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Tension Between Ethiopia and Egypt Over New Dam in the Nile
9 May 2011

Debay Tadesse, Senior Researcher, African Conflict Prevention Programme, Addis Ababa Office

Recently Ethiopia announced its plans to build the controversial `Great Millennium Dam` - one of the biggest dams in Africa - with a capacity to produce 5,250 megawatt of electricity.  The dam will be built along the Nile River about 40 km from  the Sudanese border. Following this announcement, the Egyptian Irrigation Minister Hussein al-Atfy requested the Ethiopian Government for technical and environmental studies of the project.  He further warned that Egypt shall examine the studies to determine the adverse repercussions on Egypt`s Nile water quota and would resort to pressure by the international community or even consider military action if Ethiopia failed to reply.  The Ethiopian Minister for Water Resources then refused permission to Egypt to visit the site of the Dam. 

After the announcement of the building of the dam, Egypt started   trying to put pressure on Ethiopia from various corners of the globe.   An Egyptian high-level delegation also arrived in Addis Ababa on April 29 to discuss the issue  with Ethiopian high officials including Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.  The delegates included presidential candidates in Egypt`s upcoming election, prominent politicians and activists.  While staying in Addis, many believe, their objectives were to ease the heated dispute over the share and use of the Nile water.  

The dam is being built against the background of continuous dispute over the use of the Nile river. After eleven years of negotiations between the Nile Basin riparian states, on May 14, 2010, four of the upper Nile Basin riparian countries (Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, and Tanzania) signed the new Nile water sharing agreement known as the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA) in Entebbe, Uganda. On February 28, 2011,Burundi became the sixth signatory. Upon its ratification by the respective legislatures of the signatory countries, the CFA will be binding to all members of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI).  The Nile Basin Commission will be established upon ratification of CFA instrument by a majority of six member states.

However, Egypt has dismissed the Entebbe agreement, saying it "is in no way binding on Egypt from a legal perspective." The most controversial provision of the CFA is  Article 14 (b) of the CFA, which reads: ‘not to significantly affect the water security of any other Nile Basin State`.  Egypt and Sudan proposed that the article should be reworded as: ‘not to adversely affect the water security and current uses and rights of any other Nile Basin States`. Ethiopia blames Egyptian authorities for not signing the Entebbe Agreement, adding that Egyptian authority would be allowed to visit the Dam, when they agree to sign the CFA.  

Indeed, according to Egyptian security sources, the Egyptian army has been instructed to "prepare for any eventuality" after the recent move by Ethiopia to commence the construction of a dam on the Blue Nile.  Earlier,  an Egyptian mission comprising 35 key figures arrived in Uganda to consult with President Yoweri Museveni and other officials on the issue of the Nile.  The mission arrived in Entebbe on Monday 4 April, 2011, and included Al-Sayyed Al-Badawi, President of the Wafd Party, and other individuals that are hopeful for the next Egyptian presidency, such as Hamdeen Sabbahi, Ayman Nour and Heshame el-Bastawisi. Former Minister of Irrigation Mahmoud Abu Zeid, Ahmed al-Leighi, form Minister of Agriculture, Osama al-Ghazali Harb, president of the Democratic Front Party and several youths leaders from the 25 January revolution also traveled to Entebbe for the talks.   

The international convention governing transboundary rivers, embraces two key principles to guide the conduct of nations regarding shared watercourses.  There are "equitable and reasonable use" and "the obligation not to cause significant harm" to both downstream and upstream riparian states.  Article 3 (8) of the CFA states that, the principle that the Nile Basin States exchange information on planned measures through the Nile River Basin Commission.  Article 7 further explained that: in pursuance of their cooperation concerning the use, development and protection of the Nile River Basin and its water resources, Nile Basin States shall on a regular basis exchange readily available and relevant data and information on existing measures and on the condition of water resources of the Basin.  Thus, if both Ethiopia and Egypt would not follow the aforementioned provisions, the two countries` relationship could be seriously compromised. 

Article 4 of the CFA incorporates the same rights of use.  The way the country uses the Nile water, however, should also be done in a way that takes into account the benefit of other riparian countries.  This is also shared by both international laws and the CFA.  The 1929 and 1959 agreement which gives a monopoly of the Nile water to Egypt and Sudan violates these basic principles.

The independence of Southern Sudan also complicates the Nile issue. In the lead up to the Southern Sudan referendum, Egypt was convinced that a separate country would not be in its best interest.  With the failure of all its attempts to delay the referendum, such as the proposed solution of a confederation where the North and South share the same currency and foreign policy, it continued building hospitals, schools, and power stations in the region to gain support.  The new Egyptian Supreme Military Council`s assured the world that it would recognize all the treaties the country had previously committed including the 1929 and the 1959 treaties.  The capacity of a new Egypt to play a positive role in the region  and foster a relationship with Southern Sudan is yet to be seen.  So far Sudan has kept quiet about the new Egypt.   

However, with the much expected separation of Southern Sudan from the North, North Sudan stands to lose, not only much of its oil reserves, but much of its irrigable lands .  It could also lose a significant part of the water  it needs to irrigate its remaining irrigable land.  Southern Sudan is also likely to demand its share of the Nile waters.  Yet, of all the countries through which the Nile flows, Southern Sudan`s position on the CFA is still unclear.  In this context the recent announcement to start the construction of the new dam on the Nile river by Ethiopia serves as a wake up call to the downstream states.

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