Egypt and Ethiopia to meet again in Moscow over dam dispute

By Morris Kiruga, in Nairobi
Posted on Tuesday, 15 October 2019 15:40

Welders work at Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam as it undergoes construction on the river Nile in Guba Woreda, Benishangul Gumuz Region, Ethiopia September 26, 2019. Picture taken September 26, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

Egyptian President Fattah el Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed will meet in Moscow in a bid to resolve the long-running Nile dam dispute, President el-Sisi announced on Sunday.

El-Sisi said that the two leaders had agreed to meet and “discuss the subject to move [it] forward”, barely two weeks after negotiations in Sudan’s capital Khartoum collapsed.

  • Although he did not give a specific date for the crucial meeting, it will most likely happen on the sidelines of the Russia-Africa Summit on October 23rd and 24th.

The Moscow meeting is meant to revive the talks between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, which stalled earlier this month with Egypt and Ethiopia accusing each other of “inflexibility.”

The ongoing diplomatic dispute is about Ethiopia’s flagship project, the Grand Renaissance Dam (GERD), whose construction has speeded up again under PM Abiy after several delays.

  • At a joint press conference in Cairo mid-last year, President el-Sisi asked Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to swear that he would not hurt Egypt’s share of the Nile. “I swear to God, we will never harm you,” Abiy Ahmed replied.

The two, and then Sudan President Omar el-Bashir, met again in Addis Ababa in February 2019, but negotiations have been ongoing under a 2015 agreement.

While the dam, largely financed by Ethiopians themselves, is primarily meant for electricity generation, it is also a source of pride for the country.

  • The GERD is being constructed on the Blue Nile near Ethiopia’s border with Sudan, and will generate up to 6, 000MW of electricity once in operation.
  • The Blue Nile provides about 86% of the Nile’s waters, making it the most important tributary of the world’s longest running river. Egypt relies on the river for 90% of its freshwater needs.
  • For Sudan, in whose capital city the two main tributaries meet, the GERD offers both electricity and irrigation opportunities. Khartoum has, however, historically often sided with Egypt on Nile River matters.

The ongoing dispute is specifically about how long Ethiopia will take to fill up the $4bn dam once its complete.

While its original plan was to fill it within 2-3 years, it has previously made concessions for a longer timeline (up to 7 years) in attempt to placate Cairo.

  • The timeline is important because it will affect the Nile’s capacity in Sudan and more importantly, Egypt.
    Cairo proposed to link the GERD’s water levels to its own High Aswan Dam (HAD), a proposal Ethiopia has turned down saying it would make its project “hostage to the HAD.”
  • Ethiopia’s position is primarily built on its sovereign right to use its own waters, a position that upends Egypt’s colonial-era veto powers on how upstream countries used the Nile’s tributaries.
  • In an Ethiopian diplomatic note seen by Reuters in early October, the country’s Foreign Ministry said that “meeting this demand is tantamount for Ethiopia to agreeing to make the filling of the GERD subject to Egypt’s approval at any stage.”

In another statement, Addis Ababa said that ““Egypt’s proposal is an effort to maintain a self-claimed colonial era-based water allocation and veto power on any project in the Nile system.”

It has been a long road for the three countries since Ethiopia announced in 2011 that it would begin construction of Africa’s biggest dam.

The previous year, a decade-long series of negotiations had pitted seven of the nine Nile states, including Ethiopia, against Egypt and Sudan, which had signed a Nile Pact in 1956. The resulting agreement, which Egypt and Sudan did not sign, sought to establish a commission to decide on how much Nile Water each country should be allocated.

  • Since then, political upheaval in all three countries in the ongoing dispute has delayed or disrupted rounds of talks, making it impossible to reach an agreement.
  • On Sunday, President el-Sisi directly blamed the 2011 Arab Spring that ended Hosni Mubarak’s rule for the current dispute, saying that if it was for them, “there would have been a strong and easy agreement on constructing the dam.”
  • Protecting the Nile, Egypt’s most vital resource, is perhaps the most emotive subject in the country. In 2013, for example, while under the rule of President Mohammed Morsi, several Egyptian politicians were caught on camera proposing military action against Ethiopia.

Negotiations among the water ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan collapsed on October 5th, with Egypt and Ethiopia blaming each other for the stalemate.

  • The meeting in Khartoum had followed a four-day meeting of a tripartite expert group that begun in late September.

Egypt immediately reiterated its call for an external mediator in the dispute, with a government spokesman saying that the country was looking forward to the United States playing “an instrumental role.”

  • On October 3rd, the US White House released a statement saying that “All Nile Valley countries have a right to economic development and prosperity” and called on all three countries to “put forth good faith efforts to reach an agreement that preserves those rights, while simultaneously respecting each other’s Nile water equities.”

In response, Ethiopia laid the blame on Egypt for the stalled negotiations, accusing it of “disruptive tactic it applied to halt the hydrology, environmental and social impact assessment on the GERD.”

It also accused Egypt of violating the principles of the negotiation by inviting another party in the discussions, calling it “an unwarranted denial of the progress in the trilateral technical dialogue”

  • The dispute also played out at the UN General Assembly’s 74th session, where the presidents of Egypt and Ethiopia both pitched their country’s positions at the global body.
  • Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde said that “The utilisation of the Nile waters offers a unique opportunity for our trans-boundary cooperation between the sisterly countries of the region. It should never be an object of competition and mistrust.”

In his speech, Egyptian President Fattah el-Sisi called for international mediation.

تابعت عن كثب نتائج الإجتماع الثلاثى لوزراء الرى فى مصر والسودان وأثيوبيا لمناقشة ملف سد النهضة الأثيوبى والذى لم ينتج…

Publiée par ‎AbdelFattah Elsisi – عبد الفتاح السيسي‎ sur Samedi 5 octobre 2019

Ethiopia’s insistence on its sovereign rights is a direct result of the historical desire by upstream countries to have more say in how they utilise their portions of the Nile, and its navigating the GERD dispute is not only crucial to its own internal needs, but will serve as a lesson for the other six upstream countries.

For Egypt, the success of the GERD dam is an immediate threat to its water supply, but its unwillingness to cede any Nile rights to upstream countries is not helping it win allies in the region.

Bottom Line: While the Moscow meeting may get all three sides back on the table, the sticking points will be a lot harder to resolve.

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