A last-ditch attempt to resolve a decade-long dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over a new hydropower dam on the Nile has failed, raising the stakes in what — for all the public focus on technical issues — is a tussle for control over the region’s most important water source.
The talks appear to have faltered over a recurring issue: Ethiopia’s refusal to accept a permanent, minimum volume of water that the soon-to-be operational Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam should release downstream in the event of severe drought.
What happens next remains uncertain. Both Ethiopia and Sudan — a mutual neighbor that took part in the talks — said that progress had been made and left the door open to further negotiation. Yet the stakes in a region acutely vulnerable to the impact of climate change are disconcertingly clear.
Ethiopia has threatened to start filling the dam’s reservoir when the rainy season begins in July, with or without a deal, a step Egypt considers unacceptable and illegal.
In a statement on Wednesday last week, the Egyptian Ministry of Water Resources and Irrigation accused Ethiopia of refusing to accept any effective drought provision or legally binding commitments, or even to refer the talks to the three country’s prime ministers in an effort to break the deadlock. Ethiopia was demanding “an absolute right” to build further dams, the ministry said.
Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry on Monday last week threatened to call for an UN Security Council intervention to protect “international peace and security” if no agreement was reached. A day later, Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs Gedu Andargachew accused Egypt of “acting as if it is the sole owner of the Nile waters.”
Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris even warned of a water war.
“We will never allow any country to starve us, if Ethiopia does not come to reason, we the Egyptian people will be the first to call for war,” he said in a tweet on Tuesday last week.
Although both sides have played down the prospect of military conflict, they have occasionally rattled sabers.
The potential for escalation in the region drew the US and the World Bank into the negotiation process last year. When their attempt floundered in February, the EU and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, chair of the African Union, joined in.
“This is all about control,” said Asfaw Beyene, professor of mechanical engineering at San Diego State University whose work is cited in support of Egypt in a May 1 report to the UN. The report argued that the new dam and its 74 billion cubic meter reservoir are so vastly oversized relative to the power it is to produce that it “raises questions about the true purpose of the dam.”
Egypt’s concern is that once the dam’s sluices control the Nile’s flow, Ethiopia could in times of drought say “I am not releasing water, I need it,” or dictate how the water is used, Beyene said.
Yet he backs Ethiopia’s claims that once filled, the dam is not to significantly affect downstream water supply.
Beyene also agrees with its argument that climate change could render unsustainable any water guarantees given to Egypt.
Egypt and Ethiopia both describe the future of the dam that is to generate as much as 15.7 gigawatts of electricity per year as a matter of national survival.
Egypt relies on the Nile for as much as 97 percent of an already strained water supply, while Ethiopia says the dam is vital for development, because it would increase the nation’s power generation by about 150 percent at a time when more than half its population have no access to electricity.
Though more than 6,600km long and a byword for plenty, the Nile is — in terms of water volume — poor. The river discharges just 1.4 percent as much water on average as the Amazon, or one-sixth of the Mississippi, and its water volume is predicted to be further reduced by climate change.
Moreover, the population along the Nile is some of the fastest-growing in the world. In 1954, when Egypt decided to build the High Aswan Dam, the combined population of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, including today’s South Sudan, which gained independence in 2011, was 51 million. That figure is now estimated at 272 million. In 2050, it would be 466 million, according to UN population projections.
Still, geopolitical fears have turned eminently resolvable issues — such as setting a filling schedule for the dam that will not cause sudden shortages downstream — into episodes of diplomatic trench warfare.
Time and again, Egypt and Ethiopia have fought each other to a standstill over seeming technicalities, International Crisis Group senior analyst for Ethiopia William Davison said, adding that Ethiopia’s perception of an historical wrong that must be righted, combined with rampant mistrust and the sensitivity of the issue in both countries, “have turned what is a tricky technical dispute into a zero-sum political game.”
For example, in 2015, the leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan agreed to appoint a neutral consultant to assess the key question of what impact the dam would have — one of several studies Ethiopia failed to produce before beginning construction in 2011.
It took a year to agree on a consultant, but as soon as the probe was to begin, Ethiopia objected.
The assessment was halted because the consultant chose allowances for water usage as baseline for calculating the dam’s potential impact. That is routine practice, except that the allowances were set by Egypt and Sudan in a 1959 bilateral treaty that divided the Nile’s water between themselves, taking into account evaporation and discharge to the Mediterranean, but disregarding other riparian states’ water usage.
In a letter to the UN Security Council on May 14, Ethiopia accused Egypt of using negotiations over the dam to impose terms similar to those of “colonial-era treaties.”
When asked about Egypt’s concern that the dam might cut into its share of the Nile, Ethiopian Minister of Water, Energy, Irrigation and Electricity Seleshi Bekele last year said in an interview: “How do you expect me to say zero for me, 100 percent for others?
“The mind-set, the way the question is raised irritates me, what about other poor people? Don’t they need to develop?”
However, Egyptian water ministry officials say their country’s two-thirds share of the Nile’s water is not as unfair as it sounds.
The river’s average annual flow of 84 billion cubic meters at the Sudanese-Egytian border makes up just 5 percent of the volume of rain that falls in the Nile basin each year.
Egyptian officials also see Ethiopia’s reluctance to conduct studies and consult before building the new dam as part of a pattern, saying it seeks to establish “hydro-hegemony” over the region and citing Ethiopia’s construction of another dam without prior cross-border consultation — the Gilgel Gibe III dam on the Omo River — which the UN in 2018 warned was causing water loss that threatened Lake Turkana in Kenya, a world heritage site.
Some of these concerns appear to have answers. Built just 20km from the border with Sudan and with a reservoir that backs up through almost 240km of mountain gorges, the new dam would be uneconomic for Ethiopia to use for irrigation, unlike Gilgel Gibe III.
An independent panel appointed by the three countries estimated in 2013 that the new dam would lose about 3 percent of water to evaporation and seepage.
However, it also said it would make up for at least some of that loss by regulating summer floods in Sudan and reducing evaporation in Lake Nasser, the reservoir behind Egypt’s Aswan High Dam.
The four-to-seven-year fill period tentatively agreed on by Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan is more than enough to protect Egypt’s water supply in any but the most extraordinary of droughts, Beyene said, noting that Egypt filled the Aswan dam’s reservoir, which is more than twice as big, in five years.
Egypt got aspects of his work wrong when it claimed the new dam was too big, mistaking turbine capacity for reservoir size, Beyene said, adding that there is plenty to negotiate in the filling and coordinated operation of the new dam, “but there is no engineering case for any threat of war.”
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