Egypt’s domestic situation has changed tremendously in the last few months, but long-standing regional tensions over water-sharing from the Nile River have remained. Last spring, an agreement on water-sharing pitted Egypt and Sudan (who refused to sign) against countries upstream such as Ethiopia, Uganda, and Tanzania. This deal aims to substantially reduce Egyptian control over the river. Egypt’s new government, whoever takes charge, faces challenges on the Nile issue, especially from Ethiopia, the most outspoken of the upstream governments. The controversy will also test the new country of South Sudan, which is expected to side with the other upstream countries.
In late March, Ethiopia “said it planned to build a huge dam on the Nile despite a long-running row with Egypt over use of the river and concern the dispute may spark a war.” This dam, near the Sudan border, would generate “15,000 megawatts (MW) of power within 10 years, part of a plan to spend $12 billion over 25 years to improve the country’s power-generating capability.”
Ethiopia’s government has taken an alternately aggressive and conciliatory tone toward Egypt regarding the dam project:
Speaking to the opening session of an international hydropower conference [in late March], [Ethiopian Prime Minister] Meles [Zenawi] vowed the $4.8-billion project would go ahead, even if impoverished Ethiopia has to pay the tab itself.
“We are so convinced of the justice of our cause, so sure of the strength of our arguments, so convinced of the role of our hydropower projects in eliminating poverty in our country that we will use every ounce of our strength, every dime of money that we can save to complete our program,” Meles said.
[But] in comments to reporters after his speech, the Ethiopian leader held out hope that the post-Mubarak administration in Cairo might soften Egypt’s longstanding opposition to upstream use of Nile water.
“I am still hopeful that the current government in Egypt will recognize that this project has nothing but benefits to Egypt,” said Meles. “Nothing. I believe the Sudanese understand this has nothing but benefits to them.”
Meles said a change of heart by Cairo’s new leaders could open the way for cooperative agreements, including a deal that would give Egypt partial ownership of the dam.
“If there is a reconsideration, there will be time to consider many issues, including possibly joint ownership of the project itself. We are open to such ideas,” said Meles.
Egypt seems at least somewhat willing to negotiate:
In what seems to be a possible solution to the Nile water quotas dispute between Egypt and upstream Nile Basin countries, Water Resources Minister Hussein al-Atfy has announced an initiative by the African countries to renegotiate the Nile Basin Framework Agreement.
He said the initiative aims at allowing all people of Nile Basin countries to benefit from the water, and added that international arbitration would be Cairo’s last resort in dealing with this issue.
Reaching agreement on the future usage of the Nile will be crucial for preserving peace between the Nile countries and ensuring that millions of people have access to water and power. All of the major players have indicated their willingness to reach a solution – now it remains to be seen if there is a solution that can satisfy everyone. If no solution appears, it seems Ethiopia may force the issue.
For one Ethiopian perspective on the dam project, see this article.