by Musab Alnour Ibrahim
On 11 April 2019, a popular revolution removed Omar Hassan al-Bashir from power. Since the ruler’s departure after more than thirty years, the Transitional Government of Sudan, led by Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok, has been tasked with alleviating the economic hardship resulting from decades of mismanagement and corruption, addressing the lack of civil and human rights, as well as preparing the country for its first democratic elections in 2022. A major persisting issue facing the country is the devastating conflicts occurring in multiple regions. It is a crisis further exacerbated by the fact that Sudan is one of the countries most affected by climate change. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Defense classified climate change in its report as a ‘threat multiplier,’ highlighting the seriousness of the issue and asserting the role of climate change in creating the conditions for violent extremism and terrorism.
While there is scientific consensus on the causal links between human activities and rising temperatures, disagreement persists over the impact climate change has on the likeliness of a conflict to occur. However, it is widely agreed among academic circles that higher temperatures lead to severe droughts, desertification, flash floods in the rainy season, and other climate-linked disasters. These are all factors that increase the likelihood of conflicts. A recent study has concluded that more conflicts will occur as the environmental effects of climate change become more severe.
Threat multiplier: Climate change in Darfur
An often-cited example in the climate-conflict literature is the conflict in Darfur, which is considered by scholars like Jeffrey Mazo, as the world’s first modern-day climate change conflict. Since 2003, the western-most region of Sudan was at the centre stage of violent conflict between the al-Bashir government and allied militias, against the Sudanese Revolutionary Front, which accused the government of ethnic cleansing of black Africans in favour of Arabised indigenous Africans. According to International observers and scholars, the seeds of the Darfur conflict, which killed more than 300,000 people and displaced about 3 million, began with a famine in the mid-1980s.
As temperatures rose, water scarcity led to severe droughts and a shortage of grazing lands, impacting the adaptive capacity of Darfur. Consequently, as the Sahara Desert expanded southward overtaking once green areas, water points, and fertile pasture lands became focal points of the conflict between the semi-nomadic livestock herders and sedentary farmers, undermining the social fabric and peaceful coexistence in the region. The adverse environmental conditions caused by rising temperatures also negatively impacted economic prosperity in this volatile region, as freshwater sources become increasingly scarce, food production declined, and subsequently, people began to migrate in search of better opportunities.
The competition was complicated by the former regime’s policies that have led to the socioeconomic marginalisation of many Darfuris. For hundreds of years, tribal groups settled their differences through mechanisms built on past traditions. The main traditional mediation method in Darfur, called Judiya, allows for disputes to be resolved by setting up a reconciliation committee, which consists of a group of tribal elders as impartial facilitators, guiding the parties of the conflict towards a peacefully negotiated settlement. Under the government of al-Bashir, these mechanisms have been either weakened or abolished, further exacerbating the conflict.
The Darfur Conflict continues, despite the presence of one of the world’s largest peacekeeping missions. While the transitional government was able to agree with rebel groups in Darfur on the cessation of hostilities, the climate factors that exacerbated the conflict still remain. To maintain a lasting peace in the region, initiatives like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and Rwanda’s National Unity and Reconciliation Commission should be championed to rectify the wrongs of the past and mitigate disputes in the future.
Geopolitical implications of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
The case of the Darfur conflict illustrated the consequences of severe climate conditions within a country. However, in recent years Sudan found itself in another water conflict, one which also involved its East African neighbours of Egypt and Ethiopia. At the heart of the dispute is the construction and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile River, the latest development in one of the world’s oldest geopolitical rivalry. All three countries share the Blue Nile River, which provides 85% of the Nile River water and originates in the Ethiopian highlands. The $4.6bn hydroelectric dam is seen by Ethiopia as a legacy project that could lift millions out of poverty, as half of the population has no access to electricity. Once operational, the GERD will be Africa’s biggest hydroelectric power plant to date and the seventh-largest in the world, producing 6,500 megawatts of electricity for the country’s poorest regions. With power generation starting from 2021, the massive hydropower project is also intended to spur Ethiopia’s economic growth and turn the country into Africa’s biggest power exporter.
