Egypt-Ethiopia dispute over giant Nile dam reaches critical point

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With the world’s attention focused on the coronavirus pandemic, a long-simmering water dispute in Africa may be nearing boiling point.

Ethiopia says it will not wait for an agreement with downstream nations Egypt and Sudan before it goes ahead in July with filling the reservoir behind the giant Nile dam it has been building since 2011. Egypt, which fears disastrous consequences if its vital share of the river’s water is reduced, has protested against Ethiopia’s decision and accused the landlocked Horn of Africa nation of showing contempt for international laws governing the use of transnational rivers.

Both Egypt and Ethiopia wrote to the UN Security Council to blame the other for the failure of nearly a decade of negotiations to produce an agreement on the operation of the dam and the filling of the reservoir.

Sudan, meanwhile, appears to have abandoned at least some of its perceived bias in favour of Ethiopia’s stand on the dispute, joining Egypt last week in turning down an offer by Ethiopia to negotiate an interim agreement to govern the first filling of the reservoir. Its surprise decision coincided with growing voices in Sudan that question the engineering soundness of the dam and warn that much of the country would be flooded if the dam near its border collapsed under pressure.

Egypt also has some misgivings about the safety of the dam and maintains that Ethiopia has not commissioned adequate studies on the possible risks involved.

Addis Ababa remains adamant on starting the two-year partial filling process and has unleashed a tirade of nationalist rhetoric casting the dam as a national symbol that has united culturally and ethnically diverse Ethiopians. Much of this is thought to be an attempt to pander to voters in an election year and to appeal to their patriotism by rekindling a war of words with Egypt that began after the collapse of US-sponsored negotiations in February.

The standoff is giving rise to speculation whether Egypt will eventually take military action to stop Ethiopia from acting unilaterally, although President Abdel Fatah El Sisi, a former army chief, has stated his preference for a negotiated settlement. He has warned that Egypt would never accept a de facto situation about the Nile water and said the issue is an existential one.

Egypt’s 100 million people depend on the Nile for more than 90 per cent of their water needs. Any significant reduction in its share of the river's water would put hundreds of thousands out of work and threatens its food security.

“The prevailing spirit in Egypt now is of a combative nature,” wrote analyst Abdel Bari Attwan last week. “Egyptian officials, especially those in the military, are extremely worried. That’s why the next few weeks could witness some fateful and painful decisions because it is not possible, nor should it be, for the Egyptian people to go hungry or see their water security threatened.”

Egypt and Ethiopia do not share a land border, but Cairo has in recent years spent billions of dollars on weapons and hardware that significantly extend its military reach beyond its borders, such as German-made submarines and French sea troop carriers equipped with Russian assault helicopters.

However, any military action by Egypt would be difficult to justify under international law and a negotiated settlement might still be its only option. Cairo says it appreciates Ethiopia’s need for the hydroelectric dam to develop its economy, but wants an agreement that will minimise the impact on its water supply.

Ethiopia has called for negotiations to resume, but Egypt is likely to insist on an agreed timeframe to prevent Addis Ababa from drawing them out while creating facts on the ground. Egypt would also like to see negotiations start from where previous talks left off in February, when it was the only party to approve a draft deal brokered by the US and the World Bank.

Cairo might also settle for an interim agreement on the first filling of the reservoir in July, but with added language outlining what needs to be agreed on in a comprehensive pact.

Specifically, Egypt wants the filling of the reservoir to be staggered over up to seven years, and a joint mechanism to deal with possible future drought. It also wants Ethiopia to release about 46 billion cubic metres of water annually; Ethiopia is reportedly offering much less.

Egypt will be looking to continuing US involvement in any future negotiations, although this may be difficult given the preoccupation of President Donald Trump’s administration with the coronavirus outbreak.

“Egypt remains committed to the need to reach an agreement,” said Hany Raslan, a prominent expert on African affairs from Egypt’s Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. “The ball is now with Ethiopia, which must realise that the interests of nations must not be messed with.”