The Grand Renaissance Dam is shown under construction in late 2014. (Minasse Wondimu Hailu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Egypt Accepts Invitation to Talks on Nile Dispute

Addis Abba has yet to respond to Washington’s efforts to intervene in Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam conflict

Egypt has accepted an invitation from the United States to talk with representatives from Ethiopia about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a point of contention between the two countries.

Ethiopia has yet to accept the invitation to discuss what will be the continent’s biggest hydroelectric plant once construction is completed in 2022, a decade after it began. Sudan, also invited to the talks, has not responded to the US invitation either.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi are expected to meet during the Russia-Africa Forum currently taking place in Sochi – although this week, Egypt and Ethiopia exchanged particularly harsh words.

“If we are going to war, we can deploy many millions. But war is not a solution,” Ahmed said, according to Reuters, which also reported that Egypt’s Foreign Ministry responded by “expressing its shock, great concern and deep regret” over these and other comments attributed to the Ethiopian leader.

The dam is causing friction between the two countries because it is on the Blue Nile River, which, together with the White Nile, is a main tributary to the Nile, which is Egypt’s main source of drinking and irrigation water. Both Egypt and Sudan are downriver from the project.

William Davison, senior analyst for Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group, argued in a recent article that Egypt backs its claim to the Nile by citing past agreements with other countries, including one sealed 60 years ago with Sudan.

Cairo is concerned that GERD will impact the Nile’s water level, especially during periods of water scarcity. It also worries that the dam will inspire other countries connected to the Nile to begin construction projects of their own.

“Egypt characterizes the status of the Nile as a life-and-death matter. It fears the loss of Egyptian influence and control over upper-Nile states that Ethiopia’s unilateral project represents,” Davison wrote.

Ashok Swain, UNESCO chair of International Water Cooperation, told The Media Line that the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia is about their differing priorities.

“Egypt is worried about losing control over Nile water. Egypt prioritizes its agricultural needs, while Ethiopia focuses on energy production,” he said.

In 2015, Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia signed a declaration of principles calling for the three to cooperate on GERD and saying that water would be distributed in a fair manner.

Egypt has accepted the American invitation to talks, Swain said, because “it does not see another path forward for a successful outcome. It is an acknowledgement that Egypt does not have the same sway that it once had and that its options are limited.”

He added that Egypt “has been traditionally powerful in the basin and has acted as a hegemon for centuries, and so has been very reluctant to accept any third-party mediation” in the matter.

“In recent years,” he continued, “the situation has changed; Egypt has lost its dominance. Sudan, which used to side with Egypt, has gone over to the Ethiopian side, and Ethiopia is becoming more economically and politically powerful.”

Swain said, however, that Ethiopia still has reason to join the talks.

“International water conventions support its right to use the shared water ‘equitably,’ but Ethiopia does not want to project itself as a conflict monger, particularly after Ahmed won the Noble Peace Prize,” he explained.

Davison believes that Egypt and Ethiopia will eventually come to an agreement.

“Failure to reach an agreement will lead to a continuing war of words and increasingly assertive diplomatic action by Egypt,” he told The Media Line. “The dispute is highly unlikely to lead to conflict, although in the past, Addis Ababa has accused Egypt of trying to destabilize Ethiopia.”

Davison added that “a highly flexible filling and operation policy should be acceptable to both sides, where Ethiopia agrees to adjust the filling rate based on rainfall and ensure adequate downstream flows, while Cairo withdraws some of the demands that Ethiopia has rejected as too constraining.”

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