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WASHINGTON: Egypt’s musical-chairs government faces enough challenges. So why is a construction project almost 1,800 miles from Cairo provoking fears over Egypt’s national survival?

Egypt and Ethiopia are butting heads over the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a $4 billion hydroelectric project that Ethiopia is building on the headwaters of the Blue Nile, near the border between Ethiopia and Sudan.

Cairo worries that the mega project, which began construction in 2011 and is scheduled to be finished by 2017, could choke the downstream flow of the Nile River right at a time when it expects its needs for fresh water to increase. Brandishing a pair of colonial-era treaties, Egypt argues that the Nile’s waters largely belong to it and that it has veto power over dams and other upstream projects.

Ethiopia, for its part, sees a chance to finally take advantage of the world’s longest river, and says that the 6,000 megawatts of electricity the dam will produce will be a key spur to maintaining Africa’s highest economic growth rate and for growth in energy-starved neighbours. The hydroelectric plant will provide triple the amount of electricity generating capacity in all of Ethiopia today.

But the spat threatens to poison relations between two of Africa’s biggest countries.

“The construction of [the dam] could propel a new era of regional cooperation, but past history suggests it will more likely result in continued sniping between Egypt and Ethiopia,” David Shinn, a former US ambassador to Ethiopia, told Foreign Policy.

The dispute has heated up again, after a fresh effort to iron out the differences at the negotiating table collapsed. Egypt has sought to get the United Nations to intervene, and reportedly asked Ethiopia to halt construction on the dam until the two sides can work out an agreement, which Ethiopian officials rebuffed.

“The upper riparian states have the right to use the Nile for their development as far as it doesn’t cause any significant harm on the lower riparian countries, and that is why Ethiopia is building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesperson Dina Mufti told reporters in late February.

A former Egyptian irrigation minister said this week that Egypt is doing too little to forestall the dam, and highlighted the risks to the country’s water supply. Italy’s ambassador to Egypt has reportedly offered Italian help in mediating the showdown; an Italian firm is constructing the dam.

The dam has been a glimmer in Ethiopia’s eye since US scientists surveyed the site in the 1950s. A lack of cash and Egypt’s strength forestalled any development — but that appears to have changed in the wake of the Arab Spring and Egypt’s three years of domestic political upheaval.

Ethiopia began pushing back seriously after concluding its own water rights deal with other upstream nations, such as Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, in 2010. The protests in Egypt, the collapse of the Mubarak regime, and Egypt’s three years of domestic turmoil provided a key opening for Ethiopia. It laid the first stone on the construction project in the spring of 2011 and says the dam is now about one-third complete.

“With all of the chaos in Egypt, Ethiopia caught a break. It has clearly benefited from the distractions of the government in Cairo,” Shinn said. In 2012, Sudan threw its weight behind the project, driving a wedge between the two downstream users of the river and complicating Cairo’s hopes to block construction.

—Foreign Policy-The Washington Post

Comments (8) Closed

Bazezew Takele Mar 09, 2014 12:41pm

Ethiopia has a sovereign right as well as a need to use its water resources for both hydroelectric power production and irrigation purposes. No power will stop Ethiopia from exercising its sovereign right. Due to climate change, increasing energy demand and fast population growth, there will be increasing demand to use the Nile waterin upstream countries. Whether Egypt knows it or not the satus quo has been changed it is entirely up to Egypt to find alternatives. Desalination, allocative efficiency, end user efficiency, in general, implementation of social adaptive capacity the future options for Egypt. Alternatively Egypt can buy water and electricity from upstream countries to fulfil its water and energy demand. Access food crops in the international market (virtual) water is another viable option for Egypt. One thing that Egyptian politicians and experts should have to know is there is nothing for free in the 21st century. Ethiopians responsibility is water for the environment not water for Egypt's economy.

dave Mar 09, 2014 05:36pm

All Arabic countries sale their natural resources- Oil and Gas. Africans including Ethiopians have the right sale and use water resources for development.

Taye Mar 09, 2014 11:30pm

The 21st century doesn't allow for such an outdated intimidation and conspiracy. I wouldn't advise Egypt to go such confrontational as it would cost the country all they have been doing in the past. Any provocation would truly bring up pay you for all the conspiracies and injustice you have been succeeding at to keep the 94million people nation poor and starved... It is not late for your sins to be forgotten at this time... your move now is to initiate justice on you...

Ali Mar 10, 2014 02:26am

the old fashion ideas that nile belongs to Egypt and it will have to decide who gets what is gone,gone for good. since Egypt has no contribution into nile river system

Ali Mar 10, 2014 05:41am

if Egypt try to live in to the past, it's not Ethiopian concern why Egyptian prefer to do so. Because Ethiopian has respected for Egyptian people instead of respect the Colonial agreement which Ethiopian have never invited to sign it and which they never have an idea about it, If you have an agreement with British government on that time, it's better for you now as well to call your master and cry bout it. What matter for as at this time is that, to do our part and try to help our people and the people of our region, including Egyptians . because we don't need to waste our time to hear your intimidation and confrontation. if you try to cross the line, we know what we do, the consequences will be huge.

Robel Mar 10, 2014 08:34am

EGYPTIANS politicians are the worst old fashioned water conservatives who try to stop the non stoppable, basically most of egyptians have identity crises they believe they are not afticans exept some, they didnt even want to see back to the land of black people they just want their national resource Ethiopia is a land of ,80 million people with the most ancent history and one of the first ancient cristian nations in the world and even Ethiopia is the land where the first mosque in africa was built. ETHIOPIA IS the only nation which was never colonized by Europeans it is a simbol of free dom forAfrican nations and the Egyptians belive nile belongs to egypt blindely where they got colonial treaty from the country which was colonizing Egypt British , but the big issue is the treaty dose not restrict ethiopia because Ethiopia was never colonized . And even the rest upper reparian natios didnt recognized the treaty, because it dismisses their rights . SO, Later The late PM of Ethiopia made new treaty with upper riparian coutries to dismiss the old treaty ,from the above facts Ethiopia have a right to use the water to help the citizens . ethiopia is the source of 85% of nile river

yitbarek Mar 10, 2014 11:34am

Egyptian politicians have been using NILE as means to get public support but repeatedly fell to get support from the public. Most politicians lacks rationality as always moving blindly without giving detail justifications to what extent the dam cause harm to Egypt. I wonder very mach one of the Egyptian civil engineer views on the impacts of the dam interviewed. i personally agrees with his looking and views. we should look a win-win approaches that we benefited from this project. we should left aside using NILE as a political means and working closely to exploit the economic benefits that we gain altogether. we Ethiopians have made clear that we use only for electricity generation purposes and hence, the amount of water that is most likely to be decreased is very minimal and no harm for Egypt. BLUE NILE is purely Ethiopian and we do have the right to use for any purpose without consulting any body. The historic right given to Egypt was very unfair and economically harmed the upper riparian countries. even Egypt has to paid a compensation for that to bring normalization with the upper riparian countries.

solomon Desta Mar 10, 2014 06:00pm

i do have one comment on the writer. the chaos or the political instability in Cairo is not an opportunity to Ethiopia to build the great Ethiopian Renaissance dam. rather it is a treat. The Egyptian politicians are using the Nile as a tool to divert the struggle of the Egyptian people and high jack their revolution and to control and monopolize the media. it is a struggle for power among the elites. If it had been peace in Cairo, the people of Egypt could have got a chance to understand the real advantage of the great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and there couldn't have been a room for the politicians to mislead the population. Ethiopia is doing the dam based on well calculated plan to ful fil the power need of the country and of-course for the neighboring countries with out affecting the down stream countries.