Economy, Africa, Energy

Can US-sponsored Nile dam talks end in win-win?

Launched in 2011 at site near Ethiopia-Sudan border, 70% of work on construction of hydro dam completed

Addis Getachew   | 04.02.2020
Can US-sponsored Nile dam talks end in win-win?


Water ministers of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt, along with their technical teams, ended their Washington, D.C. talks on Ethiopia’s $4.8-billion-worth hydro dam on the Nile River without reaching an agreement and dragging them for another 30 days.

Stakes are high and all parties to the talks -- that are being observed by the U.S. and World Bank -- anticipate positive results to be acceptable across the board, leading to a situation where the three countries kick start an era of trust and cooperation on the Nile.

Launched in 2011 at a site near the Ethiopia-Sudan border, 70% of work on the construction of the nearly $5-billion-worth hydro dam has been completed. Ethiopia said it will begin filling the 170 billion cubic meter capacity reservoir in July. That seems to stir emotions in Egypt, a country that depends largely on the Nile for agriculture, drinking water and sanitation, as well as power generation.

Egypt says the dam will significantly reduce the flow of the Nile, reaching into its borders, while Ethiopia maintains it needs over 6,000 megawatts electricity to be generated for its national development and that the hydro dam would not entail any significant harm on downstream countries, but has several number of benefits such as regulating the flow of the water, curbing floods, reduce losses due to evaporation, and preventing silting that clogs Sudanese dams.


At the heart of the Nile impasse, lies Egypt’s insistence on a 1959 colonial period agreement between Egypt and Sudan, giving the former a 55.5 billion cubic meters of water, while reserving 18.5 billion cubic meters for Sudan.

Ethiopia has been vehemently opposed to that colonial agreement, which lacks inclusivity denying the right of other riparian states to use the water for their respective national development.

The Nile is shared by 11 countries, with Ethiopia contributing to the river more than 85% from tributaries that make up what is termed as the Blue Nile.

While the treaty gives Egypt a right to veto any construction projects that could impede the flow of the Nile, Ethiopia says colonial treaty could not be binding. Ethiopia had not been invited to the colonial rounds.

In the early years of the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), formerly known as the Millennium Dam, Egypt had tried to disrupt it through numerous claims including a claim that the rocky hills on both sides of the 1.8 kilometers (1.1 miles) wide dam were too weak to support the whole structure. It would eventually abandon that.

At one point in early years of construction, Egypt and its ally Saudi Arabia plotted to bomb the dam -- a plot which leaked with the video circulating far and wide.

That was followed by a 2015 meeting of Egyptian and Ethiopian leaders in Equatorial Guinea and passing of a political resolution to resolve their differences through dialogue, leading to the Declaration of Principles which created a technical committee of experts from the three countries and kick-started a series of talks -- all of which did not bring about a breakthrough.

The Declaration of Principles was signed by Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan in 2015. It stated that the three countries should cooperate to reach an agreement on the guidelines for different scenarios of the first filling of the GERD in parallel with the construction of the dam, and an agreement on the guidelines, as well as annual operation policies of the dam.

The latest U.S.-sponsored talks were held after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed met on the sidelines of the Sochi Summit in Russia on Oct. 24, 2019.

The major sticking points include the different scenarios of drought and extended drought, if and when it happens -- such as the one in 1984 -- and how much water should Ethiopia be releasing downstream in those scenarios.

According to the latest non-binding communique, Ethiopia would fill the dam during the rainy season -- in July and August.

Many in Ethiopia consider the declaration a win for Egypt, although there is still no signed agreement.

To calm tempers, Abiy made a statement after the talks in Washington, D.C., saying Ethiopia has not compromised on its interests and will not do so.

The Egyptian media on their part has been clamoring that the communique lacked clarity. Egypt wants 40 million cubic meters of annual constant flow, while Ethiopia makes a point for a threshold of 35 million cubic meters in the worst of times -- during periods of prolonged drought.

Given the recent developments and inability to reach at a conclusive agreement during the latest four-day talks, it remains to be seen whether the three countries would be able to hammer out a lasting win-win deal.

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