A dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over an upstream Nile dam has escalated into a heated war of words over the hydropower barrage.
Ethiopia is building a $4 billion dam on the Blue Nile, a tributary of the Nile River, near the border with Sudan, saying the project is necessary to provide the country with much needed-electricity.
Egypt fears that the dam could stem the flow of the Nile, on which it depends for around 90 percent of its water supply.
Several months of negotiations between the two countries have failed to make any breakthrough, spurring fears of a military conflict between Cairo and Addis Ababa.
Last week, Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said “no force can stop Ethiopia” from building the dam.
Egypt responded by saying it was “shocked” by the remarks, amid calls in local media for launching a war to stop Addis Ababa from building the dam.
Shortly afterwards, Abiy and Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi held talks on the controversial dam project on the sidelines of a Russia-Africa summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi last week.
The foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan will hold a new round of talks in Washington next week at an invitation from the U.S. administration in an effort to solve the dispute.
William Davison, a senior analyst at the International Crisis group (ICG), believes that the current tension would not morph into a military conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Davison said the filling period and operation of the dam are the core of the Ethiopian-Egyptian dispute.
“I don’t think the current crisis is connected to any other regional conflict,” he said.
The ICG analyst thinks that both countries still have a chance to solve the crisis through negotiations.
“The two countries still need to agree on the technical issues of the filling period and operation of the dam in order to know the impact of the structure [on Egypt’s Nile share],” he said.
A Sudanese diplomat said Prime Minister Abdullah Hamdok is preparing to mediate between Egypt and Ethiopia in an effort to de-escalate the situation.
“Sudan can play a pivotal role in the mediation between the two countries,” the diplomat said, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
“Sudan…has a strong interest in solving the dam issue peacefully,” the diplomat said.
Sudan, a downstream country, has participated in several rounds of technical negotiations that failed to break the deadlock over the dam.
Asma Alhusseini, an Egyptian expert on African affairs, believes that the dam dispute can still be solved through negotiations.
“There is no way for the two countries but to negotiate to solve the dispute through peaceful means,” she said.
“The dispute is not that big and is related only to the filling period and operation of the dam and the two sides can still reach a deal about it,” she opines.
Alhusseini warned of “disastrous results” if the Egyptian-Ethiopian dispute over the Nile dam turned into a military conflict.
“The escalation will lead to disastrous results on the security of the region and beyond,” she said.
“The countries have to solve this crisis peacefully and give an example on how to solve conflicts in the African continent.
“The two countries have a lot of political, economic and social crises and need to focus on development and cooperation in terms of water issues to help open the door for a wider cooperation,” she said.
Sudanese water expert Ahmed Almufti thinks that Ethiopia is seeking to control the entire water flow of the Nile.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Almufti called on Cairo and Khartoum to withdraw a 2015 “declaration of principles”, which was meant to serve as a basis for negotiations on the controversial dam.
“The only way for Egypt and Sudan is to withdraw from the declaration and re-negotiate all issues related to the dam,” said Almufti, the former secretary-general of the Nile Basin Initiative.
The expert believes that Russian and U.S. mediation would not solve the dam dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia.
“The best thing the Americans and Russians can achieve is to convince the Ethiopian side to extend the filling period of the dam to seven years, which is also a big loss for both Egypt and Sudan,” he said.
“Ethiopia has succeeded in limiting the Egyptian and Sudanese demands to only the filling period of the dam, while abandoning their other water rights,” he said.
“The only solution for the two countries is to withdraw from the 2015 declaration,” Almufti believes.
In a report, ICG said the stable solution of the dam crisis is through partnership in development between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan.
“Forging an initial filling deal could increase trust among the parties, which is all the more important given the threat posed by rising temperatures in the Nile basin,” ICG said.
“In the longer term, ICG supports the idea that the three countries, together with the other eight who share the Nile’s waters, establish a broader resource-sharing arrangement via the Nile Basin Commission that is to form once six of the eleven riparian nations ratify the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA).”
ICG said the initial challenge lies in the position of the three countries regarding the filling of the dam’s reservoir.
“Ethiopia wants to move quickly to expedite maximum power generation. Egypt is concerned about how the dam will be managed during drought years and wants the GERD [Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam] filled slowly enough that a sufficient volume of water can flow downstream each year during filling. Egypt also says it wants an office at the GERD site staffed with its own technicians” it said.
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