Egypt-Ethiopia water dispute needs international mediation

Countries must resolve disputes over the dam on the river Nile when leaders meet this week in Russia

FILE PHOTO: The Blue Nile flows into Ethiopia's Great Renaissance Dam in Guba Woreda, some 40 km (25 miles) from Ethiopia's border with Sudan, June 28, 2013. Egypt fears the $4.7 billion dam, that the Horn of Africa nation is building on the Nile, will reduce a water supply vital for its 84 million people, who mostly live in the Nile valley and delta. Picture taken June 28, 2013. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri/File Photo
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The late Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the former Egyptian foreign minister and the first African to become the United Nations secretary general, once said a military confrontation over water was “nearly inevitable”. While we have yet to reach that critical point, water scarcity and the value of a much-needed resource have led to battle lines being drawn between nations. Increasingly, such disputes are becoming flashpoints that could tip into dangerous and volatile situations.

The Nile is a shared resource, one belonging to the world, not simply the 11 countries it traverses. It is imperative both sides are willing to reach a compromise

The long-running row between Egypt and Ethiopia over who can lay claim to the 6,650-kilometre river Nile is a complex issue that stretches back years. The White Nile and the Blue Nile are the river's two main tributaries, converging in Khartoum before the river flows through Egypt to the Mediterranean Sea. The dispute centres on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which Ethiopia began constructing on the Blue Nile in 2012, close to the border with Sudan. Ethiopia says the $4 billion hydroelectric dam will begin generating power by the end of 2020 and will be fully operational by 2022. Once completed, it is set to be the largest dam in Africa, generating about 6,000 megawatts of electricity for both domestic use and export. It is a project Ethiopia sees as essential to its transformation into a power hub and to ensure its food security. Egypt, meanwhile, says it is reliant on the Nile for 90 per cent of its irrigation and drinking water supplies and fears it will be catastrophically affected by the dam project.

For years, the two countries have been wrangling for a resolution, with repeated talks – including with Sudan – failing to reach a solution. With construction of the dam continuing apace, negotiations have reached stalemate. In the most recent round of talks in Khartoum held earlier this month, ahead of both sides meeting in Sochi this week, the parties failed to break the deadlock.

Since the dispute first erupted, there has been a change in leadership, with Abiy Ahmed becoming Ethiopia’s prime minister last year and winning the Nobel Peace Prize this year. Yet despite settling his differences with his neighbour Eritrea, a peace pact with Egypt still eludes him.

For Egypt, the implications of the dam pose problems of water and food scarcity that already plague the country’s population of more than 100 million. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has cited “historic rights” to the river, guaranteed by decades-old treaties. He does, however, acknowledge the importance of the dam for Ethiopia but rightly, he wants assurances that Egypt’s millions are not going to face water or power shortages.

In the face of rising food prices in the country, Egypt’s concerns about its agricultural yield being adversely affected by reduced irrigation supplies are valid. So too is Ethiopia’s need to protect against drought. But the Nile is a shared resource, one belonging to the world, not simply the 11 countries it traverses. It is imperative both sides are willing to reach a compromise that fulfils the most critical needs of their populations.

When Mr Sisi meets Mr Abiy in Sochi this week at the first Russian-African summit, there will be the opportunity for international partners and allies to play the role of mediator as the two sides search for a satisfactory solution. Mr Sisi is expected to push for an external negotiator such as the US or EU, which could bring their experiences on water-sharing agreements and arbitrating tricky deals to the table. The White House has responded offering support and urged all sides "to put forth good-faith efforts to reach an agreement".

To secure the future of the Nile Basin and prevent food and water scarcity reaching a critical point, Ethiopia and Egypt must prioritise sustainability and a fair deal for both in their allocation of a shared resource. Accidents of geography cannot be used for political gain. With the peace and stability of the region at stake, the outcome of an escalation in the dispute could be potentially catastrophic.