40 billion cubic meters of water a year, but Ethiopia has agreed to commit no more than 31 billion. It has also said that Egypt’s proposals violate Ethiopia’s discretion to control its own water resources, thus violating its sovereignty. As climate change increases scarcity, sovereignty may be invoked more often to defend natural resources, including those that have been historically shared across borders. 

As compared to Egypt, Sudan’s response to GERD has been mixed and limited. It recognizes that the dam will help prevent annual flooding within Sudanese territory, but they cite water supply and negative consequences on Sudanese dams as major concerns. One reason to explain Sudan’s limited response against the GERD is that the country underwent civil war, democratic transition, and a coup d’état as recently as October 2021. These institutional challenges have likely prohibited Sudan from drawing more attention to the controversy of GERD.

The disputes between these countries are grounded under one important rationale: the ability for states to provide their citizens with basic resources–food, water, and energy. The predicted 2.7 degrees celsius temperature increase by 2100 will lead to disorder. Rising sea levels, drought, and other extreme impacts of climate change will surely create desperation. Therefore, new pressures will be exerted on nations to ensure that their respective population is guaranteed access to basic resources. If country leaders fail to do so, they risk social, political, and economic turmoil, which can escalate to the collapse of the state itself. When assessing Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s assertiveness to protect his country’s population, the issue of natural resources must be kept in mind as a new form of national security.

This means that the strategic culture of states will be reshaped to ensure the continuity of their national security. This is already occurring in other regions. The United Arab Emirates will face some of the most severe consequences of climate change due to its natural hot climate, limited water resources, and reliance on oil exports. In the past few years, the country has transformed its traditional economic and political character. Previously a longtime close ally of the United States, the relationship is becoming more moderate as the U.A.E  grows closer to Russia and China for its own state interests, including for defensive measures against climate change.

As mentioned before, these climate change-induced challenges are certainly not specific to one region of the world. Continued diplomatic efforts will be important to mitigate the GERD issue, and the major parties–Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt–must find ways to compromise without resorting to armed conflict. If successful, this mediation can set a positive precedent to the world that cooperation triumphs over conflict during humanity’s most vulnerable times.