Nabil Fahmy, the Foreign Minister of Egypt, has reportedly stated that Egypt is willing to negotiate earnestly with Ethiopia regarding the proposed Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) following a period of heightened diplomatic tensions between the two African countries. These diplomatic tensions were the result of Ethiopia’s plan to build the GERD . This is a dam which Tedros Adhanom, the Ethiopian Minister for Foreign Affairs, has characterized as representing a breakthrough in Ethiopia’s quest for sustainable economic prosperity. Egyptian officials have long expressed concern that the GERD, which would be the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa, would affect the amount of water available for Egyptian consumption.
The main difficulties causing this diplomatic tension stem from a colonial era treaty which regulates the division of the Nile between the three Nile basin states, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Unfortunately for Ethiopia, the treaty gives the main portion of the Nile to Egypt and the Sudan, leaving very little for Ethiopia itself. This situation, which is regarded by Ethiopia as intolerable, has led Ethiopia to refuse to recognize the treaty, although Egypt refuses to sign a Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) which was recently proposed to replace said colonial treaty.
Particularly at issue is the fact that Ethiopia disputes the idea that the Nile is Egypt’s only source of freshwater. Fekahmed Negash, the director for boundary and trans-boundary rivers at the Ethiopian Ministry of Water and Energy, has pointed to the Nubian Aquifer, which is capable of supplying Egypt with freshwater for thousands of years, as a possible alternate water supply for Egypt. Furthermore, Negash has pointed to the presence of desalination technology in Egypt, which has allowed the Egyptians to amass huge reserves of freshwater behind Aswan High Dam and Lake Nasser. In contrast to the Egyptian situation of relative abundance, Ethiopia allegedly relies largely on rains for many of its freshwater needs, making the GERD an important project if Ethiopia is to ameliorate the standards of living for its citizens.
Past negotiations between Egypt and Ethiopia regarding the GERD, which would generate up to 6000 megawatts of energy, were largely ineffectual, but officials from Egypt insist that they are willing to allow for proper negotiations between the two countries. These negotiations have taken a number of forms, such as Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn inviting dignitaries from Sudan and Egypt to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa for a summit. However, foreign powers have also become involved in the mediation attempts, with officials such as Aaron Salzberg, the special coordinator for water resources at the US Department of State, travelling between Cairo and Addis Ababa in an attempt to resolve the issue as quickly as possible.
Egyptian Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab has long expressed the opinion that Ethiopia has the right to develop economically, so long as this economic development does not harm the livelihood of the Egyptian people, and this stance has become the official Egyptian policy vis-a-vis the GERD. Previous tripartite talks between Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan have failed to resolve the diplomatic tensions, yet Ethiopian officials hope that they will be able to demonstrate to their Egyptian counterparts that the GERD would not impact Egypt’s water supply, which has been the Ethiopian stance throughout the negotiations thus far. Egypt’s willingness to negotiate with Ethiopia regarding the GERD, as well as the attempts by foreign powers to serve as mediators, mean that upcoming negotiations have a greater chance of succeeding, thereby solving this dispute between the two African countries.
By Nicholas Grabe