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Why the Nile Constitutes a New Kind of Water Dispute – and Why That’s Dangerous

Blue Nile Falls, Ethiopia

[This article originally appeared on]

Ever since workers first broke ground on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in 2011, international commenters have fixated on the Nile as a possible harbinger of future ‘water wars’ to come. And almost since then, water experts have pushed back against that narrative. There’s no reason for such giddy pessimism, they say. Nor does precedent support the likelihood of conflict. As Addis Ababa and downstream Cairo have slowly hashed out most of the technical details, they’ve so far been proven right. 

But though this dispute’s potential to spark inter-state violence may have been overstated thus far, at least for the near-term, the Nile and its GERD lightning rod nevertheless offer an alarming insight into just how dangerous future transboundary water disputes are liable to become, particularly in the context of a changing climate. This might be the new normal. Because while most previous cross-border water wrangles played out among neighbors with histories of water woes or sudden supply shocks, many current disputes are ensnaring a much broader, significantly less experienced, and worryingly ill-prepared cast of riparian states.

Among these rookie water strugglers, there’s often little recent familiarity with severe thirst – and hence limited capacity to safeguard economies and ways of life that weren’t built with dryness in mind. There’s frequently insufficient understanding of the water needs and government motivations in the sometimes-distant states they’re now up against. In other words, these newly minted adversaries are having to build trust almost from scratch in high stakes scenarios that are practically purpose-built to dispel it. When coupled with the fact that more disputes are unraveling at breakneck speed at a time of climate change in political systems that are temperamentally ill-suited to cope with drama, it’s little wonder that many are proving more intractable than ever. The era of largely collegiate negotiations might be coming to a close.

Catch up on the dispute's development here.


In the Nile’s case, resolving water tensions was never going to be easy under any circumstances. But as with a number of other brewing showdowns, what’s seemingly transformed the world’s longest river from a tricky, if still run-of-the-mill dispute into a combustible mess is the pace and extent to which GERD has forced the dominant water consumer to re-examine its relationship with a water source that it’s long seen more or less as its own.

For millennia, rain-deprived Egypt has relied on the Nile for almost every need imaginable. Practically every drop of water to drink and channel to irrigate emanates from the river. And for millennia, that dominance of the river posed few insurmountable challenges. Until relatively recently, the wetter, poorer, less populous upstream states had neither the same need of its water, nor the wherewithal to harness it when they did. But as basin-wide demand has surged in recent decades and as the Ethiopias of the Upper Nile have finally established the clout to try and replicate Cairo’s Nile-side development schemes, the old norms have crumbled. Cue anger and frustration and military build-ups and saber-rattling.

(It’s worth noting that while GERD might have spurred this showdown, it’s merely forced a reckoning that worsening climate stresses and deteriorating water management along the Nile would eventually have triggered anyway. As with rising water tensions in Southeast Asia, the Euphrates-Tigris watersheds and further afield, these big, tangible dams often act as catch-all totems for broader and less easily comprehensible water security concerns.)

Still, even with the Nile’s longstanding power dynamic unraveling, things didn’t have to get as testy as they have over the course of ceaseless negotiations. However, threatened, insecure, and fiercely motivated states often act in fiery or unpredictable ways. At every step of the process, Egypt and Ethiopia have contrived to misunderstand one another, trip over one another’s historical sensitivities, and assert outdated but politically untouchable dogmas. Indeed, it’s notable that much of the most poisonous discourse surrounding the dam [...]

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