Nile dam dispute poses a thorny challenge for Ethiopia and Egypt

1 / 8
The Blue Nile river as it passes through the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) project, near Guba in Ethiopia, above. William Davison, below, a senior analyst on Ethiopian affairs with International Crisis Group. (AFP)
2 / 8
3 / 8
4 / 8
A general view of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam near Guba in Ethiopia. (Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP)
5 / 8
6 / 8
An aerial view shows the River Nile before sunset in the Helwan suburb south of the Egyptian capital Cairo on June 20, 2020. (Photo by Khaled Desouki / AFP)
7 / 8
8 / 8
Short Url
Updated 20 July 2020

Nile dam dispute poses a thorny challenge for Ethiopia and Egypt

  • Mini-African summit fixed for Tuesday in the latest effort to break protracted deadlock
  • Experts say disagreements run deeper than technical matters and the sharing of water

DUBAI: When Egyptian, Ethiopian and Sudanese officials meet to resolve their differences on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) that Addis Ababa is building on the Blue Nile, they instantly run into many thorny issues.

These disputes run deeper than technical matters and the sharing of water, experts and analysts say. Because they are also legal, historical and trust-related, a tripartite agreement has proved elusive. An eventual deal could take longer because major differences persist, mainly between Ethiopia and Egypt.

Officials from the three countries concluded two weeks of talks on July 13, supervised by the African Union (AU) and observed by US and European officials, but came no closer to an agreement. Officials were quoted as saying that the three countries would submit their final reports to the AU and that a mini-African summit would be held on Tuesday.

An aerial view shows the River Nile before sunset in the Helwan suburb south of the Egyptian capital Cairo on June 20, 2020. (Photo by Khaled Desouki / AFP)

The talks were the latest in a decade-long effort by the three African countries to resolve differences over the GERD. Ethiopia hopes the 6,000-megawatt dam will turn it into Africa’s top hydropower supplier. Egypt and Sudan fear the dam — being constructed less than 20 km from Ethiopia’s eastern border with Sudan — will substantially reduce their water share and affect development prospects.

While Addis Ababa insists the dam will benefit all Nile river basin states, the three countries are stymied by technical issues on how and when to fill the reservoir and how much water it should release, along with procedures for drought mitigation.

Experts and analysts from Africa and outside say the differences are fundamental and require sincerity. “Vital national interests are at stake, particularly on the Egyptian and Ethiopian sides,” said William Davison, a senior analyst on Ethiopian affairs with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

Ethiopia considers the project important for development and thus named it the “renaissance dam,” he said, adding: “It is also seen as vital to overcoming injustices from past treaties that excluded the country and denied it water allocations.”

Egypt, which relies heavily on the Nile for agriculture, industry and drinking water, worries that such a large dam will reduce water supplies “in a problematic way” in the future, Davison told Arab News from Addis Ababa.

Satellite images released recently showed water pouring into the reservoir, prompting Seleshi Bekele, the Ethiopian water minister, to assuage Egyptian anxieties by insisting that the process was the product of natural seasonal flooding and not direct action by the government.

Egyptian analysts say Ethiopia is ignoring its neighbors’ interests. “The talks have failed because of continuous Ethiopian obstinacy,” said Hani Raslan, an expert on African affairs at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies. “Ethiopia has been buying time to impose a new reality on the ground . . . they don’t intend to reach an agreement.”


$4.8 billion Estimated cost of GERD.

15% Cost as share of Ethiopia’s 2012 GDP.

20,000 People in need of resettlement.

Source: International Rivers Organization

Other experts say that a positive attitude by the parties would help. “There is a tendency on each side to see the other in a more threatening manner, which I think is the key issue here,” said Mulugetta Ketema, managing director of the US-based Cogent International Solutions, a research and analysis center.

“Instead of starting negotiations based on who can dominate over which country or region, I think you should start by saying ‘How can we work together to utilize his river.’”

Ketema, who is Ethiopian-American, added: “I am sure everybody is doing their best, but there is a historical issue also at play here. For centuries Egypt and Sudan didn’t have anybody saying they could do this or that . . . they have been using the river for their own advantage.

“However, now the basin countries . . . are also growing and saying ‘Hey, we have to use or share something with our brothers and sisters up north and harvest the river.’ Apparently, this is where the problem starts.”

The Nile basin includes Ethiopia, Egypt, Sudan, Congo, Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan and Sudan. Most were not part of the agreements signed during the British colonial years that gave Egypt and Sudan a big share of the Nile waters, Ketema said. Except for Ethiopia, those countries were under British control.

Apart from the legal differences over the term of references consultants use in their reports, drought mitigation remains a major obstacle. Egypt and Sudan seek Ethiopia’s commitment to a safe minimum release of water in dry seasons. Addis Ababa has been unwilling to do so, according to Davison.

“More recently, in the negotiations, there has been a series of legal disputes or disagreements. Sudan and Egypt would like a process of binding third-party arbitration as a last resort to resolve any future dispute (but) the Ethiopians . . . are not willing to sign up to that,” he told Arab News.

Ethiopia insists that Africa needs to solve African affairs. “Historically, Africans have been solving their own problems and did a better job than outside interference,” Ketema said. “Europeans and the UN tried to mediate in some issues, but it really never worked.” Should the AU fail to reach a solution on the GERD, other developing nations could extend their hands, he said.

To many Egyptian analysts, Ethiopia’s insistence on “African solutions” aims to “keep the negotiations going in a vicious circle until the dam is completely full and then there will be no meaning for negotiations,” Al-Ahram Center’s Raslan told Arab News.

