Dispute Over Nile Dam Keeps Tensions Between Egypt and Ethiopia High

Cairo fears dam on the Blue Nile will reduce the water on which the entire country depends, while Addis Ababa decries U.S. intervention on behalf of Egypt

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
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A general view of the Blue Nile river as it passes through the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam near Guba in Ethiopia, December 2019.
A general view of the Blue Nile river as it passes through the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam near Guba in Ethiopia, December 2019.Credit: EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.

When media outlets report matter-of-factly that “the talks will resume this week,” whether it relates to a peace agreement, a solution to the Syrian crisis or Knesset committee deliberations on West Bank annexation, it is accepted shorthand for the disagreement is great and the chances of reaching an agreement negligible.

This week the shorthand was employed to describe the resumption of talks involving Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over a gravity dam being built in the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. Cairo views the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam as a threat to national security and even the Egyptian state itself.

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Work on the dam, whose estimated construction cost is $4.8 billion, began in 2011. Egypt has opposed it from the start, fearing that it will reduce the amount of water it receives from the Nile River, currently 55 billion cubic meters a year. The Blue Nile flows from Ethiopia to via Sudan, where it joins the White Nile and continues north through the length of Egypt.

The two sides have attempted, with little success, to reach a compromise on the division of the water, combined with Egyptian threats of military force to back up its demands to halt the project.

Some 70 percent of the construction work has been completed. Egypt, increasingly concerned, has enlisted the support of U.S. President Donald Trump, who agreed to mediate the dispute, as a well-known expert in the “art of the deal.”

In February, an oracle, in the person of U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, announced that the parties had reached an agreement on the first phase of filling the dam. Ethiopia was furious over the announcement, claiming that no agreement had been reached. Washington warned Addis Ababa not to dare begin filling the reservoir until there is agreement.

Ethiopia has, understandably, criticized the U.S. for siding with Egypt in the dispute.

A view from an airplane window shows buildings around the Nile River in Cairo, Egypt March 10, 2020.
A view from an airplane window shows buildings around the Nile River in Cairo, Egypt March 10, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Egypt, meanwhile, is also demanding that agreement be reached on the next phases of the project and the division of the water down the line.

Egypt is demanding that the reservoir be filled over the course of 12 to 20 years, while Ethiopia is insisting that filling be completed within five to seven years, saying that otherwise it would not be able to produce the quantities of electricity from the dam that it requires. From the standpoint of Addis Ababa, the Blue Nile is under its sovereignty and no third party has the right to dictate how it is used.

Cairo is demanding that the Ethiopians agree to negotiate how the water is to be directed during drought years and during periods in which there are several consecutive years of drought.

The three options for water allocation that have been put on the negotiating table have still not been agreed upon by all the parties and the disparities in their positions are still wide. We shouldn’t hold our breath over the reported resumption of the talks.

The issue of the dam is justifiably a major matter for Egypt. The lives of tens of millions of people who live and make a living along the length of the Nile are dependent upon the river for agriculture, drinking water and industry. It is estimated that Egypt could lose roughly 20 percent of the agricultural land that it currently cultivates if its water supply from the Nile is curtailed. Egypt, which imports about half of the grain that it consumes, would then have to boost its grain imports considerably and dip further into its hard currency reserves.

In addition, the average per capita water quota currently provided to Egyptians, which is about 600 cubic meters a year, would drop to a level that would place the country among the ranks of water-poor countries. There is also concern in Egypt that about 1.2 million agricultural jobs would disappear, sending the country’s unemployment rate to dangerous levels.

A member of a medical team is seen beside a banner for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at a metro station in Cairo, Egypt March 22, 2020.
A member of a medical team is seen beside a banner for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi at a metro station in Cairo, Egypt March 22, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany/File Photo

President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi has been promising Egyptians that they won’t run short of water and that the government would invest in desalination plants, but such facilities, which would run on traditional energy sources, would boost the cost of water, which is already about 300 percent more expensive than it was in 2014.

As the Nile issue becomes more entrenched in the medium and long-term, unless a solution is found, Sissi has other pressing issues on his agenda too. The first of them is curbing damage from the coronavirus pandemic, which Egyptian economists estimate so far at $6.5 billion, cutting Egypt’s growth forecast to 4 percent, compared to 5.9 percent last year. It has also boosted inflation and put several million additional Egyptians out of work.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Egypt looked like a country on course for a healthy growth rate. It had garnered many accolades from international financial institutions for reforms that it has instituted since 2016. Huge projects, some of them unnecessary and wasteful, have created thousands of new jobs. Egypt’s foreign currency reserves were stabilized at a reasonable level. And for the first time, Egypt has established a national investment fund aimed at directing investment to industry and infrastructure and in the process encouraging foreign investment.

The favorable attitude towards the country has enabled Egypt to obtain a $2.77 billion emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. This month, the Egyptians signed an agreement for an additional loan of $5.5 billion.

But these are sums that Egypt will have to pay back and that add to the country’s burgeoning national debt. They will come at the expense of funding for development and constitute a drag on the path toward growth.

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