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Construction of the Renaissance Dam on the Nile River is underway in Ethiopia in 2018. The United States is trying to mediate a dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt, which fears the dam will reduce the river’s water flow to dangerous levels. Image Credit: NYT

Dubai: As Egypt weighs its options to deal with the lingering issue of Ethiopia’s controversial dam project on the Blue Nile, analysts in Cairo say the government will resort to diplomacy and international pressure on Addis Ababa to reach an agreeable compromise. “Ethiopia seeks sole control of the Blue Nile in a breach of international law and norms. This will harm Egypt and its 100 million people, and threaten to plunge the region into a protracted conflict,” Hany Raslan, an analyst at Al Ahram Centre for Strategic and Political Studies in Cairo, told Gulf News.

The $5 billion Grand Ethiopia Renaissance Dam (GERD) near Ethiopia’s border with Sudan is nearing completion and Addis Ababa said it would start filling the barrier in July, when the rainy season begins.

The GERD project is being described as Africa’s largest hydroelectric power plant and Ethiopia says it is crucial for providing much-needed electricity and for boosting the economy. Ethiopia says the process of filling the dam may take up to seven years.

Filling too fast

Egypt believes when the barrier is filled, already scarce water supplies from the Nile will be restricted. Egypt is almost entirely dependent on Nile waters, receiving around 55.5 million cubic metres a year from the river, and believes that filling the dam will affect the water it needs for drinking, agriculture, and electricity. Egypt says the dam is being filled too fast, and asked for the dam to be filled over a period of 12 to 21 years. Ethiopia declined the request.

After three-way talks between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia failed, they agreed to US mediation. An initial deal was reached, which was approved by Cairo. However, Addis Ababa declined to attend the last meeting on February 28, and refused to sign the initial memorandum.

After that meeting, the US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that “the final testing [of the barrier] and filling should not take place without an agreement”. Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew responded saying the US position is “unacceptable and highly partisan”.

During a telephone call last week, according to a statement issued by Egypt’s presidency, US President Donald Trump assured his Egyptian counterpart Abdul Fattah Al Sissi that Washington will keep up efforts to reach a deal over the dam dispute. Ethiopian water and energy minister, Sileshi Bekele, said Trump “was given inadequate and inaccurate information on some issues regarding our dam”.

A statement by the Egyptian foreign ministry this week condemned Ethiopia’s “insistence on filling the GERD unilaterally in July 2020 without reaching an agreement with downstream states [Egypt and Sudan], while holding negotiations on the GERD hostage to domestic political considerations”.

Egypt is weighing its options but will focus for now on the diplomatic efforts, analysts said.

“Since the crisis started, Egypt has observed an approach based on cooperation and partnership provided this does not harm its interests. Egypt still abides by this approach and seeks a political settlement,” Ruslan said. He stressed that the document Egypt presented in Washington last month was drafted by international mediators; the US and the World Bank, who have described it as “fair and balanced.”

“With its latest stance in mind, Ethiopia has shown it had negotiated with bad intentions. The ruling authority in Ethiopia is pushing the region towards a conflict. But Egypt will give a chance to US efforts that President Trump pledged to pursue.”

Egypt has also dispatched its Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry to seven Arab countries to explain Cairo’s position and hopefully enlist the support of those countries. He arrived in Jordan on Monday. His regional tour will take him to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and the UAE, according to sources.

'Potential military solution'

Ruslan said there is no talk of what he described as “a potential military solution”. He added: “The situation is open to all scenarios. However, it will not reach the stage of a military showdown.”

Tarek Fahmi, a professor of political science at Cairo University, told the local daily, Al Shorouk that Egypt plans to get Arab and African backing “should it decide to take the dispute to the UN Security Council”.

Egypt also suspects that Addis Ababa’s position is being influenced by domestic politics. An editorial at the state-owned Al Ahram newspaper said, “The only explanation could be seen within the context of the competition between Ethiopia’s political parties for the parliamentary elections. The heated bidding among the parties has turned the issue of the dam into a political auction” where the public opinion has been mobilised to support a hardline stance. However, like in other official statements, the newspaper stressed the need for a diplomatic solution. “The win-win diplomatic approach has always been adopted by Cairo, especially when dealing with its neighbours, but under the condition that the interests of all parties are well-served.”

-With input from Ramadan Al Sherbini, Correspondent in Cairo