Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 2 July 2020

Urgent Nile dam talks end in deadlock

Egypt blames Ethiopia’s ‘intransigence’ for lack of progress

Egypt sees Ethiopia's dam on the Blue Nile as an existential threat. AFP
Egypt sees Ethiopia's dam on the Blue Nile as an existential threat. AFP

Talks between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on a dispute over a massive dam being built on the Nile by Addis Ababa ended in deadlock on Wednesday.

Egypt said there was a lack of “tangible progress" on the issue.

Cairo fears the hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile, which originates in the Ethiopian highlands, will reduce its share of the river’s water, which supplies more than 90 per cent of its needs.

It is seeking a deal that would minimise the effect on its water supply and make provisions to protect its growing population from future drought.

Ethiopia says the dam is essential to its development and accuses Egypt of clinging to colonial-era treaties that unfairly gave it access to most of the water without considering the needs of the 10 other Nile Basin countries.

It regards Cairo’s demands as an infringement on its sovereignty.

Mohammed Abdel Aty, Egypt’s Water Minister, blamed Ethiopia’s “intransigence” for the failure of the negotiations.

Mr Abdel Aty said Addis Ababa resisted signing a deal that was binding under international law.

Instead, he said, Ethiopia only wanted guidelines on the operation of the dam that it had the power to amend.

Mr Abdel Aty said Ethiopia also rejected the creation of a binding legal process to settle disputes and refused to commit to effective measures for any future drought.

It also wanted a free hand to proceed with more projects on the Blue Nile, he said.

He said Ethiopia rejected a proposal for the prime ministers of the three nations to meet and search for solutions.

“That led to the end of the negotiations,” Mr Abdel Aty said on Wednesday.

There was no immediate comment from Ethiopia on the Egyptian charges and no word from any of the three nations on when negotiations would resume.

Ethiopia has in the past rejected similar complaints from Egypt, claiming they were meant to exert pressure on its government to allow the dispute to be settled on an international forum.

The latest round of negotiations was held on video conference because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Representatives of the US, the EU and South Africa sat in on the meetings as observers.

The talks, which began on June 9, were the first after Ethiopia in February refused to sign a deal sponsored by the US.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry this week said Ethiopia’s behaviour in the talks left Cairo with “no choice but to explore other options, including going to the UN Security Council”.

But analysts believe such a step would be unlikely to further Egypt’s aims, even though its position on the dam dispute has gained international support in recent months.

They say a military intervention to halt building works at the dam would be ineffective.

Riccardo Fabiani, of the international Crisis Group, on Wednesday told an online briefing that an Egyptian strike was “the least likely scenario”.

“Military intervention would not stop Ethiopia from completing the project," Mr Fabiani said. "At best it could delay it.

“A military strike will reduce to zero the chance of a lasting, enduring and comprehensive agreement.”

In an editorial in Cairo daily Al Shorouq this week, editor Imad Hussein, who is close to the Egyptian government, gave Addis Ababa a stern warning about bringing in international pressure.

“It’s Ethiopia’s right to count on whoever it chooses, but it’s also our right to send them a simple and clear message: You will not see any development, stability or progress if Egypt’s water rights are hurt,” Hussein wrote.

“We either enjoy stability, security and development together or you live with the consequences.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has described the dam dispute as an existential issue but has never spoken publicly about the possibility of military action.

But Egypt will have its back to the wall if Ethiopia goes ahead with its threat to start filling the dam’s reservoir next month.

Although unlikely, any military action by Egypt against Ethiopia would face challenges.

The two countries do not share a border and any intervention would prove difficult to justify as a legitimate act of self-defence.

The dam has been under construction since 2011 and is set to generate 6,000 megawatts of electricity when completed.

Updated: June 19, 2020 10:16 AM

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