Ethiopia‘s parliament unanimously ratified on Thursday a treaty, which strips Egypt of its right to the lion’s share of the Nile River waters, raising the political temperature in a dispute between Cairo and Addis Ababa over the construction of a dam.
The parliament’s move follows days of irate exchanges between two of Africa’s most populous nations over Ethiopia’s new hydroelectric plant, which Egypt fears will reduce a water supply vital for its 84 million people.
Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi said on Monday he did not want “war”, but would keep “all options open”, prompting Ethiopia to say it was ready to defend its $4.7bn Great Renaissance Dam near the border with Sudan.
Six Nile basin countries including Ethiopia have signed a deal effectively stripping Cairo of its veto, which is based in colonial-era treaties, over dam projects on the Nile, source of nearly all Egypt’s water.
Ethiopia’s late leader Meles Zenawi had delayed parliamentary ratification until Egypt elected a new government.
“Most of the upstream countries have approved it through their parliaments. We delayed it as a gesture of goodwill to the people of Egypt until a formal elected government was in place,” Ethiopian government spokesperson Bereket Simon told Reuters.
“We have a principled stance on the construction of dams. We are determined to see our projects brought to completion.”
Another government spokesperson, Shimeles Kemal, said Ethiopia’s 547-seat legislature had voted to “incorporate the treaty into domestic law”.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr is expected to travel to Addis Ababa on Sunday for talks about the dam, though Ethiopia’s foreign ministry has said there can be no question of suspending construction.
An Ethiopian foreign ministry spokesperson has said the talks with Egypt are “in the spirit of Ethiopian interests”.
The African Union (AU) has urged both sides to hold talks to resolve the row.
Under a 1929 pact, Egypt is entitled to 55.5 billion cubic metres a year of the Nile’s flow of around 84 billion cubic metres.
But, along with other upstream neighbours such as Kenya and Sudan, Ethiopia argues that this pact is outdated.
Ethiopia has also dismissed the talk of military action as “psychological warfare”.
Officials in Addis Ababa say a technical analysis compiled by experts from Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt provides assurances to downstream nations, which the dam being built by an Italian firm will not have a negative impact on the river’s water levels.
A 10-person Egypt-Sudan-Ethiopia experts panel concluded that the dam will not “significantly affect” water flow to Egypt and Sudan, according to Ethiopian officials. Sudan said it accepts the outcome of the finding and this week announced that it supports Ethiopia’s project.
Ethiopia’s 547-member parliament unanimously endorsed the new Nile River Cooperative Framework Agreement, an accord already signed by five other Nile River countries.
The accord, sometimes referred to as the Entebbe Agreement, is the product of decade-long negotiations. It was conceived to replace the 1929 treaty written by Britain that awarded Egypt veto power over upstream countries’ Nile projects. Sudan and Egypt signed a deal in 1959 splitting the Nile waters between them without giving other countries consideration.
The new cooperative agreement — signed by Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Burundi — aims to establish a commission to oversee Nile projects. Congo and South Sudan, which succeeded from Sudan in 2011, have announced plans to join the new pact. Eritrea is participating as an observer in the 10-nation Nile Basin Initiative.
Egypt has previously said that it accepts most of the new agreement. But it opposes a clause saying member countries would work to ensure “not to significantly affect the water security of any other Nile Basin State.” Egypt wanted the clause to say countries would not “adversely affect the water security and current uses and rights of any other Nile” states.
Ethiopian Minister of Water and Energy Alemayehu Tegenu told parliament that Ethiopia made two bold decisions concerning the dam. The first, he said, was to postpone ratification of the agreement by a year to accommodate Egypt’s request for time until an elected government was in place.
“The second one was to let experts, including from Egypt and Sudan, inspect our Renaissance Dam,” he said. “No other country does this but we did it in cooperation and friendly spirit. But we are seeing how our good intentions are being responded to. We can no longer wait. We need to go ahead with the ratification.”
After ratifying the legislation, lawmakers called on the other five signatory countries to follow suit.
Ethiopia’s Renaissance Dam has been under construction for two years on the Blue Nile River in Ethiopia near Sudan.