US mediation raises Egypt's hopes of deal over Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance dam

Mutual ally and World Bank to be involved in talks on reducing the downstream impact of hydroelectric project being built on the Blue Nile

Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam 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 is brimming with hope that its long-running dispute with Ethiopia over how to share the Nile's waters will be satisfactorily resolved, thanks to the timely intervention of the United States, Cairo's ally and patron for the past four decades.

The foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan met in Washington last week for a round of US-sponsored talks on a nearly complete dam being built by Addis Ababa on the Blue Nile.

Egypt demanded that the reservoir behind the hydroelectric dam, which will hold about 74 billion cubic metres of water, be filled over seven years to reduce the impact downstream. It also demanded that Ethiopia release 40bn cubic metres of water annually and show flexibility during droughts.

Ethiopia, where the dam has become a symbol of national pride, grudgingly agreed to the first demand, but rejected Cairo's proposal for drought spells.

Egypt said a significant drop in its share of the Nile's waters would affect the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of farmers and threaten the country's food security.

However, round after round of talks failed to result in significant progress and relations with Ethiopia, also a US ally, became fraught as the two countries accused each other obstructing progress in the negotiations.

At the Washington talks, Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan agreed that their water ministers would hold four technical meetings with US and World Bank delegates attending as observers.

“The ministers also agreed to work toward completion of an agreement by January 15, 2020, and would attend two meetings in Washington, DC on December 9, 2019 and January 13, 2020, to assess and support progress," a joint statement said at the end of the November 6 talks.

"If an agreement is not reached by January 15, 2020, the foreign ministers agree that Article 10 of the 2015 Declaration of Principles [signed by the three nations] will be invoked."

That article stipulates that the three countries will seek the mediation of a fourth party, something that Egypt has long demanded but which Ethiopia and Sudan baulked at.

"Egypt accepts mediation because it is certain that its proposals are fair and just," Egypt's Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told a television station at the weekend. "Any scientific approach to this issue will safeguard Egypt's rights."

Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam is built on the Blue Nile, which accounts for about 85 per cent of the Nile’s waters and 65 per cent of the waters that reach Egypt.

The Blue Nile and the White Nile, another tributary which starts in central Africa, meet near Khartoum to form the Nile river, which then flows on to Egypt and drains in the Mediterranean.

With a population matching Egypt’s 100 million, Ethiopia views the dam as essential to its development.

Like others among the 11 nations where the Nile and its tributaries run, it feels Egypt has unjustifiably enjoyed the lion’s share of the river’s water – an annual 55 billion cubic metres – for far too long.

Egypt, meanwhile, acknowledged the dam's importance to Ethiopia's development and stated it is seeking bilateral co-operation to ensure that the damage it suffers is reduced to manageable levels.

Throughout the dispute, which began in 2011, Egypt refrained from any mention of military action to resolve the dispute but some pro-government commentators recently floated the notion that if Egypt did go to war against Ethiopia, it would be in self defence.

The two countries do not share a land border.

“We are now transitioning from a period of intransigence to a more open process,” said Mohammed Anis Salem, a retired career diplomat who heads the Alexandria-based Centre of Strategic Studies.

"It is a move forward, definitely because we are creating fluidity in the situation and bringing into the process parties with knowledge," he said of possible World Bank mediation.

Mr Sameh, Egypt's foreign minister, was optimistic about the involvement of the World Bank, saying the international development agency had a separate department dealing with water, experience in dealing with disputes over transboundary rivers and the ability to call on specialists to put together a "comprehensive scenario" for the dispute.