Egypt is backed into a corner over the Nile dam – it may have no choice but to go to war

Water is not the only vital interest at stake: Egypt’s president and former general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is fighting for his legitimacy

When I warned in March that war between Egypt and Ethiopia over a Nile dam is possible, if they don’t reach an agreement, the official Twitter account of Ethiopia’s foreign ministry accused me of being “alarmist and inaccurate”. Today, negotiations between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia have reached a diplomatic endgame – and, indeed, war looks like the only possible scenario, even as the world is still downplaying its drum-beating.

On Monday, African Union led-talks between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, straddling the Blue Nile, reached another gridlock. Egypt fears that its share of the Nile water will be severely affected if Ethiopia started to fill its 74 billion cubic meters without an agreement with its upstream neighbours, Egypt and Sudan. Cairo wants to guarantee its annual share of water during severe droughts.

But Ethiopia sees filling and operating the dam as a sovereign right, resisting calls for an agreement that doesn’t guarantee new arrangements about its “fair” share too. It also says it will unilaterally start filling up the dam in the next few weeks, regardless of the outcome of these discussion

Satellite photos on Monday showed the dam’s reservoir already beginning to fill, perhaps due to seasonal rains. But if Addis Ababa makes good on its threat, the crisis will likely take a new turn.

Egyptian officials accuse the Ethiopian government of following a series of diplomatic one-upmanship ploys since signing the 2015-Declaration of Principles, which indicates that all parties should reach a deal first before filling the reservoir. But Ethiopian negotiators seem to have taken stock of the diplomatic prowess North Korea showed in its contracted negotiations with the US over denuclearisation. Since Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un’s 2018 joint statement in Singapore, the North Koreans have shown prudence in running the clock on their commitments. Now negotiations are frozen, and an agreement is far from complete. By following the same playbook, dragging its feet, Ethiopia seems to have led the Egyptians into a cul-de-sac.

Water flows through Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam as it undergoes construction work on the river Nile in Guba Woreda, Benishangul Gumuz Region, Ethiopia September 26, 2019. Picture taken September 26, 2019. (Reuters)

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