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Egypt and Ethiopia: Rising Tension

During his recent visit to Moscow, Gen Abdul Fatah Al Sisi, Egypt’s minister of defense, raised the issue of Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam on the Nile River directly to Russian President Vladimir Putin and other  Russian interlocutors.  Gen. Al Sisi explained the threat that Egypt faces if Ethiopia carries on its project to build a $4.7 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD)—a threat of drying up Egypt’s great Aswan Dam and drastically damaging Egypt’s electricity supply and irrigation capacity.

 The details of the dire effects that the Ethiopian dam would have are well-known and documented to the international community.  Most recently, Mohamed Nassereddine, a former Egyptian minister of water resources and irrigation warned in January, “The Aswan Dam will completely cease to operate for two years after the Renaissance Dam reservoir begins to be filled up. Once that reservoir is filled to its 74 billion cubic meter capacity, the water depth at the Aswan Dam will continue to decrease and will not surpass 160 meters during the flood seasons, in the best of cases. In turn, this will reduce its electricity-generating capacity by 30-40%,” reported Al Monitor, a US publication.

 Cairo bases its objection to the Ethiopian Dam on a 1929 treaty that gives Egypt 80% of the Nile water supply. Ethiopia counters the claim by saying it did not sign the treaty and that its population is equal to Egypt’s, hence it should have equal rights to the Nile water.

 Cairo has abandoned all attempts to convince Addis Ababa to reach a compromise. Talks about military action were sounding in the Egyptian Capital until officials stated that such action is not on the table. The last attempt to explore diplomatic options took place in Feb 11th when delegations from the two countries met upon an initiative from Italy, which is building the dam. Egyptian officials reported that Ethiopia did not change its position at that meeting. This week, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy began a tour that covers several concerned African countries, including those in the Nile Basin where the issue will be discussed.

 But what is on the table then?  Egypt is taking its case to the European Union and the international donors financing the Ethiopian project.  There are proposals being floated to put together an international panel to mediate between the two sides. But Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn said that even resorting to the United Nations will not help Egypt as there is no court specializing in arbitration in water issues.  A recent television broadcast by Al Jazeera showed that “concrete has been poured,” and Ethiopia shows no signs of changing.

 Ultimately Egypt is threatened with starvation. Lack of water means no agriculture and no drinking water. This might very well lead to military action if a negotiated solution proves impossible to reach.

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