On Saturday, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf met in Cairo to discuss Ethiopia’s proposed “Grand Renaissance Dam,” which would use some water from the Blue Nile for hydroelectric power. When it was announced in March, the dam project seemed to exacerbate long-standing tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia concerning usage of the Nile. Egypt, whose future water security outlook is somewhat grim, has long taken a significant portion of the Nile – a portion that upstream countries like Ethiopia feel is too large. In 2010, Ethiopia led a number of upstream countries in signing a treaty that would reduce Egypt’s share of the Nile. Egypt and Sudan opposed the treaty, arguing for the maintenance of the status quo. As of this spring, the conflict looked like a tough nut to crack.
“We have agreed to quickly establish a tripartite team of technical experts to review the impact of the dam that is being built in Ethiopia,” Zenawi told a news conference with Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf. Experts from Sudan will also be part of the team.
“We have agreed to continue to work on the basis of a win-win solution for all countries in the Nile basin,” he added.
Sharaf said Cairo and Addis Ababa were discussing a “comprehensive development plan” for the two countries.
“We can make the issue of the Grand Renaissance Dam something useful,” he said. “This dam, in conjunction with the other dams, can be a path for development and construction between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.”
The change in Egypt’s stance likely owes much to the change of regime there. Former President Hosni Mubarak was fairly hawkish on Nile issues, but I imagine that the new government has neither the bandwidth nor the appetite to posture aggressively on the issue. At a time when Egypt’s domestic politics as well as regional politics are shifting (South Sudan’s independence makes the Egypt-Sudan pro-Nile status quo alliance somewhat shakier), Egypt’s new leaders are likely keen to have a workable resolution to the issue.
Ironing out details could prove tricky, and meaningful agreements on core issues hard to reach, but I see these talks and their outcome as a positive step for the region.