A general view of the Blue Nile river as it passes through the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), near Guba in Ethiopia. (Photo by EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP)

“A practical solution is available already,” he said, referring to a US-drafted agreement that emerged from talks in Washington DC earlier this year. Egypt initialled the document, while Ethiopia declined.

The ministers agreed on a schedule for a staggered filling of the dam and mitigation mechanism, according to the document, but still needed to finalize details on safety and ways of handling future disputes. Praising Egypt’s readiness to sign the agreement, the US noted that Ethiopia sought internal consultations.

Davison said that the parties need to focus on specific disagreements on hydrological and legal issues “without being sidetracked by the current controversy over the act of filling (water) and . . . by the historical and geopolitical disagreements.”

“If the lawyers and engineers are allowed the space to reach a compromise on these technical issues, that will not solve everything,” he said.

“But that will allow some sort of agreement (so that) the parties can move on and build trust. Eventually, they will be able to address some of the large issues over water sharing and ultimately this historical rivalry over the river.”


Twitter: @jumanaaltamimi


UK advocacy group takes Tories to task on Islamophobia

Updated 01 October 2020

UK advocacy group takes Tories to task on Islamophobia

  • Hope not Hate: Dozens of party members have made anti-Muslim statements on social media
  • Poll: 47% of members consider Islam a ‘threat’; just 27% say it is compatible with life in Britain

LONDON: UK advocacy group Hope not Hate says it has identified dozens of members of the country’s ruling Conservative (Tory) Party who have used social media to make anti-Muslim statements.

It also cited “alarming” private polling, compiled for a report into allegations of Islamophobia in the party, that shows a large proportion of party members harbor disparaging views about Islam, including that the religion is “incompatible” with British culture.

“In recent years, Hope not Hate has tracked, highlighted and campaigned against the poison of hatred impacting individual political parties,” the report said.

“None have been immune. For several years, there have been well-documented incidents of Conservative Party MPs, councillors and locally elected representatives engaging in vile racism, particularly towards Muslims,” it added.

“Muslim members have reported a lack of action when they complained. Many have resigned from the party in protest.”

The report forms a broad submission by the group to an inquiry into discrimination in the party led by Prof. Swaran Singh of the University of Warwick, after an appeal for evidence.

Allegations of Islamophobia have been raised recently by senior Tory politicians, including former Chancellor Sajid Javid and former party Chair Baroness Warsi.

The inquiry itself has been criticized by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) for running the risk of ignoring “the systemic problems of Islamophobia in the party,” after Prime Minister Boris Johnson reneged on a pledge to focus on anti-Muslim prejudice, and instead opened the inquiry up to all instances of prejudice since 2015.

Hope not Hate said it had reported more than 20 Tory councillors to the inquiry for incidents of Islamophobia.

Meanwhile, in its poll of 1,200 Tory members carried out by YouGov, just 43 percent of respondents said they hold favorable views of Islam, with 47 percent saying they consider it “generally a threat” to British society.

Almost a quarter claimed it breeds “intolerance.” Just 27 percent believe Islam to be compatible with life in the UK.

In comparison, 75 percent of respondents said they have positive views of Sikhs in the UK, and 73 percent look favorably on Britain’s Hindu community.

Hope not Hate said it had identified 40 cases of Tory activists or politicians using social media to post offensive anti-Muslim content.

In one incident, a member posted offensive content about the 2019 Christchurch mosque massacre in New Zealand.

Hope not Hate said the member, who was made to complete an “online diversity course,” was subsequently allowed back into the party, and continued to post Islamophobic content online.

Another case saw a councillor suspended in 2018 for sharing an article that called Muslims living in France “parasites,” only to be re-admitted months later.

The group said quiet re-admittance was standard practice for members disciplined for instances of Islamophobia.

In one example, a female councillor was re-admitted after comparing an Asian man to a dog, saying: “He’s brown, he stinks, he can’t speak a word of English.”

The group highlighted that this contradicted the following statement made by Johnson in 2019: “What we do in the Tory party is, when anybody is guilty of any kind of prejudice or discrimination against another group, then they’re out first bounce.”

Hope not Hate’s Chief Executive Nick Lowles told The Times newspaper: “It’s been clear for a number of years that the Conservative Party has a deep problem with anti-Muslim prejudice. The evidence is clear; the only question is what the Conservatives decide to do with it.”

The report suggests a number of measures to deal with Islamophobia. They include setting up a new independent complaints and disciplinary process, a transparent suspension system, and compulsory training for MPs and others on Islamophobia. 

An MCB spokesperson told Arab News: “For years, we’ve been alarmed at how entrenched deeply Islamophobic views are in the Conservative Party. This polling, coupled with the MCB’s dossier of over 300 members engaging in Islamophobia, is further evidence of how institutional, systemic and embedded in the culture of the Conservative Party this is.” 

The spokesperson added: “If the Conservative Party was serious about eradicating the concerning levels of vitriolic hate from amongst its membership, it would immediately suspend all those highlighted in this report and hold a truly independent inquiry specifically into Islamophobia, instead of this review into its complaints procedure which will serve as nothing more than a rubberstamping exercise, further kicking the can into the long grass.

“Instead, all we’ve seen is a total dereliction of duty by successive prime ministers and party chairs to address Islamophobia within its ranks. The total absence of political leadership only serves to condone Islamophobic views and embolden racist sentiments.”

A Tory spokesman said: “We take any complaint very seriously. There is currently an independent investigation into our complaints processes. We will consider any recommendations to further strengthen our procedures.”

The UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, which recently launched an inquiry into allegations of systematic anti-Semitism in the UK’s main opposition Labour Party, said in May that before it decides whether to conduct its own formal inquiry into allegations of Tory Islamophobia, it will await the outcome of Singh’s investigation. Pre-emptive action would not be “proportionate,” the commission said.