Egypt seeks international help in row over Ethiopian mega-dam

Facing water shortages, downstream states Egypt and Sudan want diplomatic muscle from overseas

Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly (R) and his Sudanese counterpart Abdalla Hamdok give a joint press conference after meeting in the Egyptian capital Cairo, on March 11, 2021.  Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia have been locked for almost a decade in inconclusive talks over the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile, which broke ground in 2011.  / AFP / Selman Elotefy
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Egypt called on Thursday for African and international mediators to step in and ease worsening regional tension over an Ethiopian mega-dam that threatens to reduce water flows to downstream countries.

Addressing UN talks on water, Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly decried a bitter stand-off with Ethiopia that was causing “rivalries and polarisation” over Addis Ababa's Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a hydropower facility on the Blue Nile.

Ethiopia started building the dam in 2011 and filled the reservoir behind it for the first time last year, causing a breakdown in long-running talks and fears in downstream Egypt and Sudan over reduced Nile water flow.

"This dam requires that we go back to negotiations as quickly as possible with African and international participation so that we can reach a just and balanced agreement that is legally binding for the filling and bringing online of the dam before the new high tide season," Dr Madbouly said.

The Sudanese and Egyptian governments are worried that the dam will reduce the water levels of the Nile downstream and further deprive their already underserved populations of water for agriculture, industry and everyday life.

This week, Sudan formally requested four-party mediation on the stand-off, with appeals to the African Union, the UN, the European Union and the US over how and when Ethiopia should fill the dam.

“This project is the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa and we have spent a decade of bitter negotiations with our brothers in Sudan and Ethiopia to reach a balanced and just agreement,” Dr Madbouly told the UN General Assembly.

These negotiations “did not lead to the desired agreement” and instead Ethiopia has started filling the dam as a fait accompli without “taking into consideration the interests” of neighbours that already face water shortages, he said.

John Mukum Mbaku, a senior non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institute in Washington, said it is important to factor in what the Nile means to each party involved.

"We have to understand that Egypt is dependent almost entirely on the Nile as a source for water – fresh water for household use, for drinking and also for economic activities like irrigation, fishing and transport," he said.

On the other side, Mr Mbaku said, Ethiopia has never reaped the benefits of the river.  "You have to consider that the waters of the Nile come primarily from Ethiopia, and over the years, the Ethiopians have not really used the Nile waters for development. The waters have been used primarily by Sudan and Egypt."

Egypt uses the Nile for about 90 per cent of its freshwater supplies and fears the dam will worsen shortages. It wants a legally binding deal over how to manage water supplies and settle disputes.

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the world body was “ready to help all the parties” resolve the dispute but provided no further details.