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The United States Must Not Pick Sides in the Nile River Dispute

Ethiopia and Egypt are at odds over a Nile dam. Washington should be helping them compromise, rather than doing Cairo’s bidding.

gypt and Ethiopia have once again locked horns over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile. On Feb. 26, Ethiopia temporarily suspended its participation in the U.S.-mediated negotiations over the filling and operation of the GERD, requesting more time to deliberate on the draft agreement. With the dam 70 percent complete and its reservoir expected to start being filled in July, the time for reaching an agreement is ticking away. Ethiopia and Egypt should be ready to make significant concessions to avoid a catastrophic escalation in this seemingly intractable dispute.

The longest river in the world, the Nile stretches across 11 countries in its journey of 4,000 miles from the equatorial rivers that feed Lake Victoria to its final destination in the Mediterranean Sea. Among the countries that share the Nile, two have the most at stake. Egypt, a desert nation of 100 million people, is literally the creation of the Nile, relying on the river for 90 percent of its freshwater needs.

Ethiopia, an East African country of 112 million, contributes the lion’s share of the Nile waters, with its three tributaries—the Blue Nile, Sobat, and Atbara—carrying about 84 percent of the total runoff in the Nile. With a growing but otherwise resource-poor economy, Ethiopia is keen to develop its vast potential for hydroelectricity generation

The GERD, a $5 billion project that will be the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa, is a part of that ambition. The dam is located on Ethiopia’s flank of the Blue Nile, just 12 miles from its border with Sudan. It will have paramount economic value to Ethiopia, doubling the country’s electricity generation capacity and earning as much as a billion dollars annually from energy exports to Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya, and potentially Egypt. The GERD’s massive reservoir will store 74 billion cubic meters (BCM) of water, roughly equal to a year-and-half’s worth of the Blue Nile’s flow, which will be gradually filled upon the dam’s completion.

The Blue Nile is highly seasonal, with 80 percent of its discharge occurring from July to October during the short rainy season on the Ethiopian highlands. This makes it prone to heavy flooding, while the heavy sedimentation it carries reduces hydropower production in dams with small reservoirs. The GERD will help mitigate this, leading to a regulated, steady flow that will improve navigation, irrigation, and hydropower generation downstream. Sudan, which does not have a major dam on the Nile, will enjoy most of these benefits, which explains its decision to side with Ethiopia for the first time in the history of Nile politics.

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