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Negotiators from Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt Optimistic on Nile Dam Standoff

FILE - Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam is seen as it undergoes construction work on the river Nile in Ethiopia, Sept. 26, 2019.
FILE - Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam is seen as it undergoes construction work on the river Nile in Ethiopia, Sept. 26, 2019.

Delegations from Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan continue to negotiate water usage issues relating to the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam being built on the Nile River.

Following two days of meetings in Washington, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a statement saying the technical and legal teams from all countries are making progress toward a final agreement that will be reviewed by leaders in the respective countries.

“The United States, with technical support from the World Bank, has agreed to facilitate the preparation of the final agreement for consideration by the ministers and heads of state for conclusion by the end of the month,” said Steven Mnuchin, U.S. secretary of the treasury.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, now on a trip that will include stops in Angola, Ethiopia and Senegal, said he is closely monitoring the negotiations.

“I went over and saw the Sudanese and the Egyptians and the Ethiopians yesterday to encourage them to make progress on that, to make sure that everyone’s got the water that they need,” he told VOA aboard his aircraft.

Electricity and water flow among concerns

The $4 billion dam is one of the largest infrastructure projects in African history. Ethiopia hopes to complete it by 2022 and believes it could produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity, some of which could be exported.

But Egypt and Sudan have worried about the dam’s impact on water flow. Egypt relies on the Nile for 90% of its water needs.

Sudanese Irrigation and Water Resources Minister Yasser Abbas said his country is leaving the meetings feeling optimistic.

“I must say we have made huge progress since then and it dealt mainly with how to fill the dam at the beginning and how to operate the dam,” he told VOA. “And in Sudan, we see the dam as a potential opportunity for regional cooperation.”

Abbas said there are both positive and negative impacts of the dam for Sudan. The positive is that it will regulate the flow of water making for a fairly consistent water level on the Blue Nile. The negative, he said, is that it could impact farmers who practice “floodplain agriculture” in the areas where water spills over the banks of the Nile.

Filling the dam

A key point of contention is how quickly Ethiopia will fill the dam.

“Our main concern is that we want to see the three countries agree on the initial filling,” Abbas said. “How many years it takes to fill and how the operation would be afterward.”

The dam will have a capacity of 10.2 million cubic meters of water. Earlier proposals by Ethiopia had called for it to be filled over four to seven years, but Egypt requested a slower timetable in the event of prolonged droughts or water shortages.

In an interview with VOA’s Amharic service, Ethiopian Ambassador to the United States Fitsum Arega said the negotiations have examined different possible scenarios including a drop in water level because of climate change, consecutive dry years or a prolonged, once every 100-year drought. The technical teams are trying to reach agreements on what would be done in each of these cases. Fitsum said recent efforts at negotiating these issues have been derailed by countries bringing up unspecified issues that the Ethiopians consider separate from the dam and water usage.

“When we see what is presented from all three countries, the three countries’ expectations are different,” Fitsum told VOA Feb. 1, speaking in Amharic.

“From the Ethiopian side, we just wanted to focus on the project, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project. That is the only thing that we want to be discussing.”

Power generation

Another source of debate is how much of the power generated by the dam will benefit Sudan and Egypt. Ambassador Mohamed Higazy, a former assistant to the Egyptian foreign minister, said he would like to see the dam be a vehicle for regional integration including integrating the power grids of the three countries.

“Egypt and Sudan are very close to completing the power grids,” he told VOA. “Why not with the Renaissance Dam, which electricity can be used in the markets of Sudan and Egypt and then exported to the regional Gulf market or further to Europe through the Egyptian power grid?”

Higazy added that he is cautiously optimistic about the talks, but hopes all parties will look at the bigger picture of regional prosperity and environmental stewardship instead of their own, narrow interests.

“If we want to help the river ecosystem, if we want to help the people and economies in the three countries, we have to embark on a regional framework where water security will not be decided by national aspiration, only by the region aspiration,” he said.

This story originated in the Africa division with reporting contributions from VOA’s diplomatic correspondent Cindy Saine, English to Africa’s Jason Patinkin, Nadia Taha, Mohamed Elshinnawi and Horn of Africa’s Amharic service Habtamu Seyoum.