CAIRO - The latest breakdown in talks with Ethiopia and Sudan over its construction of a massive upstream Nile dam has left Egypt with dwindling options as it seeks to protect the main source of freshwater for its large and growing population.
Talks collapsed earlier this month over the construction of the $5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), which is around 70% complete and promises to provide much-needed electricity to Ethiopia's 100 million people.
But Egypt, with a population of around the same size, fears that the process of filling the reservoir behind the dam could slice into its share of the river, with catastrophic consequences.
Egypt sees GERD as an existential risk, fearing it will threaten scarce water supplies in Egypt and power generation at its own dam in Aswan. Pro-government media have cast it as a national security threat that could warrant military action.
Speaking at the UN last month, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi said he would "never" allow Ethiopia to impose a "de facto situation" by filling the dam without an agreement.
"While we acknowledge Ethiopia's right to development, the water of the Nile is a question of life, a matter of existence to Egypt," he said.
Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewude, also speaking at the UN General Assembly, said her country believes "the use of the river should be (decided) according to international law and fair and equitable use of natural resources."
Sudan has also irritated Egyptian officials by staunchly defending its interests in talks. Ethiopia’s plans for the dam would allow Sudan to retain its full share of the Nile water, and would also enable it to put millions of acres of unused land into agricultural production.
Sudan also expects to benefit from the dam's hydroelectricity production. Sudan's stance has frustrated Egypt to the point that it openly referred to Khartoum as a "biased intermediary" that favours the Ethiopian position.
Egyptian officials said on Sunday that Cairo will push Ethiopia this week to agree to an external mediator to help resolve the deepening dispute.
Egypt has been holding talks for years with Ethiopia and Sudan, which are both upstream countries that have long complained about Cairo's overwhelming share of the river. That share is enshrined in treaties dating back to the British colonial era. The talks between the riparian states came to an acrimonious halt earlier this month, the third time they have broken down since 2014.
"We are fed up with Ethiopian procrastination. We will not spend our lifetime in useless talks," an Egyptian official told The Associated Press. "All options are on the table, but we prefer dialogue and political means."
Ethiopia has denied that three-way talks are stalled, accusing Egypt of trying to sidestep the process.
Sisi is set to raise the demand for a mediator with Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, on Wednesday in the Russian city of Sochi, on the sidelines of a Russia-Africa summit. They may be able to revive talks, but the stakes get higher as the dam nears completion.
“We’re hoping this meeting might produce an agreement on the participation of a fourth party,” an Egyptian foreign ministry official told journalists at a briefing. “We’re hopeful to reach a formula in the next few weeks.”
Egyptian officials said they had suggested the World Bank as a fourth party mediator, but were also open to the role being filled by a country with technical experience on water sharing issues.
Cairo has reached out to the United States, Russia, China and Europe, in the hope of reaching a better deal through international mediation. The White House said earlier this month it supports talks to reach a sustainable agreement while "respecting each other's Nile water equities."
Mohamed el-Molla, an Egyptian Foreign Ministry official, said Cairo would take the dispute to the UN Security Council if the Ethiopians refuse international mediation.
That has angered Ethiopia, which wants to resolve the dispute through the tripartite talks. An Ethiopian official said the packages offered by Cairo so far "were deliberately prepared to be unacceptable for Ethiopia."
"Now they are saying Ethiopia has rejected the offer, and calling for a third-party intervention," the official added. Both the Ethiopian and the Egyptian official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the talks with the media.
In recent weeks there have been calls by some commentators in Egypt's pro-government media to resort to force. Abdallah el-Senawy, a prominent columnist for the daily newspaper el-Shorouk, said the only alternatives were internationalizing the dispute or taking military action.
"Egypt is not a small county," he wrote in a Sunday column. "If all diplomatic and legal options fail, a military intervention might be obligatory."
Anwar el-Hawary, the former editor of the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, compared the dispute to the 1973 war with Israel, in which Egypt launched a surprise attack into the Sinai Peninsula.
"If we fought to liberate Sinai, it is logical to fight to liberate the water," he wrote on Facebook. "The danger is the same in the two cases. War is the last response."
Ahmed told Ethiopian lawmakers on Tuesday that negotiations are the best chance for resolving the Nile deadlock and that going to war is "not in the best interest of all of us."
Water management disputes
The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, warned earlier this year that the "risk of future clashes could be severe if the parties do not also reach agreement on a longer-term basin-wide river management framework."
Egypt draws almost all of its fresh water supplies from the Nile, and is faced with worsening water scarcity for its population of nearly 100 million. It says it is working to reduce the amount of water used in agriculture.
The main dispute is centered on the filling of the dam's 74-billion-cubic-meter reservoir. Ethiopia wants to fill it as soon as possible so it can generate over 6,400 Megawatts of electricity, a massive boost to the current production of 4,000 Megawatts.
That has the potential to sharply reduce the flow of the Blue Nile, the main tributary to the river, which is fed by annual rainfall in the Ethiopian highlands. If the filling takes place during one of the region's periodic droughts, its downstream impact could be even more severe.
Egypt has proposed no less than seven years for filling the reservoir, and for Ethiopia to adjust the pace according to rainfall, said an Egyptian Irrigation Ministry official who is a member of its negotiation team. The official also was not authorized to discuss the talks publicly and so spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Nile supplies more than 90% of Egypt's freshwater. Egyptians already have one of the lowest per capita shares of water in the world, at around 570 cubic meters per year, compared to a global average of 1,000. Ethiopians, however, have an even lower average share of 125 cubic meters per year.
Egypt's per capita water share is expected to drop to 500 cubic meters by 2025, without taking into account any reduction in supply caused by GERD, Egyptian officials said. Hydrologists consider a country to be facing water scarcity if supplies drop below 1,000 cubic meters per person per year.
Egypt wants to guarantee a minimum annual release of 40 billion cubic meters of water from the Blue Nile. The irrigation official said anything less could affect Egypt's own massive Aswan High Dam, with dire economic consequences.
"It could put millions of farmers out of work. We might lose more than one million jobs and $1.8 billion annually, as well as $300 million worth of electricity," he said.
The official said Ethiopia has agreed to guarantee just 31 billion cubic meters.
Ethiopia hopes to finish the much-delayed project by 2023. The dam's manager, Kifle Horro, said the project is now 68.5% complete and preparations are underway to finalize power generation from two turbines by next year.
Ethiopia is expected to start filling the GERD reservoir next year.