Egypt and Ethiopia to begin Nile dam mediation talks in the US

The foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are due to meet in Washington DC at the invitation of US President Donald Trump

Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam powerhouse is seen as it undergoes construction work on the river Nile in Guba Woreda, Benishangul Gumuz Region, Ethiopia September 26, 2019. Picture taken September 26, 2019. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri
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Egypt and Ethiopia will begin mediation talks in the US on Wednesday over the impact a Nile dam will have on Cairo’s share of Nile waters.

The foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are due to meet in Washington DC at the invitation of US President Donald Trump. The talks follow a deadlock in drawn-out negotiations, with Ethiopia rejecting Egyptian proposals to resolve the dispute and Sudan, which stands to benefit from the hydropower dam, quietly siding with Addis Ababa.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi spoke on the phone with President Trump late on Monday before he tweeted lavish praise of the US leader, describing him as a “a unique man who possesses the strength to face and deal with crises".

He thanked Mr Trump for “efforts to sponsor the tripartite negotiations” and said he would like to emphasise his “full confidence in this generous sponsorship, which will find an agreement that safeguards the rights of all parties in the framework of international law and human justice”.

White House spokesperson Judd Deere said the objective of the Washington talks was to reach a “collaborative agreement” on the dam dispute.

The dam, formally known as the Grand Renaissance Dam, has been built on the Blue Nile, which accounts for about 85 per cent of the Nile waters. The Blue Nile and the White Nile, which originates in central Africa, merge near Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, to become the Nile that flows downstream through the deserts of northern Sudan and into Egypt all the way to the Mediterranean coast.

The most populous Arab state with 100 million people, Egypt is alarmed that the dam could significantly reduce its share of the Nile waters when a massive reservoir behind it is filled. The country is mostly desert and depends on the river for about 90 per cent of its water needs, yet it has publicly acknowledged the dam’s importance to the development of Ethiopia.

Egypt, however, argues that bilateral co-operation could reduce the expected damage to levels that are easier to manage. Otherwise, it claims, millions of farmers will be out of work and the country’s food supply will be threatened.

On the other hand, Ethiopia has a population matching Egypt’s and it views the hydropower dam as essential. The dam has become a symbol of national pride after millions of Ethiopians bought bonds to finance its construction. Historically, Ethiopia has resented Egypt’s domination over the Nile.

Ethiopia’s proposal is to fill the reservoir over four to seven years, but Cairo insists that it must annually release 40 billion cubic meters of water, a proposal rejected by Addis Ababa on the grounds that it could not spare so much during drought spells.

In an exhaustive report on the dispute released in March, the International Crisis Group quoted experts as saying the reservoir’s capacity, which is about 74 billion cubic meters, is bigger than what is needed for a dam intended to generate hydropower rather than store water for irrigation.

Egypt’s high expectations for a successful mediation has given some analysts both hope and concern.

Attiya Issawi, who has written on African affairs for Cairo's state Al Ahram daily for decades, said the good relations between the United States and both Egypt and Ethiopia were likely to facilitate the talks.

"It will be difficult for Egypt or Ethiopia to reject any reasonable proposals made by the Americans," he told The National. "This round of talks will be better than previous ones and is very likely to produce a breakthrough."

However, Abbas Sharaky, a geology and water resources professor who lectures at Cairo University’s college of High African Studies, believes the US invitation may have come too late, but pointed that the “important question now is what is the price for America’s mediation to resolve the issue?”