It’s like negotiating the rules of engagement long after the contest has been held and the winner declared. Egypt is deeply worried about the impact on its water supply of a dam being built by Ethiopia far to the south, on the Blue Nile.
At a meeting with his Ethiopian and Sudanese counterparts last year, Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi reiterated his country’s concerns while, at the same time, signing what was termed a “declaration of principles” about how the multi-billion dollar scheme – one of the world’s biggest infrastructure projects - should be implemented.
Whatever principles have been agreed on – and these seem rather vague – the project is going ahead. Work on what’s grandly named the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, or GERD, is now more than 70 percent complete. The dam, which will eventually produce 6,000 megawatts of electricity according to its backers, is scheduled to start operations next year.
Ethiopia sees the dam as vital to lifting a large segment of its more than 80 million people out of poverty. It also has ambitions to turn itself into "The powerhouse of Africa" by selling energy produced by the project.
Successive Egyptian administrations seem to have been caught by surprise by Ethiopia’s determination to implement the GERD. The fact that the project is progressing – and has won the support of many of Egypt’s neighbours to the south - is also seen as an indication of Cairo’s waning influence in Africa. Any development which might interfere with the flow of the Nile waters is of great concern to Egypt. Most of its more than 80 million people live within a few kilometres of the river.
The river supplies the bulk of the country’s drinking water and irrigates the Nile Delta, one of the most fertile regions on the planet. Any drop in the level of the Nile as a result of developments upstream could seriously affect water supplies, already under severe pressure.
The Nile also generates about half of Egypt’s electricity through the operation of the Aswan High Dam, built in the 1960s with the help of the Soviet Union.