Ethiopia, Egypt impasse on dam takes dangerous turn

Courtiers have hardened positions after breakdown of US facilitated trilateral negotiations on river water sharing

Addis Getachew Tadesse   | 25.03.2020
Ethiopia, Egypt impasse on dam takes dangerous turn

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia 

Political relations between Ethiopia and Egypt have further deteriorated after the breakdown of the U.S. mediated negotiations to settle the issues related to the construction of a dam on River Nile.

Ethiopia has now even accused the U.S. of drafting an agreement heavily loaded in favor of Egypt and attempting to force it on Sudan and Addis Ababa.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), a flagship project coming up on a tributary of the river in Ethiopia had evoked strong reactions in Cairo. The tributary contributes 49 billion cubic meters of annual water flow to the River Nile.

U.S. President Donald Trump had assigned secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin to facilitate talks between the foreign and water ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to sort out issues related to filling and operations of the dam.

Officials in Addis Ababa now say that they had never agreed on a U.S mediation or even as a facilitator.

Last month Mnuchin cautioned Ethiopia not to go ahead with the schedule of filling the dam by July before an agreement arrives between the riparian countries.

Ethiopia’s uneasiness has compounded because on Feb. 28, Mnuchin came out with a document, which he described a final deal between the three countries. Only Egypt accepted and signed the document.

Ethiopia described the U.S. role as an act of interference rather than playing a facilitator. The country’s Water and Energy Minister Seleshi Bekele said the U.S. document lacked comprehensiveness. “It is a piecemeal document that focuses just on one issue that is the amount of water to be discharged during drought situations,” he said.

Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew described the U.S. statement as interference and disrespect to Ethiopia’s sovereignty. “The U.S. shifted its role from an observer to a decision-maker in the dispute that should have been left for the three countries to hammer out a settlement that would be acceptable by each country, “he told a press conference at the capital Addis Ababa.

Countries hardened positions

River Nile, the majestic north-flowing river in Africa, which is among the world’s longest waterways, covers Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. Ethiopia contributes 85% of the waters of the Nile.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) – an International thinktank working to prevent wars –has asked the parties to ink an interim agreement applicable for two years that allows Ethiopia to store water to test the turbines.

But the countries have hardened their position since the breakdown of talks in February. “In the current circumstances, it has become difficult to strike a comprehensive deal. But there is a potential way forward,” said William Davison, ICG’s senior analyst for Ethiopia.

“The most important benefit of such an interim agreement would be to give the parties a breathing space of two years to forge a comprehensive agreement. It would also create opportunities to build the much-needed mutual trust,” Davison added.

The ICG has further advocated using the services of the South African President Cyril Ramaphosa in his capacity as the head of the African Union and the European Union’s High Representative Josep Borrell.

“Talks should ideally be held in an African city, and not in Washington,” the ICG analyst said.

Safety of dam

Ethiopia plans to fill up the dam in 4-7 years. Egypt says that Ethiopia is not committing to allowing a fixed annual minimum release from the dam to ensure water supply in the river.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency on phone, Davison said that even as the International Panel of Experts (IPoE) has studied the issues related to the safety of the dam in 2013, but there was insufficient data available in public.

Italian firm Salini Impregilo is the main contractor building the dam. Davison said that while he understands that Ethiopia and the Saline must have taken steps for the safety of the dam, but they need to reassure downstream countries.

Ethiopia reiterates that it will begin filling the dam in July as part of a first phase that requires holding 4.9 billion cubic meters of water. It is planning to start testing two turbines by the middle of next year.

The U.S.-drafted agreement has called on Ethiopia to drain the dam and keep minimum water levels during drought situations. “This is absolutely a concern to Ethiopia, its negotiators argue that it amounts to use the GERD for maintaining Egypt’s water supply even during drought, “said Davison.

Executive Director of the Eastern Nile Technical Regional Office (ENTRO) Fekahmed Negash argued that countries should continue negotiations with or without observers.

Negash, who had also served as director of Trans-boundary Rivers Affairs, a wing in the Water Ministry of Ethiopia told Anadolu Agency that filling the dam will not have a significant impact on the water flow to Egypt.

“If an agreement is reached before the planned filling time, fill the dam accordingly. If an agreement cannot be reached, Ethiopia should fill so that Egypt will practically see that the filling and operation of the hydropower dam will not have any significant impact on the flow of water,” he said. He said the dam itself has the potential to become a diplomat -- the messenger of peace and development for all the countries.

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