Nile dam crisis risks boiling over

Analysis: Ethiopia is at odds with Sudan and Egypt over Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and results could echo through region

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With the world distracted by a devastating pandemic, the long-simmering Nile water dispute pitting downstream Egypt and Sudan against upstream Ethiopia is moving towards boiling point, with potentially disastrous consequences for the region.

Addis Ababa is about to or has already made good on its threat to start filling the reservoir of its $4.6 billion (Dh16.9bn) dam on the Blue Nile without waiting for an agreement with Cairo and Khartoum on its operation.

Whichever the case, Ethiopia’s action would probably spell the end of future talks to resolve the dispute and a possible outbreak of hostilities after nearly a decade of negotiations.

Their failure has left Cairo and Addis Ababa trading increasingly bitter accusations, blaming each other for the deadlock and fuelling nationalist sentiments to a frenzy.

Ethiopia to fill disputed dam, deal or no deal

Ethiopia to fill disputed dam, deal or no deal

Egypt relies on the Nile for more than 90 per cent of its water needs.

Any significant reduction in its water share, it insists, would put hundreds of thousands out of work and disrupt its food supply network.

It wants Ethiopia to guarantee the release of enough water during droughts and agree to a binding system for settling future disputes.

Ethiopia has rejected these demands, saying Egypt has long enjoyed the benefits of colonial-era agreements giving it most of the river’s water without heeding the needs of the 10 other Nile Basin countries.

It says the dam will provide electricity for two thirds of its mostly poor 100 million people, who live in darkness.

Addis Ababa plans to export the surplus to its neighbours.

Sudan, with its border about 30 kilometres away from the dam site, fears that large areas of its territory will be flooded and its own hydroelectric dams closed if the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, is not run efficiently.

But the energy-starved country also stands to buy cheap electricity from the 6,000-megawatt dam when completed.

With so much at stake for Egypt, there is growing talk about a military strike to disable the dam and force Ethiopia into an agreement that secures the interests of all three nations.

President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has not spoken publicly about a military resolution to the dispute, but that option has never been taken off the table.

Ethiopia took that possibility seriously, posting a large number of troops in and around the dam, along with an air-defence system.

Mr El Sisi has on two occasions said his country’s share of the Nile water amounted to an existential issue and that he would never accept an imposed status.

The two statements suggest a compromise may not be on the cards.

More recently, Mr El Sisi publicly ordered his vast and well-armed military to be prepared for combat operations abroad.

Egypt appears to be in a belligerent mood. Mr El Sisi has recently warned adversaries that Cairo was prepared for military intervention in neighbouring Libya if forces backed by Turkey further advanced eastwards.

"Military action is not the preferred option at any rate, but it can be a last resort if the doors and windows of political solutions are slammed shut and the nation's very existence, security and future are threatened," respected analyst Abdullah Al Sinnawy wrote in Al Shorouk daily.

Mr Al Sinnawy named the challenges facing a military strike, including significant damage to Egypt’s standing in Africa and the prospect of any future co-operation with other Nile Basin countries.

“All that might be true but it’s impossible to accept death by thirst with satisfaction, silence or a tied pair of hands when the country’s existence is threatened by a water shortage,” he wrote in Thursday edition.

Egypt and Ethiopia do not share a border and a strike against the dam would be tough to explain as self-defence.

But Cairo has in recent years acquired cutting-edge weapons that enable its military to operate effectively beyond its borders.

Recent buys include German submarines, French-made Raphael jet fighters and high-seas troop carriers equipped with Russian assault helicopters.

They come on top of billions of dollars’ worth of US-made weapons acquired under an aid programme that began in the late 1970s and includes warships, helicopter gunships and F-16 jet fighters.

Michael Hanna, a Middle East expert from the New York Century Foundation, believes Egypt may find it difficult to compromise with what it sees as Addis Ababa’s intransigence.

But direct military action against the dam or its facilities would be politically costly.

"Ethiopia has divisions that can be exploited, yet covert operations or the use of proxies to take advantage of them would be easily traced back to Egypt," Mr Hanna told The National.

“If Egypt tries to escalate, the Ethiopians can go ahead and just fill the dam, with world powers maxed out on their own domestic issues, from the pandemic to economic depression, as well as a US election later in the year."