CAIRO, EGYPT - Both Egypt and Ethiopia are working to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict over water-sharing as construction of the Renaissance Dam on the River Nile nears completion. The leaders of both countries are due to discuss their differences Thursday at an African summit in the Russian resort town of Sochi.
Water flows over the two-thirds completed Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile downstream in Ethiopia. Fears have arisen in both Egypt and Sudan that the process of filling the reservoir behind the dam will severely curtail water supplies, prompting a flurry of bellicose rhetoric and intense diplomatic activity.
Recent comments by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed that he could "muster an army of a million men to defend the dam," if it were threatened, prompted an angry reaction from Egyptian officials. But Ahmed, who recently won the Nobel peace prize, emphasized that diplomacy is his preferred course of action.
He says that if any one of those involved in the talks fails [in forging a diplomatic solution], it will be a failure for all.
Ahmed also told the Ethiopian Parliament that "no matter what the opposition to the dam—ostensibly from Egypt—there was no going back on the decision to build it."
The comments sparked an angry reaction from the head of the Egyptian Parliament's Defense and Security Committee, Gen. Mamdouah Maqallad, who told journalists, "If Ethiopia shuts the water tap on Egypt" that he would "authorize President Abdel Fattah al Sisi to declare war on Addis Ababa."
President Sisi, himself, told journalists a little over a week ago, that he has become frustrated that diplomatic talks between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan are "getting nowhere," and that "time is running out."
He says that technical committees need to decide how much water Egypt is able to do without in order to fill the reservoir of the dam, and how many years the process will take. Until now, he complains, they have not been able to reach an agreement over this.
Dr. Paul Sullivan, a professor at the U.S. National Defense University, tells VOA "Egypt has the most powerful military in North Africa [with] air, land and sea power that could overwhelm Ethiopia's very quickly." He argues, though, that "a war is not the answer [because] both sides would pay a heavy price."
"In the long run,' he says, "there has to be a negotiated settlement."
"Ethiopia has a horrific history of wars," Sullivan points out, "and Egypt is in no political or economic shape for a major war. Both sides need to look at diplomatic and economic solutions before the heated rhetoric drives them both to a mistaken war."
Political sociologist Said Sadek tells VOA that the Egyptian foreign ministry has been pulling out diplomatic stops in search of a solution:
"Egypt is trying to mount a diplomatic campaign to put pressure on Ethiopia to slow down the storage of water [behind the dam], so that it does not affect Egypt negatively," he said.
Sadek says that Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri "has been meeting with European Union, African and Asian foreign ministers," as well as lobbying both Washington and Moscow to help resolve the crisis.
Reuters news agency reported Wednesday that Egypt has "accepted a US invitation to a meeting of foreign ministers over [the Renaissance dam project]." No date for the meeting was given.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi is also due to meet with Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed on the sidelines of the Russian-sponsored African summit in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi. It was not clear if Russian President Vladimir Putin would try to mediate."