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This satellite image taken May 28, 2020, shows the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile river in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia. Egypt wants the United Nations Security Council to "undertake its responsibilities" and prevent Ethiopia from starting to fill its massive, newly built hydroelectric dam on the Nile River next month amid a breakdown in negotiations. Image Credit: AP

Cairo: A last-ditch attempt to resolve a decade-long dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over a huge new hydropower dam on the Nile has failed, raising the stakes 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 Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) should release downstream in the event of severe drought.

What happens next?

What happens next remains uncertain. Both Ethiopia and Sudan — a mutual neighbour 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.

What has Ethiopia said?

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 both unacceptable and illegal.

In a statement last week, Egypt’s irrigation ministry accused Ethiopia of refusing to accept any effective drought provision or legally binding commitments, or even to refer the talks to the three prime ministers in an effort to break the deadlock. Ethiopia was demanding “an absolute right” to build further dams behind the GERD, the ministry said.

How has Egypt reacted to that?

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry has urged United Nations Security Council intervention to protect “international peace and security” if no agreement was reached. His Ethiopian counterpart, 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 doesn’t come to reason, we the Egyptian people will be the first to call for war,” he said in a tweet earlier this week.

But why does Ethiopia wants to start filling up the dam now?

With the start of the rainy season in July bringing more water to the Blue Nile, the Nile’s main tributary, Ethiopia wants to start filling the reservoir. But filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam now would potentially bring the years-long dispute between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the $4.6 million (Dh16.89 million) mega-project to a critical juncture.

Have the two nations sparred over water before?

Although both sides have played down the prospect of military conflict, Egypt and Ethiopia have occasionally rattled sabres and concern at the potential for escalation helped draw the United States and World Bank into the negotiating process last year. When that attempt floundered in February, the European Union and South Africa, as chair of the African Union, joined in. “This is all about control,” said Asfaw Beyene, a professor of mechanical engineering at San Diego State University, California, whose work Egypt cited in support of a May 1 report to the United Nations. The so-called aide memoire argued that the GERD and its 74 billion cubic metre reservoir are so vastly oversized relative to the power they will produce that it “raises questions about the true purpose of the dam”.

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A view of the Nile in Cairo. Image Credit: Reuters

What is Egypt’s main concern?

Egypt’s concern is that once the dam’s sluices can 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 released is used, says Asfaw. Both sides describe the future of the hydropower dam that will 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 per cent of an already strained water supply. Ethiopia says the dam is vital for development, because it would increase the nation’s power generation by about 150 per cent at a time when more than half the population has no access to electricity.

But doesn’t the Nile guarantee abundant supply of water?

Though more than 6,400km long and a byword for plenty, the Nile is — in water terms — poor. The river discharges just 1.4 per cent as much water on average as the Amazon, one sixth of the Mississippi and less than half as much as the Danube. Those water volumes are predicted to be further reduced by climate change. Worse, the populations along the Nile are 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 an estimated 272 million. In 2050, according to UN population projections, it will be 466 million.

So is there no way of solving this?

Geopolitical fears have turned eminently resolvable issues — such as setting a filling schedule for the dam that won’t cause sudden shortages downstream — into episodes of diplomatic trench warfare. Time and again, the two sides have fought each other to a standstill over seeming technicalities, according to William Davison, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. Ethiopia’s perception of a historical wrong that must be righted, combined with the sensitivity of the issue in both countries “have turned what is a tricky technical dispute into a zero-sum political game”, said Davison.

What has the international community said on the dispute?

The United States earlier this year tried to broker a deal, but Ethiopia did not attend the signing meeting in February and accused the Trump administration of siding with Egypt. Last week, the US National Security Council tweeted that “257 million people in east Africa are relying on Ethiopia to show strong leadership, which means striking a fair deal”.

How has Sudan reacted to the developments?

Sudan’s Irrigation Minister Yasser Abbas told reporters last week that his country and Egypt rejected Ethiopia’s attempts to include articles on water sharing and old Nile treaties in the dam deal.

How has the project run into delays and deadlocks?

Take just one 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 downstream — one of several studies Ethiopia failed to produce before beginning GERD’s construction in 2011. It took a year to agree on a French consultant to do the work, but when he set out how he planned to do go about it, Ethiopia objected. The assessment never began.

What is Egypt’s assessment of the current situation?

Egyptian water ministry officials say their country’s two thirds share of the Nile’s water isn’t as unfair as it sounds. The river’s average annual flow of 84 billion cubic metres makes up just 5 per cent of the volume of rain that falls in the Nile basin each year, a gift to nations and their farmers that is unevenly distributed. Egyptian officials also see Ethiopia’s reluctance to conduct studies and consult before building the GERD as part of a pattern, as it seeks to establish “hydro-hegemony” over the region. They cite Ethiopia’s construction of another dam without prior cross-border consultation — Gibe III, on the Omo River — which the United Nations, in 2018, warned was causing water loss that threatened Lake Turkana in Kenya, a world heritage site.