Negotiations over Ethiopia's $5 billion Grand Renaissance Dam on the River Nile have reached a critical stage. The project, the construction of which began in 2011, has developed into a major bone of contention between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. The dam has its headwaters from Ethiopia and accounts for about 85 per cent of the Nile's water; it is expected to provide much-needed electricity for Ethiopia's 100 million-plus people.
Egypt fears that filling the reservoir behind the dam too quickly could have a significant effect on the flow downstream and could deprive its citizens of life-giving water. Sudan is concerned that any malfunction within the dam, which stands about 40 km east of its border with Ethiopia, could result in massive floods that would damage Sudanese farmland significantly and destroy towns along the way.
Both Egypt and Sudan have sought a legally binding agreement that regulates the filling process and drought mitigation mechanisms, and ensures a viable process for overseeing Ethiopia's compliance with its terms. Ethiopia wants to avoid a fixed commitment for a water quota that extends beyond the reservoir's filling period and demands a flexible agreement that includes provision for periodic reviews. This lack of commitment remains by far the biggest obstacle for a comprehensive deal.
Colonial era River Nile water arrangements remain at the centre of the discord. In 1929, Egypt and Great Britain concluded an agreement that allocated 57 per cent of the great river's water to Egypt and five per cent to Sudan. In 1959, following Sudan's independence, Cairo and Khartoum struck a deal that provided 66 per cent to Egypt and 22 per cent to Sudan, while the other 12 per cent was expected to be lost through evaporation. The arrangement provided Cairo with a veto over any dams in upstream countries. The trouble is that Ethiopia has never been consulted about this and argues that these bilateral deals are not binding on the government in Addis Ababa.
Tension is particularly high at the moment given that the dam is more than 70 per cent complete and Ethiopia seems intent on carrying out its pledge to begin filling the reservoir. On 10 June, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed told parliament that Ethiopia is "tired of begging" to develop and use the country's water resources. Two days later, a high-ranking Ethiopian general issued a warning to Egypt over the Great Renaissance Dam dispute, saying that Ethiopia would "defend itself by force and will not negotiate over its right" to have it.
The collapse of the US-mediated negotiations in March this year contributed further to the deadlock. Following several meetings between officials from the three African countries, the US Treasury Department and the World Bank, the conflicting parties agreed, for the first time, that the filling of the reservoir behind the dam would be implemented in stages in order to minimise the potential impact on downstream countries. Accordingly, the US Treasury announced that it had facilitated the preparation of a deal between the three parties on the filling and operation of the dam and warned that "final testing and filling should not take place without an agreement"; officials called on Ethiopia to sign the agreement as soon as possible.
Ethiopia described the US statement as "unacceptable and highly partisan" and announced that it would commence filling the reservoir this month. In Ethiopia itself, there were concerns that the government had been pressured by Washington to sign the deal, which many Ethiopians argued was in favour of Egypt.
Most recently, the three countries agreed to an African Union mediation process. On 26 June, the leaders of Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt gave themselves two to three weeks to iron out all the outstanding matters standing in the way of a final agreement. This is yet another chance for the parties to overcome their differences and create a political atmosphere conducive to achieving the necessary technical compromises.
An understanding would pave the way for shared benefits from the dam, which stands to be transformational for the whole region. Ethiopia would reap development benefits from both the project and the international partners that back the peaceful settlement of the deadlock. Egypt would be able to improve the management of its water supply for its growing population, such as using water desalination technology instead of relying almost exclusively on the Nile for survival. The giant dam is also set to provide cheap electricity to neighbouring Sudan and, by regulating the annual Nile floods, would benefit Sudanese farmers by improving harvests with greater crop yields.
The talks could result in a new spirit that could lead Ethiopia to propose cooperative annual drought management plans that take into account Egyptian and Sudanese fears while ensuring such a plan does not inhibit the operation of the dam. Technically, this is the most significant part of the issue so far.
On dispute resolution mechanisms, a peaceful settlement of the dispute would offer the Great Renaissance Dam as an example for arbitrating similar disputes, not only in Africa but also internationally. For example, upstream dams on the Mekong River, particularly those in China, have become one of the key triggers for water disputes between Beijing and other Mekong basin states, including Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Another case relates to the Himalayan-originating Indus River system that has been a source of clashes between Pakistan and India for years. In the Middle East, Tukey, Iraq and Syria have long disputed rights to the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates.
If talks fail to resolve the problem, however, and Ethiopia starts filling the reservoir without a deal this month, it could trigger a military confrontation with Egypt. A conflict will be a hugely destabilising factor for the already unstable Horn of Africa and, by extension, the entire Red Sea region.
To avert such a devastating scenario, the three countries must agree on specific modalities, such as Addis Ababa's timeframe for filling the reservoir. Ethiopia has a right to capitalise on its resources for development, but Sudanese and Egyptian fears are also justified. As such, Addis Ababa should ensure that its mega project does not significantly harm the downstream countries that are entirely dependent on the River Nile for freshwater supplies.
The international community, meanwhile, should continue its technical, financial and mediation support for the three countries to settle the disagreement peacefully. The sharing of the Nile waters should be based upon a win-win approach, not a zero-sum game.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.