For Ethiopia, a new dam holds the promise of much-needed electricity; for Egypt, the fear of a devastating water crisis.
Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan will agree a deal to fill the giant Blue Nile dam in two to three weeks, following mediation by the African Union to broker a deal to end a decade-long dispute over water supplies.
Tortuous negotiations over the years have left the two nations and their neighbour Sudan short of an agreement to regulate how Ethiopia will operate the dam and fill its reservoir, while protecting Egypt’s scarce water supplies from the Nile river.
Ethiopia’s water minister, Seleshi Bekele, said that consensus had been reached to finalise a deal within two to three weeks, a day after leaders from the three countries and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who chairs the African Union (AU), held an online summit.
The announcement late on Friday was a modest reprieve from weeks of bellicose rhetoric and escalating tensions over the $4.6bn Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which Ethiopia had vowed to start filling at the start of the rainy season in July.
Ethiopia has hinged its development ambitions on the mega-project, describing the dam as a crucial lifeline to bring millions out of poverty. Egypt, which relies on the Nile for more than 90 percent of its water supplies and already faces high water stress, fears a devastating impact on its booming population of 100 million.
— Office of the Prime Minister – Ethiopia (@PMEthiopia) June 27, 2020
Sudan, which also depends on the Nile for water, has played a key role in bringing the two sides together after the collapse of United States-mediated talks in February.
After the AU video conference chaired by South Africa on Friday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said that “all parties” had pledged not to take “any unilateral action” by filling the dam without a final agreement, according to state media.
Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok also indicated the impasse between the Nile basin countries had eased, saying the countries had agreed to restart negotiations through a technical committee with the aim of finalising a deal in two weeks.
Ethiopia won’t fill the dam before inking the much-anticipated deal, Hamdok said in a statement, adding: “Sudan is one of the biggest beneficiaries from the dam and also one of the biggest losers if risks are not mitigated, thus it urges Egypt and Ethiopia to the impending necessity … of finding a solution.”
AU Commission Chair Moussa Faki Mahamat said in a statement that more than 90 percent of issues in the talks had been resolved, and that a committee of representatives of the three countries, South Africa, and technical personnel from the AU, would work to resolve outstanding legal and technical points.
The committee would issue a report on progress of the negotiations in a week.
Sticking points in the talks have been how much water Ethiopia will release downstream from the dam if a multi-year drought occurs and how Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan will resolve any future disagreements.
Both Egypt and Sudan have appealed to the United Nations Security Council to intervene in the years-long dispute and help the countries avert a crisis. The council is set to hold a public meeting on the issue on Monday.
Filling the dam without an agreement could bring the standoff to a critical juncture. Both Egypt and Ethiopia have hinted at military steps to protect their interests, and experts fear a breakdown in talks could lead to open conflict.
Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies based at the National Defense University, called Ethiopia’s change in position “significant”.
“The Ethiopian agreement to wait, that’s a big pause – in terms of the pressure that was building up on this discussion,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that he hoped to see a resolution shortly.
“Ethiopia feels pressure because the next two months are the rainy season. The dams down the river, including the Aswan High Dam, they are at their near capacity,” said Siegle.
“So this is actually a really good time to start filling the dam. It would least affect Egypt. So Egypt has some incentive to agree to get this going at this point in time. In the best-case scenario, they will get back to the negotiating table and they will come to a quick agreement and then move this forward.”