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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. Image Credit: REUTERS

Cairo: For nearly nine years, Egypt and Ethiopia have been locked in a dispute over a contested dam being built by Addis Ababa on the Nile.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) has triggered wide fears in Egypt, which relies heavily on the Nile to cover the water needs of its population of nearly 100 million people.

As many as 97 per cent of Egyptians live along the banks of the Nile where the country’s most fertile farmland is.

97 %

of Egyptians live along the banks of the Nile
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A view of the Nile river in Egypt's capital of Cairo. Image Credit: AFP

Ethiopia has repeatedly brushed off Egyptians’ worries and defended its construction of the $5 billion dam as being vital for its development and lifting its population of around 107 million out of poverty.

$ 5 billion

cost of building dam

Ties between Egypt and Ethiopia seriously deteriorated in 2013 when Egypt’s then president Mohammad Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood and allied politicians threatened to bomb Ethiopia over the dam.

In July 2013, the army, led at the time by incumbent President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi, deposed Mursi following enormous street protests against his one-year rule.

After he took office in mid-2014, Al Sissi sought to improve ties with Ethiopia and opted for negotiations to resolve the GERD dispute.

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Recent talks held in Washington, D.C., brought together officials from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia to discuss the conflict. Image Credit: Reuters

Over the past four years, senior officials from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan (also a Nile country) held a string of talks, which have failed to make a breakthrough.

Egyptians have repeatedly accused Ethiopia of playing for time until the dam is completed.

Last September, Al Sissi, addressing the UN General Assembly, warned that the long-running crisis threatens regional stability and called for international pressure on Ethiopia.

“For Egypt, the Nile water is a matter of life and an issue of existence,” Al Sissi said.

A drop in the Nile flow to Egypt will take a toll on its access to freshwater, farming output and power generation by the High Aswan Dam, according to experts.

Read more:

With its mushrooming population, Egypt is seen heading towards absolute water scarcity, even without GEDR fallout.

In October, Egypt announced that talks over the Ethiopian dam had reached a dead end and called for international mediation.

The situation soon worsened after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmad said his country was ready to go to war if the need arises.

Later, Abiy, the winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize, said his remarks were taken out of context and agreed at a Russia meeting with Al Sissi to resume negotiations to resolve the deadlock.

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Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Image Credit: AFP

Early November, foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan agreed at a US-hosted meeting to resolve the dispute by mid-January, a step that Cairo termed as positive.

The following is a look at the ups and downs in the course of the GEDR dispute.

About the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

In 2011, Ethiopia started building the GERD apparently taking advantage of the unrest in Egypt, which followed mass protests that forced long-time president Hosni Mubarak to step down.

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Construction work on the dam. Image Credit: Reuters

Ethiopia said the dam on the Blue Nile near the border with Sudan was necessary to meet electricity needs of its population and serve its development plans.

When completed, the dam will be Africa’s largest, generating around 6,000 megawatts of electricity, with potential for exports.

A map of the dam along the waters of the Nile. Image Credit: Gulf News

Ethiopia plans to begin next year operating the GERD, which is scheduled to work at full capacity by 2022.

The completion of the dam is envisaged to give Ethiopia control over the Blue Nile, which is the Nile’s largest tributary.

What are Egypt's concerns?

Egypt argues that the dam compromises its historical rights over the Nile share.

Under a 1959 treaty, Egypt gets 55.5 billion cubic metres of the Nile waters each year.

55.5 billion cubic metres

amount of Nile water Egypt is entitled to

According to a 1929 treaty, Egypt has the right to veto any project by the Nile upstream countries that would affect its share of waters.

Ethiopia and other Nile upstream countries have dismissed both accords as colonial-era legacy and urged the riparian countries to ratify a comprehensive framework agreement to replace the 1959 treaty that gives Egypt and Sudan the lion’s share of the Nile waters.

In 2010, six of the 11 Nile Basin countries signed a new pact amid Egyptian protests. 

How did the dispute deteriorate under Mursi?

In June 2013, Mursi met with politicians to discuss how to respond to Ethiopia’s GEDR dam.

During the meeting, some participants proposed bombing Ethiopia while others called for inciting turmoil in the African country.

Neither Mursi nor his guests were aware that their discussion was broadcast live on Egyptian state television.

The threats infuriated Ethiopia and brought Mursi under derision at home. Even though, days later Mursi warned in a public address: “Should the Nile waters decrease by one drop, our blood would be the alternative.”

How did Al Sissi approach the dispute?

After taking office in June 2014, Al Sissi sought to mend ties with Ethiopia and favoured diplomacy in defusing tensions over the Ethiopia dam.

He has repeatedly acknowledged Ethiopia’s right to development, but without harming his country’s Nile share.

On March 23, 2015, Al Sissi, Sudan’s then president Omar Al Bashir and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn signed in Khartoum a framework pact, officially called the Declaration of Principles, on the GEDR crisis.

“The real value of our agreement is to reach a complete understanding so that technical studies [related to the dam] will be finalised,” Al Sissi said.

“We are seeking to achieve a concept of joint benefit and to avoid harm.” The Khartoum accord outlines rules for operating the disputed dam and stipulates seeking mediation if the three countries fail to resolve their row.

Two days later, Al Sissi addressed the Ethiopian parliament in Addis Ababa, calling for “opening a new page” in relations between the two countries.

In May 2018, officials from the three countries decided at marathon negotiations in Addis Ababa to set up a scientific study group on the controversial issues of filling and operating the dam.

Abiy Ahmed with Al Sissi in Cairo Image Credit: Reuters

In yet a fresh sign of warm ties, the following month, Ethiopia’s new Prime Minister Abiy Ahmad visited Egypt where he pledged that the dam will cause no harm to Egypt.

“What Ethiopia wants is to use its share of the Nile and make sure that Egyptians will get their quota. We will work to increase Egypt’s share of Nile waters,” Abiy said in Cairo.

Why did GERD talks hit a stalemate?

Senior officials from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan have met for a series of talks since 2015, but without making tangible success.

A key bone of contention is filling and operating the GERD dam, 70 per cent of which is reportedly completed.

Egypt has proposed a seven-year period for filling the dam’s reservoir to head off an envisaged drop in its Nile share.

Ethiopia has rejected the Egyptian suggestion, insisting instead on a three-year limit. A quick filling of the dam will mean slowing down downstream flow.

Following the collapse of a new round of talks in Sudan last October, Egypt and Ethiopia ramped up their rhetoric. “I emphasise that the Egyptian state with all its institutions are committed to preserving Egypt’s water rights in the Nile,” Al Sissi said.

That month, the Ethiopian prime minister said his country is prepared to fight over the dam if necessary. “Some say things about use of force [by Egypt]. It should be underlined that no force could stop Ethiopia from building a dam,” he told Ethiopian parliament.

“If there is a need to go to war, we could get millions readied. If some could fire a missile, others could use bombs.” In reaction, Egypt said it was shocked by Abiy’s remarks. “If these statements are authentic, they imply negative signals and unacceptable insinuations,” the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Can Egypt and Ethiopia really go to war?

Despite occasional hints at military action, neither Egypt nor Ethiopia seems willing to go to war.

Both countries, already weary of the unrest, are focusing on pursuing development to improve life quality for their own people.

War would deal a harsh blow to their development efforts and place a new burden on their limited financial resources.

Judging by their latest remarks, leaders in both countries are keen to reach a diplomatic settlement to the dam standoff, spurred by international pressure. Egypt and Ethiopia are key allies of the US, which has recently stepped in to help break the logjam between Cairo and Addis Ababa.

-Web package put together by Layelle Saad, Middle East Editor