Egypt calls for UN intervention over Nile dam dispute with Ethiopia

Published: 21 June 2020 - 11:48 a.m.
By: Baset Asaba

Egypt has called on the United Nations Security Council to intervene to restart talks on the $4 billion hydroelectric dam being built by Ethiopia on the Blue Nile near the border with Sudan.

Talks over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam were halted once again this week, this time only about a fortnight before its expected start-up.

“The Arab Republic of Egypt took this decision in light of the stalled negotiations that took place recently on the Renaissance Dam as a result of Ethiopian stances that are not positive,” the foreign ministry said in a statement on Friday.

The latest round of talks, which had started on June 9 over video conference, followed a previous round of negotiations in Washington, which ended without agreement in February.

Egypt, which is almost entirely dependent on the Nile for its fresh water supplies, sees it as a potentially existential threat.

Egypt fears the hydroelectric dam on the Blue Nile, which originates on the Ethiopian highlands and accounts for more than 80 per cent of the river’s water, will significantly reduce its vital share of the river’s water. It has been trying to persuade Ethiopia to reach a deal that would minimise the impact on its water share and make provisions for future spells of drought.

It is anxious to secure a legally binding deal that would guarantee minimum flows and a mechanism for resolving disputes before the dam starts operating.

Ethiopia, for its part, says the dam is key to its development plans and accuses Egypt of clinging to colonial-era treaties that unfairly gave it the lion’s share of the river water without heed to the needs of the 10 other Nile basin countries. It considers Cairo’s demands as an infringement on its sovereignty.

The dam, with a planned total installed capacity of 6.45GW, is the centrepiece in Ethiopia’s bid to become Africa’s biggest power exporter.

Talks over the dam were halted once again earlier this week without a deal even though Ethiopia is expected to start filling it next month.

The decade-long dispute exposes competing desires of the two nations. Ethiopia aspires to become a major power exporter, opposed to Egypt’s concern that the dam will significantly reduce its water supply if filled too quickly.

Egypt, which is almost entirely dependent on the Nile for its fresh-water, is also concerned about Ethiopia using more water during drought years.

Sudan which sits between the two countries has long been caught between the competing interests.To Sudan, the dam, being built close to its border, does not have the vast potential for damage Egypt fears.

But there are concerns a structural breach in the dam would flood large swathes of its territory.

Lack of co-ordination on the running of the dam, moreover, could impact Sudan’s power generation from its own Blue Nile dams.

The dam also holds promise for the people of Sudan, with the prospect of cheap power and the prevention of the annual flooding the Blue Nile causes.

The arrival of the rainy season is bringing more water to the Blue Nile — the main tributary of the river which originates in Lake Tana in Ethiopia — making it an ideal time to begin filling the dam’s reservoir in July.

Egypt and Ethiopia have both hinted at military steps to protect their interests, and experts fear a breakdown in talks could lead to conflict.

Egyptian presidential spokesman Bassam Rady said in a statement that President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi reviewed the fighting units of the country's air force on Saturday morning. The military is "capable of defending Egypt's national security inside and beyond the nation's borders," he said.

Egypt’s letter to the Security Council on Friday was based on Article 35 of the U.N. Charter, which allows members to alert the council about any issue that could threaten international peace and security.

Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew told the Associated Press on Friday that his country would start filling the dam next month, even without an agreement.

“For us it is not mandatory to reach an agreement before starting filling the dam, hence we will commence the filling process in the coming rainy season," he said.

He added that "we want to make it clear that Ethiopia will not beg Egypt and Sudan to use its own water resource for its development,” saying that Ethiopia is paying for the dam’s construction itself.

The U.S. earlier this year tried to broker a deal, but Ethiopia did not attend the signing meeting and accused the Trump administration of siding with Egypt.

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