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Nile River Dispute Between Egypt, Ethiopia Sparks Tensions

  • Peter Heinlein

This photo, made available on April 2, 2013, shows the construction of the dam in Ethiopia's Asosa region.

This photo, made available on April 2, 2013, shows the construction of the dam in Ethiopia's Asosa region.

A former high-ranking Egyptian diplomat says Ethiopia’s move to divert the flow of the Nile River has needlessly heightened regional tensions. Ethiopia began diverting the river this week as it builds a massive hydroelectric dam. Egypt, which depends on the Nile for its water supply, stressed that it has not approved the dam's construction.

Ambassador Tarek Ghuneim was a key player in Nile water negotiations until shortly before his retirement last year. In a interview, the former Egyptian diplomat said those talks were characterized by mutual mistrust.

He questioned Ethiopia’s timing in announcing the diversion of Nile water, one day after Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s visit to Addis Ababa, and just days before release of a study on the effects of building a giant dam on the river.

Ghuneim also expressed doubts about the coming report of a commission examining the pros and cons of Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam. Critical information has been withheld from the tripartite commission, made up of independent experts and representatives from Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, he said. "This committee would not be able to come to a full conclusion because of a lack of information being withheld from the Ethiopian side."

Ghuneim expressed hope that the international community will intervene to make the three countries cooperate in a way that will benefit them all. He said cooperation would have the additional benefit of persuading the World Bank and others to provide critically needed funding and quality control measures.

"We here in Egypt understand that lack of energy in Ethiopia; it needs energy, we understand," he said. "But do it in a way that it will not affect negatively any other country. And that’s the problem they face in financing this dam from the international financial organizations, like the [World] Bank, because it’s standing policy is not to fund anything unless there is consensus from all parties involved."

Ethiopia has said the dam will provide essential energy for the country's development and will not harm countries further downstream.

Ghuneim said this might be a good time for some breakthrough in the long-stalled talks on Nile River water sharing. He points out that the two leaders who presided over the stalemate, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, have left the scene, replaced by a new generation that might be more willing to look at the issues in a different way.

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