Egypt and Ethiopia’s Relationship Threatened Over Nile Dam

The future of Egypt’s relations with Ethiopia is uncertain after a new round of talks between the two countries over a dam constructed by the Horn of Africa state on the Nile has failed.

Egypt invited a host of Ethiopian and Sudanese officials into Cairo on September 14 for a new round of talks on Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam.

Egyptian negotiators reportedly proposed that Egyptian engineers participate in operating the dam, which should start power production by the end of next year.

However, Ethiopia turned down the Egyptian proposal. On September 18, Ethiopian Minister for Water, Irrigation and Energy, Sileshi Bekele, described the Egyptian plan, including the volume of water it wants the dam to release annually, as “inappropriate.”

“The proposal from Egypt was unilaterally decided,” Bekele said at a press conference in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa. “We can’t agree with this…we will prepare our counter-proposal.”

The Grand Renaissance Dam has been a severe headache for Egypt since the start of its construction in 2011.

The multibillion-dollar hydroelectric dam will prevent a sizeable amount of Nile River water from reaching Egypt, the last recipient of river water in the ten-state Nile Basin.

The Nile River is Egypt’s only source of water and Egyptians view dams constructed along the river as a matter of life or death for them.

Egypt receives 55.5 billion cubic meters of water from the river annually. This is around 20 billion cubic meters of water below real national needs.

The amount of water coming to Egypt from the river has been the same over the years, even as Egypt’s population, now 100 million, keeps growing.

The Grand Renaissance Dam should store over 70 billion cubic meters of water behind it. Egypt’s prime concern is that the project will deprive it of a sizeable amount of water for several years as Ethiopia fills its reservoir.

Egypt stands to suffer untold damage from the filling of the dam reservoir with agriculture and irrigation experts expecting the Arab state to lose a lot of its farmland to dam reservoir filling-induced droughts. The project is also expected to seriously threaten Egypt’s food security for several years.

Ethiopia says the project is important for its economic development and the welfare of its people. Addis Ababa plans to sell electricity generated by the dam to neighbouring states to earn money it is so badly in need of to improve the living conditions of its people.

On September 17, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said his country was not against the dam construction or Ethiopia’s development plans.

He added at a press briefing in Cairo that his country only wanted damage from the construction of the dam and the filling of its reservoir to be tolerable.

“An agreement can be reached when there is a real political will,” the Egyptian foreign minister said.

Egypt, he said, has confidence in the ties that bind it together with both Ethiopia.

He added that Egypt has strong confidence in the political will available on the Ethiopian side.

“We want to translate this will into an agreement that gives assurances to the peoples of the three countries,” Shoukry said of the peoples of Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is unlikely to cave to Egyptian demands and this opens the door wide for all possibilities in the coming days.

In Addis Ababa, Egypt’s demand that Egyptian engineers participate in operating the dam is seen as a violation of national sovereignty.

In Cairo, the dam construction and the potential devastating effects from depriving 100 million Egyptians of their cherished Nile water are seen as Egypt’s death knell.

Whether both sides will reach a common ground and agree on a win-win formula on the dam will most likely depend on how the international community, including the African Union, can help.