Cooperation over controversial Renaissance Dam gets a boost

Announcements by Egypt and Ethiopia suggest willingness to resolve issues with riparian states “in a manner that benefits all parties”.

A series of announcements made in recent weeks by the governments of Ethiopia and Egypt seem to suggest that cooperation over a proposed Ethiopian dam, which until recently had been abated by mistrust and accusations, might reach a breakthrough. Analysts expressed cautious optimism over this recent development, quietly hoping that an agreement might be reached in talks planned to continue in Khartoum, Sudan.

Blue Nile

The Blue Nile runs through three countries: Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. The Renaissance Dam is currently being built on the Ethiopian-Sudanese border

The surge of enthusiasm was generated by announcements by government spokespersons, as well as high-level meetings, in both Egypt and Ethiopia. In Egypt, Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy said in a statement that his country was “keen on cooperating with all Nile Basin countries in a manner that benefit[ed] all parties”. In a highly publicized event in the Egyptian media, the Egyptian president, Adly Mansour, sat down with Water Resources and Irrigation Minister Mohamed Abdel Moteleb to discuss the dam and the ways in which an agreement could be reached between all concerned parties.

This meeting, and the following statement by Mr. Moteleb, in which he expressed “confidence that the third round of talks [would] achieve the aspirations of the peoples of the Nile Basin countries in development and peace”, raised the possibility that Egypt might be willing to change its position vis-à-vis the Renaissance dams, after months of push-back against the Ethiopian plans.

Egypt says it is willing to cooperate to ensure “water security” for all Nile Basin countries.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a proposed dam to be built on the Ethiopian section of the Blue Nile, a major tributary of the Nile. The Nile, which runs through Sudan and Egypt, has two major tributaries: the Blue Nile, which springs from Lake Tana in Ethiopia, and the White Nile, which rises in Lake Victoria. The Nile traverses eleven countries, before ending in the Mediterranean sea.

The Renaissance Dam, which is currently under construction in the Benishangul-Gumuz region bordering Sudan, is expected to generate 6′ooo MW of electricity, and plays a central role in Ethiopia’s large-scale strategy to increase energy exports. Ethiopia, with a fast-developing economy and population increase, also claims the dam is needed to raise domestic energy supply in an effort to respond to growing demand. The cost of building the dam, estimated at $4.8 bn, would amount to 15% of Ethiopia’s Gross Domestic Product.

The proposed dam has been a major cause of tensions with Egypt in recent years. Egypt fears the dam will affect its water supplies, which rely heavily on the Nile’s waters, raising the specter of a disastrous water shortage. Former Egyptian water minister Mohamed Nasr Allam said the dam, which “damages Egypt’s legal and historical rights”, would be a “disaster” for Egypt, both by endangering its water security and by potentially leading to a struggle for regional dominance. Ethiopia says the dam will not affect Egypt or Sudan.

More worrisome is the possibility for a “water war”, with increasing fricitions spinning out of control and leading to full-fledged military strife. This scenario has alarmed a number of analysts and experts in the region.

As a result, talks have been conducted between Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia, in an effort to find common ground and resolve the issue.

These negotiations had come across a number of setbacks in recent months: In the summer of 2013, Ethiopia started diverting waters from the Blue Nile, angering Egyptian officials, who fiercely condemned Ethiopia for going forward with its plans “rashly” and “selfishly”, and pushing Muhammed Morsi, Egypt’s then president, to announce that “all options [were] open to protect Egypt’s water security”; a few weeks later, Ethiopia  rejected a request by Egypt to jointly build all stages of the Renaissance Dam so as to make sure that Egypt’s share of Nile water is not affected

The recent announcements seem aimed at quelling fears that the countries will not be able to reach a deal. Any such failure could increase tensions in an already volatile region.

A delegation from Egypt will join Sudanese and Ethiopian delegations in the coming days in Khartoum for a third round of talks to agree on the formation of an experts committee. The committee will be tasked with overseeing the implementation of recommendations made by the International Committee of Experts, who have studied the effects of Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam

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