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Point of Concern: How could Ethiopia’s dam dispute escalate?

The conflict over the dam has some colonial era undertones dating as far back as between 1882 and 1956.

Point of Concern: How could Ethiopia’s dam dispute escalate?

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KENYA: The conflict over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, known as GERD, on the Blue Nile river has dragged on for 12 years. Ethiopia has failed to find an amicable solution with the two neighboring downstream countries of Egypt and Sudan, who say the dam threatens to cut off their water supply. But Ethiopia sees the dam as a boon for economic development in a country where half the 120 million citizens live without power. There was a fresh outcry by Egypt in mid-September after Ethiopia announced that it had finished the fourth and final phase of filling the GERD reservoir.

Ethiopia’s announcement came just a fortnight after the three countries resumed negotiations — after a lengthy break — on an agreement which takes into account the water needs of all three. Some experts stressed the importance of settling the dam dispute sooner rather than later, warning that a prolonged spat could pose serious threats to the wider region. Fidel Amakye Owusu, an African conflict resolution expert, told DW that the disputing neighbors should work to resolve their differences as a matter of urgency to avoid an escalation to possible direct clashes between nations.

But Dr. Yakob Arsano, a former negotiator and Nile basin analyst, told DW that Ethiopia expects to continue its activities on the dam without the conflict being resolved. “As far as I understand, the water-filling process for the construction of the dam shows that the fourth round has been filled with water. The construction of the dam and its water filling capacity will continue,” he said.

Ethiopia in 2010 first announced plans to build a dam on the Blue Nile to supply Ethiopia and its neighbors with more than 5,000 megawatts of electricity. Egypt raised concerns at the time — escalating it to the UN and the African Union (AU) for resolution. But Ethiopia said that the dam designs had already been completed. In 2011, Ethiopia laid the cornerstone for the new dam to kick off construction work on the project, offering to share construction schemes with Egypt amid the conflict.

The first meeting of the tripartite technical committee including the water ministers of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia took place same year. When Ethiopia diverted the Nile to build the dam in 2013, Egypt decided to negotiate. Talks resumed between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan. In 2014, the establishment of a committee of expert resulted in the so-called Malabo Declaration that guaranteed Ethiopia would develop the dam while reducing potential impact on Egypt.

Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia in 2015 signed an agreement in Khartoum to resolve differences between the three countries. The deal was signed so that technical impact studies on the dam could be carried out. Continued negotiations failed in 2017, but resumed in 2018. There had not been much progress between then and 2021, when the African Union stepped in.

However, talks sponsored by the AU in April 2021 — which the bloc had hoped would result in a deal — also failed, resulting in the process being suspended.

Negotiations resumed in August 2023 after Egypt and Ethiopia said in July that they hoped to reach a deal within four months. The conflict over the dam has some colonial era undertones dating as far back as between 1882 and 1956. “During the colonial days and especially in the early 20th century, there was this agreement that was signed between the colonial masters,” Owusu said, specifically when Egypt was occupied by Britain. That agreement covered former colonies in eastern Africa, including Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, all of whom who all depend on the Nile.

DW Bureau
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