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Egypt-Ethiopia Tensions Rise as Dam Talks Hit Stalemate
Sudan's Irrigation and Water Resources Minister Yasir Mohamed (R) takes part in a video meeting at the ministry in Khartoum on June 9, 2020, over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. (Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images)

Egypt-Ethiopia Tensions Rise as Dam Talks Hit Stalemate

Addis Ababa’s disagreement with Khartoum and Cairo over the African continent’s largest hydroelectric dam has the potential to turn violent

Egypt-Ethiopia negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) have stalled as Cairo has called on the United Nations to run interference between the two sides.

GERD has been a source of tension between both countries for more than a decade as Egypt fears that its downstream position to the approximately $4.8 billion dollar project, set to be completed in two years, will reduce the Nile River’s level.

Addis Ababa is set to start filling the dam next month.

Ethiopia is building the dam on the Blue Nile River. It and the White Nile serve as the major water arteries for the Nile, Egypt’s primary source of water.

Ashok Swain, UNESCO chair of International Water Cooperation and director of the Research School on International Water Cooperation at Sweden’s Uppsala University, says it is unlikely that the UN Security Council will get involved despite Cairo’s request.

“It is quite doubtful that all the five permanent members of the Security Council will agree to such a resolution, particularly in the context of the on-going open differences and hostilities between [two of the members:] USA and China,” he told The Media Line.

In 2015, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan – the latter also downstream from GERD – agreed to a declaration of principles that called for all parties to work together on the project and divide the water equitably.

William Davison, senior analyst for Ethiopia at the International Crisis Group contends that the current talks have stalled for a variety of reasons, including questions about the legitimacy and binding nature of past agreements.

“The parties cannot reach an agreement due to a lack of consensus on the legal status of any agreement, the final details of how to manage a prolonged drought, and how to resolve future disputes,” he told The Media Line.

Davison argues that Ethiopia is looking for a more flexible resolution that would fall short of acknowledging Sudan and Egypt’s stated water allocation.

“Ethiopia is not willing to sign up to anything that protects Egypt and Sudan’s claimed quotas of Nile water or in any way amounts to what it perceives as a water-sharing agreement. It wants to reserve the right to alter the GERD’s filling and operating guidelines as circumstances alter, and does not want the entire agreement on GERD’s management rules to be binding under international law,” Davison added. “Rather than any future disputes being subject to binding international arbitration, Ethiopia wants resolution to come from discussions between the parties and, failing that, mediation.”

The parties cannot reach an agreement due to a lack of consensus on the legal status of any agreement, the final details of how to manage a prolonged drought, and how to resolve future disputes

Mahmoud Farouk, program coordinator for Civil Society Partnerships in Washington, DC, and former executive director of the Egyptian Center for Public Policy Studies, says that Egypt wants a compulsory agreement that gives Cairo some authority over the water supply.

“The Egyptians want to have a legally binding agreement that includes a legally binding resolution mechanism and to include mitigation measures for the droughts and prolonged dry years,” he told The Media Line. “Ethiopia has rejected both elements and wants to have a nonbinding agreement, which leaves Egypt with a guiding paper but without an agreement at all.”

“Giving Ethiopia total control over Egypt’s water is not negotiable for Egyptians,” Farouk added.

Davison says that one way to deal with the other parties’ drought concerns is to explain how Egypt and Sudan’s reservoirs will supplement the GERD reservoir. He contends that Ethiopia might be more amenable to a legally backed deal if it is an African-led initiative.

Uppsala’s Swain says the stakes are high when it comes to Addis acting on the dam without a prior consensus between all the countries involved.

“Ethiopia needs to start operating the dam only after making a deal with Sudan and Egypt,” he said. “Any unilateral action by Ethiopia will result in a high conflict situation with Egypt and can also deteriorate its relations with Sudan. It might also expose the dam to attacks from Egyptian forces.”

“A deal has the potential to lead to further cooperation among riparian countries in the basin and a nondeal has all the ingredients to push the basin countries to an active conflict situation,” Swain added.

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