Egypt wants external mediator to get Ethiopia dam talks flowing
▶ International mediation will help Ethiopia and Egypt find common ground
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.