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More diplomacy needed to solve the Egypt-Ethiopia water dispute

By Chris Diaz | July 10th 2020


The world is focused on containing Covid-19 and plotting on how we will fully reopen the economies after a divesting period of the pandemic that has swept across the entire planet.

Besides getting the best path for economic recovery, there are other important issues to be solved – like the lurking dispute over water between Egypt and Ethiopia.

With the construction of Africa’s largest dam in Ethiopia, there has been a dispute and looming trouble. And, the effects may be felt by the neighbouring Sudan and Egypt which relies 90 per cent on River Nile water – the water at the centre of the conflict.

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam which started in 2011 at a cost of about $4bn is a sign of hope for millions of people in Ethiopia but Egypt considers the project as an existential threat because the Nile is the main source of her freshwater.

The announcement by Ethiopia that it will start filling up the dam this July was a unilateral decision received in anger and confusion mainly by Egypt and Sudan.

 The thought of filling up the dam in seven years is sending serious signals to the concerned countries.

Ethiopia has a right to development but Egypt feels unduly disadvantaged.

There is no questioning Ethiopia’s right to development in building the dam but one has to pause and think about the big issues like Egypt’s dependency on the Nile and the rights of the 11 Nile Basin countries.

Let’s put the three major countries in the dispute under a microscope as this tussle might result in war.

Egypt is facing a shortage of water and fears the worst if Ethiopia goes ahead to fill up the dam. Sudan is caught up in the middle because it can benefit from electricity and controlled flow to prevent flooding but says if the flow is uncoordinated, its dams will be overwhelmed.

 The two countries want Ethiopia to fill the dam reasonably slowly but then there is a disagreement on how much water Ethiopia will release during drought.

The diplomatic tension between one of the major countries in northern Africa and one of the most powerful countries in eastern Africa with a population of more than 100 million people is not healthy for the continent hence the need for mediation steered by third parties.

Talks between the two sides are increasingly belligerent. Egypt has called for serious international intervention but Ethiopia is hell-bent on filling up the dam when the summer rains start this month.

There is a need to listen to both sides and strike a common ground that will solve the situation without any party getting bruised.

More worrying are the reports of threats from both sides with President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi talking plainly during a recent visit to an airbase where he told Egyptian pilots to “be prepared to carry out any mission on our borders or, if necessary, outside our borders.”

Media stories mention Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Prime Minister, saying: “No force can stop Ethiopia from building the dam. If there is a need to go to war, we could get millions readied.”

Such sabre-rattling leaves no option but the call for proper and more talks mediated by international agencies like the UN-Security Council and other parties to ease up the tension because misunderstandings can be expensive and the ripple effects felt far and wide.

No hard stand can solve the dispute. It’s only through good understanding which also calls for genuine inputs by African Heads of States and all authorities within those circles to find that workable solution that hurts no party but promotes peace as Ethiopians continue to pursue their developments dreams with Egyptians not having to do with un-irrigated farmlands and dry taps.

On the one hand, Ethiopia's dam is at the heart of her manufacturing and industrial dreams as it is expected to generate over 6,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to serve millions and sell the surplus power to neighbouring countries.

On the other, must not forget that as we look into the future that over 500 million people in Africa depend on the waters of the Nile which is one of the largest rivers in the world.

Therefore, all views to balance decisions for Africa's progress remain most important.

-Chris Diaz is the director, Director EABC Trustee Brand Africa

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