Given that they ended inconclusively, it may seem incongruous to welcome the recent talks that took place in Cairo between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan over the enormous Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or Gerd. However, this was the first time in two years that the Nile Basin nations met to thrash out their differences around the negotiating table, free from heated exchanges or promises of military action.
At a time when significant parts of North Africa and the Sahel are in the grip of war, displacement, economic strife and political turmoil, the Cairo meetings show that dialogue is possible, even concerning the most protracted disputes. But perhaps it is the very nature of the issue at stake that lends itself to mediation rather than conflict.
Water is an essential asset for all countries, and rivers know no borders. The Nile and its tributaries – which have played a vital role in human history for millennia – are a shared resource; using these rivers in the most equitable way possible benefits everyone. Responsible and strategically minded governments understand that give and take on managing shared water resources is to the benefit of all concerned.
In the case of the Gerd – a major source of national pride for Ethiopia, as are comparable engineering projects in other countries, such as Egypt’s own Aswan Dam – all parties have legitimate concerns. Cairo has repeatedly said that it considers the dam to be matter of national security for its almost 110 million people, claiming that it threatens hundreds of thousands of agricultural jobs and Egypt's delicate food balance at a time of rising prices and a rapid increase in its population. It is understandable that Cairo wants legally binding commitments on how the water will be collected and used.
Addis Ababa insists that it is well within its rights to build the dam, considering the fact that the Nile’s main tributary, the Blue Nile, originates in Ethiopia’s Lake Tana. The Gerd holds out the promise of delivering electricity to millions of Ethiopians for the first time, reducing the impact of droughts and floods as well as providing more clean water, something that will reduce illness among the population. Ethiopia, which has gone through significant challenges and conflicts in recent years, has the right to pursue development for its people.
These concerns do not have to be in opposition to each other, and although managing shared water resources is a complex business, other countries have found a modus vivendi. The Indus Waters Treaty, an agreement brokered by the World Bank and signed by India and Pakistan in 1960, has regulated the flow of billions of cubic metres of water and helped both countries pursue irrigation, fish cultivation, navigation and power generation. Similarly, the Mekong River Commission set up in 1995 provides a forum for no less than four countries – Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – to pursue water diplomacy and manage their resources sustainably.
Dialogue does not mean that disputes and disagreements never break out, and co-operation – although achievable – can often fall foul of domestic upheaval. In the case of the Blue Nile, a question mark hangs over Sudan’s participation in the talks process, given the violence that has raged there for months. This presents an added element of instability that a delicate talks process can ill-afford.
Multinational negotiations are frequently tortuous affairs that progress at a glacial place. But when it comes to an issue like water, which affects the well-being of millions of people, then dialogue, no matter how drawn out, is still preferable to refusing to engage or allowing relations to drift into conflict.