Ethiopian PM Ahmed asks S. Africa for help in talks on Nile dam construction

File photo of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
File photo of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam © France24

He won the Nobel Peace Prize for forging a deal to end a 20-year-old border dispute with neighbouring Eritrea, but Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed is finding reaching an agreement with Egypt over its project to build a dam on the Blue Nile far more difficult.


Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan began US-sponsored negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in November and were expected to conclude them by January 15, but an agreement appears to be still far off. Yesterday, Ahmed called on South African President Cyril Ramaphosa to intervene in the long-running dispute.

Ramaphosa is “a good friend for both Ethiopia and Egypt and is the upcoming president of the African Union. He can make a discussion between both parties to solve the issue peacefully because peace is the foundation of everything here in Africa,” Ahmed said Sunday at a press conference in Pretoria, the administrative capital of South Africa.

Ramaphosa said he was open to the suggestion and confirmed that he had already spoken with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi about the matter.

Ethiopia began construction of the dam in 2011, immediately triggering concerns that the massive project would cause water shortages in Egypt, which relies on the Nile for 90 percent of its water supply for the population and for agriculture. The Blue Nile, which has its source in Ethiopia, converges with the White Nile in Sudan and flows north through Egypt.

Tensions have dogged the African nations ever since, and Egypt has at times threatened to take military action against the project.

In 2015 the three nations signed a declaration of principles, which maintained that the downstream nations, Egypt and Sudan, should not be negatively affected by the dam. The declaration also held that if the three nations could not come to an agreement, the issue would be taken up by international mediators.

The outcome of mediation is an open question as complicated and contentious legal issues are at play, said Timothy Kaldas, non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, DC.

The last round of negotiations between the Egyptian, Sudanese and Ethiopian foreign ministers, held in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, lasted two days and ended on January 9, 2020 in a deadlock.

One of the main sticking points is how long Ethiopia will be given to fill the 74 billion cubic metre reservoir behind the dam; Egypt worries that if the dam is filled too quickly, the water flow to its country will be reduced. Ethiopia said last week that Egypt asked to lengthen the filling time from 12 years to 21 years, a period of time that Ethiopia said is “not acceptable”.

Egypt, for its part, denies having asked for such a long fill period. The ministry of foreign affairs issued a statement last week saying the Ethiopian side was being misleading and that Egypt was on board with filling the dam in six to seven years, as long as the inflow of the Nile was at average or above average levels during the filling period.

Ethiopia plans to begin filling the dam in July, when the rainy season begins.

Egypt later said Ethiopia's government failed to prove it would take all necessary precautions to ensure that the dam would not affect Egypt’s water supply, especially in times of drought.

Whether the countries can come to agreement before the January 15 deadline is unclear.

Public statements from the Ethiopian and Egyptian governments are contradictory, so it is difficult to know to what degree they are just posturing and hyperbole, Kaldas said. “It depends on who’s telling the truth,” he said.

The outcome of negotiations or mediation could have a profound impact on Egypt by setting a precedent that would allow other upriver nations to launch similar projects.

The $4.2 billion, 6,000 megawatt dam is scheduled to begin generating much-needed power for Ethiopia, with one of the largest populations and fastest-growing economies on the continent, by the end of this year, and be fully operational by 2020. When completed, it will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in Africa.

Talks are set to resume on January 13 in Washington, DC. They will be hosted by the US treasury department and will also be attended by officials from the World Bank.

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