A DISPUTE between Egypt and Ethiopia over an upstream Nile dam has morphed into an ominously heated war of words after the East African nation’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning prime minister warned he could muster millions of people if war breaks out with Egypt over the nearly-complete dam.
The sabre-rattling by Addis Ababa and Cairo’s measured response came as the United States announced it was inviting the foreign ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan to Washington for talks on how to resolve the long-running dispute.
Like Egypt, Sudan is another downstream nation and has been involved in years of fruitless negotiations with Cairo and Addis Ababa over how best to operate the dam and fill the water reservoir behind it.
Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam is built on the Blue Nile, which accounts for about 85 per cent of the Nile waters, but only about 65 per cent of the water reaching Egypt. The Blue Nile and the White Nile, whose origins are in central Africa, meet near Khartoum to become the Nile that flows downstream through the deserts of northern Sudan and into Egypt all the way to the Mediterranean coast.
Egypt, which depends on the Nile for more than 90 per cent of its water needs, says it wants the reservoir behind the hydropower dam filled over seven years to minimize the impact on its share of the river’s water. It also wants the East African Nation to release 40 billion cubic metres every year. Moreover, it wants Addis Ababa to show flexibility during future spells of drought.
With a population matching Egypt’s 100 million, Ethiopia views the dam as essential to its development. The facility has also become a symbol of national pride at a time when Ethiopians, like many in other Nile basin nations, feel Egypt has unjustifiably enjoyed the lion’s share of the Nile’s water – an annual 55 billion cubic metres – for far too long.
Egypt has declared negotiations with Addis Ababa over the issue to be at a deadlock and is demanding that a foreign mediator joins the talks. Significantly, Ethiopia disagrees with that assessment and refuses to invite a third party.
It argues that outstanding problems could still be resolved in future talks. Egypt has countered by saying all its proposals have been rejected by Addis Ababa and maintains that while it acknowledges the dam’s importance to Ethiopia’s development, it wants to reduce the damage it will endure to manageable levels.
Throughout, Egypt has officially refrained from any mention of military action to resolve the dispute – although some pro-government commentators have floated the notion that if Egypt does go into war against Ethiopia, it would be in self-defence.
The closest Egypt came to making any sort of threat was a comment made by President Abdel-Fatah El Sisi last month in New York when he said his country would not accept the imposition of a de-facto situation regarding the operation of the dam.
But the remote prospect of war between two nations that don’t share a land border was surprisingly raised this week by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.
‘Some say things about [the] use of force [by Egypt]. It should be underlined that no force could stop Ethiopia from building a dam,’ he told parliament on Tuesday.
‘If there is a need to go to war, we could get millions readied. If some could fire a missile, others could use bombs. But that’s not in the best interest of all of us.’
The comments drew a sharp but largely measured response from Egypt, whose leader is currently the rotating president of the African Union and is expected to meet with Ahmed on the sidelines of a Russia-Africa summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Late on Tuesday, the Foreign Ministry said it was ‘shocked’ by the comments, which it followed with ‘extreme concern and regret.’
It continued, saying the comments included ‘negative references’ and ‘unacceptable suggestions. It was inappropriate to get into scenarios that include military options,’ said the ministry.