Ethiopia began working on the mega-dam project in 2011, while Egypt was mired in a political turmoil in the wake of the Arab Spring, not able to confront Ethiopia over the project at the time. Since then, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan held multiple talks to reach an agreement on the operation and filling of the dam, the most contentious elements of any future agreement. While Ethiopia’s intention is to fill the dam’s reservoir over four to seven years, Egypt proposed an extension to over 15 years. With a fast-growing population of about 100 million people, Egypt heavily depends on the river for over 90% of its freshwater needs. For thousands of years, Egypt relied on the river to flood and help grow its crops in inland farms, providing sustenance for the poor and agricultural products to export. However, years of water mismanagement and pollution led to severe water scarcity, estimated in 2019 at around 570 cubic meters of water per person annually, well below the 1,000 cubic meters of water considered by hydrologists to be the threshold. Moreover, the dam’s location near the Ethiopian-Sudanese border suggests that once the dam is operational, Ethiopia could threaten downstream nations by controlling the flow of the river, without any serious consequences to its own territories.
Hence, despite the reassurances of Addis Ababa, Cairo fears the short-term drop in freshwater supply could pose an existential threat to Egypt, a threat they are prepared to answer militarily. While Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has asserted, that negotiations are the way to resolve the dispute, he has warned that his country will go forward with its plans to fill the dam in the rainy season of July, even if that would lead to war. The challenge to reach a deal is complicated by nationalism and domestic considerations in both nations. For instance, much of the GERD’s cost was financed through public contributions from ordinary Ethiopians. The dispute is further complicated by colonial-era arrangements that are in favour of Egypt. For decades, affairs pertaining to the Nile River’s use were managed within the framework of the 1929 Nile Waters Agreement, signed between Egypt and Great Britain, which governed and negotiated at the time on behalf of Uganda, Kenya, Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania), and Sudan.
The agreement gave Egypt a veto right over future water projects that could potentially affect its water supply. Subsequently, the 1959 Treaty further strengthened Egypt’s position, by allocating 55.5 billion cubic meters (66%) a year of the Nile water to the country, 18.5 BCM (22%) to Sudan, and the remaining 12% was left for evaporation. Neither of the treaties made any reference towards the rights of Ethiopia or the other Nile River basin nations. Fearing the loss of its current share of water supply, Egypt insists that any resolution respects the decades-long colonial treaties, while Ethiopia does not recognise the treaties. Downstream nations argue that under the Nile Basin Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA), a permanent resolution can be achieved. Meanwhile, Khartoum had to strike a balance between the interests of Cairo and Addis Ababa, while protecting its own interests. Despite the fact that Sudan initially opposed the GERD, due to safety concerns regarding the dam and its impact on its own dams, Khartoum was persuaded to support the project, as it will provide cheap electricity, decrease flooding downstream and increase crop rotations.
Negotiations between the three Nile River basin nations have yet to produce a conclusive agreement. Although a Declaration of Principles on the GERD, signed in 2015, was a significant step towards a resolution and affirmed the “equitable and reasonable” use of the Nile, the tripartite talks have failed to reach an agreement over the technical details of the dam’s filling and operations. The Crisis Group has studied the issues at hand and in its report, which suggested a two-step resolution to overcome the impasse. Firstly, the parties have to agree to a timetable for filling the reservoir, as well as a study of GERD’s impact on water flow. Secondly, once an agreement has been reached, Egypt has to work through the Nile Basin Initiative, which is an intergovernmental partnership of ten countries through which the Nile flows, to establish a working framework that would set the rights and obligations of each nation. Another suggestion came from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, which proposed a mixture of technical and financial assistance from the European Union. Under this proposal, the EU would help create a compensation mechanism to ascertain the estimated cost for not filling the reservoir in the proposed time, and aid Cairo in compensating for the concessions made by Ethiopia.
As temperatures rise, wind and rainfall patterns will become more unpredictable. This is a particular vulnerability to the agricultural sector that still dominates many economies around the world. While this conflict is still ongoing, it is evident from the case study that as the effects of climate change become more severe, we are likely to see more water conflicts emerge in the future. Without a global treaty on the use and sharing of rivers suggested by experts, I argue that we will be bound to see more unilateral actions, that could destabilise volatile regions that already experience extreme political instability and economic hardship.
Musab Alnour Ibrahim holds an MA in Intelligence and International Security from King’s College London.