Egypt wants ex­ter­nal me­di­a­tor to get Ethiopia dam talks flow­ing

▶ In­ter­na­tional me­di­a­tion will help Ethiopia and Egypt find com­mon ground

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Egypt will this week push Ethiopia to agree to an ex­ter­nal me­di­a­tor to help break the dead­lock in a deep­en­ing dis­pute over an enor­mous hy­dropower dam be­ing built on Ethiopia’s Blue Nile, of­fi­cials said on Sun­day.

Egypt re­gards the Grand Ethiopian Re­nais­sance Dam as an ex­is­ten­tial risk, fear­ing it will threaten scarce wa­ter sup­plies in Egypt and power gen­er­a­tion at its own dam in Aswan.

Cairo says it has ex­hausted ef­forts to reach an agree­ment on the con­di­tions for op­er­at­ing the dam and fill­ing the reser­voir be­hind it, af­ter years of three-party talks with Ethiopia and Su­dan.

Ethiopia has de­nied that the talks have stalled, ac­cus­ing Egypt of try­ing to side­step the process.

Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Ab­del Fat­tah El Sisi is ex­pected to raise the de­mand for a me­di­a­tor when he meets Ethiopian Prime Min­is­ter Abiy Ahmed at a Moscow-led African sum­mit in Sochi, Rus­sia, this week.

“We’re hop­ing this meet­ing might pro­duce an agree­ment on the par­tic­i­pa­tion of a fourth party,” an Egyp­tian for­eign min­istry of­fi­cial said.

“We’re hope­ful to reach a for­mula in the next few weeks.”

Egyp­tian of­fi­cials said they had sug­gested the World Bank as a me­di­a­tor, but were also open to the role be­ing filled by a coun­try with tech­ni­cal ex­pe­ri­ence on wa­ter-shar­ing is­sues such as the United States, or the Euro­pean Union.

Re­cent pro­pos­als put for­ward by Egypt for a flex­i­ble reser­voir-fill­ing process and a guar­an­teed an­nual flow of 40 bil­lion cu­bic me­tres were re­jected by Ethiopia.

The lat­est rounds of talks in Cairo and Khar­toum over the past two months ended in ac­ri­mony. “The gap is get­ting wider,” the Egyp­tian for­eign min­istry of­fi­cial said.

Egypt draws al­most all its wa­ter sup­plies from the Nile and is fac­ing wors­en­ing wa­ter scarcity. It says it is try­ing to cut the amount of wa­ter used in agri­cul­ture.

Hy­drol­o­gists con­sider a coun­try to be fac­ing wa­ter scarcity if sup­plies drop be­low 1,000 cu­bic me­tres per per­son per year.

Egypt cur­rently has about 570 cu­bic me­tres per per­son per year, a fig­ure that is ex­pected to drop to 500 cu­bic me­tres by 2025, with­out tak­ing into ac­count any re­duc­tion in sup­ply caused by the dam, Egyp­tian of­fi­cials said.

Ethiopia is ex­pected to start fill­ing the reser­voir next year.

The late Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the for­mer Egyp­tian for­eign min­is­ter and the first African to be­come the United Na­tions sec­re­tary gen­eral, once said mil­i­tary con­fronta­tion over wa­ter was “nearly in­evitable”. While we have yet to reach that crit­i­cal point, the value and scarcity of wa­ter has led to bat­tle lines be­ing drawn be­tween na­tions. In­creas­ingly, such dis­putes are be­com­ing flash­points that could tip into dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions.

The long-run­ning row be­tween Egypt and Ethiopia over who can lay claim to the Nile river is a com­plex is­sue that stretches back years. The White Nile and the Blue Nile are the river’s two main trib­u­taries, con­verg­ing in Khar­toum be­fore the river flows through Egypt to the Mediter­ranean Sea. The dis­pute cen­tres on the Grand Ethiopian Re­nais­sance Dam, which Ethiopia be­gan con­struct­ing on the Blue Nile in 2012, close to the bor­der with Su­dan. Ethiopia says the $4 bil­lion hy­dro­elec­tric dam will be­gin gen­er­at­ing power by the end of 2020 and will be fully op­er­a­tional by 2022. Once com­pleted, it is set to be the largest African dam, gen­er­at­ing about 6,000 me­gawatts of elec­tric­ity. It is a project Ethiopia sees as es­sen­tial to be­com­ing a power hub and to en­sure its food se­cu­rity. Egypt, mean­while, says it re­lies on the Nile for 90 per cent of its ir­ri­ga­tion and drink­ing wa­ter and fears they will be dras­ti­cally af­fected by the dam.

For years, the two coun­tries have been wran­gling for a res­o­lu­tion, with re­peated talks – in­clud­ing with Su­dan – fail­ing to reach a so­lu­tion. With con­struc­tion of the dam con­tin­u­ing apace, ne­go­ti­a­tions have reached stale­mate. The par­ties again failed to break the dead­lock in talks held in Khar­toum ear­lier this month, ahead of both sides meet­ing in Sochi this week.

Since the dis­pute first erupted, there has been a change in lead­er­ship, with Abiy Ahmed be­com­ing Ethiopia’s prime min­is­ter last year and win­ning the No­bel Peace Prize this year. Yet de­spite set­tling his dif­fer­ences with his neigh­bour Eritrea, a peace pact with Egypt still eludes him.

For Egypt, the im­pli­ca­tions of the dam pose prob­lems of wa­ter and food scarcity that al­ready plague the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion of more than 100 mil­lion. Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Ab­del Fat­tah El Sisi has cited the im­por­tance of the dam for Ethiopia and wants as­sur­ances that Egyp­tians will not face wa­ter or food short­ages.

With ris­ing food prices, Egypt’s con­cerns about the ad­verse ef­fects of the dam on its agri­cul­tural yield are valid. So too is Ethiopia’s need to pro­tect against drought. But the Nile is a shared re­source. Both sides must reach a com­pro­mise that ful­fils the needs of their pop­u­la­tions.

When Mr Sisi meets Mr Abiy in Sochi, there will be the op­por­tu­nity for in­ter­na­tional part­ners and al­lies to act as me­di­a­tors. Mr Sisi is ex­pected to push for an ex­ter­nal ne­go­tia­tor such as the US or EU.

To se­cure the fu­ture of the Nile Basin and pre­vent food and wa­ter scarcity, Ethiopia and Egypt must pri­ori­tise sus­tain­abil­ity and a fair deal. Ac­ci­dents of geog­ra­phy can­not be used for po­lit­i­cal gain. With the peace and sta­bil­ity of the re­gion at stake, the out­come of an es­ca­la­tion in the dis­pute could be po­ten­tially cat­a­strophic.

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