Foreign Policy- FP
BY KEITH JOHNSON
Three days of intensive discussions in Washington, under the auspices of the U.S. Treasury and the World Bank, may have laid the groundwork for a preliminary agreement that could defuse growing tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia over the construction of Africa’s largest dam.
The overtime talks—lasting a day longer than scheduled—did not yet reach final agreement on the trickiest questions about how Ethiopia will operate the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) or fully address Egypt’s fears about how the hydroelectric project could affect downstream flows of the Nile River, for millennia the country’s literal lifeblood. The two countries, along with Sudan, agreed to meet again at the end of January with an eye toward nailing down precisely those technical questions, which have so far defied consensus and led to bitter recriminations between Cairo and Addis Ababa.
But at least, after four inconclusive meetings in recent months, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan seem to have reached an agreement on what’s left to solve if they are to avoid open conflict over a project that has generated ill will and threats of military intervention since Ethiopia announced the dam’s construction almost a decade ago.
“The filling of the GERD will be executed in stages and will be undertaken in an adaptive and cooperative manner that takes into consideration the hydrological conditions of the Blue Nile and the potential impact of the filling on downstream reservoirs,” the concerned parties said in a statement late Wednesday.
The preliminary agreement, even if it leaves many important details undetermined, is important because Ethiopia is just months away from beginning to fill the dam’s giant reservoir, during which it could begin to divert flows of water from Egypt downstream. The fight over the GERD has become one of the most watched water conflicts in the world and, if not solved soon, could be a harbinger of what’s to come as climate change and shifting rainfall patterns put even more strain on water-stressed countries with growing populations.
“It’s a foreshadowing of the water issues that we will be facing in the future, in which water will be a source of conflict much more than in the past,” said Paul Sullivan, a water and energy expert at the National Defense University. The three countries have spent the past eight years trying to find a solution, before finally turning toward the potential of international mediation last year if differences couldn’t be resolved.
“It won’t just be the Nile. There will be some massive water conflicts, and if we can’t solve this one, it doesn’t bode well,” he said.
This showdown between Ethiopia and Egypt began in 2011, when Ethiopia took advantage of Egypt’s distraction with the Arab Spring to begin construction on the long-planned GERD, a massive hydroelectric project on the Blue Nile just across the border from Sudan. A dream since the 1960s, the dam is meant to provide huge amounts of clean electricity for the power-starved nation, energy that could both fuel economic development and bring in cash through international electricity sales. Across several Ethiopian administrations, the dam has become a must-have project politically—especially since Ethiopians themselves underwrote its $4.6 billion cost with a popular bond issue—and that’s doubly the case this year, with parliamentary elections tentatively set for late summer or fall.
But for Egypt, the dam at the headwaters of the Nile represents a potentially existential threat. Some 90 percent of Egypt’s water comes from the Nile, and about 57 percent of that Nile water comes from the Blue Nile flows that Ethiopia is seeking to dam. And it will be a huge one: The reservoir behind the GERD, once filled, will hold about 74 billion cubic meters of water—well over a year’s worth of river flow through that location.
In recent years, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had threatened to use military force to stop the dam’s construction, and it remains a heated subject in both the Egyptian and Ethiopian press. Sudan, caught in the literal middle between the other two countries, initially opposed the dam but came to support it since it promises irrigation and electricity benefits and a way to regulate irregular flows of water that often lead to devastating floods.
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