Pope Francis Appeals for Dialogue Between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over Nile Dam Project

Ethiopia's Grand Renaissance Dam under construction on the river Nile in Guba Woreda, Benishangul Gumuz Region, Ethiopia.
Credit: Public Domain

Pope Francis has expressed his awareness of the conflict over the Nile Dam project, which he follows “with particular attention” and called for dialogue between the three African nations involved.

In the Saturday, August 15 message after the Angelus prayer at the Vatican, the Holy Father asks the leadership of Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan to “continue on the path of dialogue” in view of resolving differences arising from the ongoing construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue River Nile amicably.

“I am following with particular attention the situation of the difficult negotiations regarding the Nile between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan,” Pope Francis said.

He added, “I invite all parties to continue on the path of dialogue so that the Eternal River might continue to be a source of life that unites, not divides, that always nourishes friendship, prosperity, fraternity, and never enmity, misunderstanding or conflict.” 

Located in Western Ethiopia, the US$4billion GERD project has been considered one of the world’s most controversial dam projects due to the protracted international dispute it has triggered between the three African countries over the sharing of the waters of the Blue Nile River.

The Blue Nile is a major tributary of arguably the world’s longest river, the Nile River, contributing up to 80 percent of its waters in the rainy season. The Nile flows through eleven countries among them Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt.

With more than 80 percent of the river’s water being in Ethiopia’s territory, the leadership of the landlocked country considers the Nile a natural resource that it can use to boost its economy through power production and exportation and consequently improve the living standards of its people amid reports of significant poverty levels.

Set to commence operations by the end of 2022, the dam whose construction started in April 2011 will be the largest hydroelectric dam in Africa, doubling Ethiopia’s power generation capacity and thus allowing for export to neighboring countries within the East African regions.

For Egypt, a desert nation relying on the waters of the Nile to support its agricultural sector and from which 90 percent of its freshwater supply is sourced, the dam is an existential threat to its 100 million.

Sudan, which is geographically sandwiched between Ethiopia and Egypt is worried about the project’s safety as it could endanger its own dams.

Efforts by various mediators including the US government to resolve the differences have so far been unsuccessful, with Sudan and Ethiopia demanding for a deal to be reached before Ethiopia starts filling the dam’s 74 billion cubic-metre reservoir.

Tension among the three countries peaked in July after Ethiopia announced that it had completed the first filling stage of the reservoir, a move that irked the other two countries as it seemed to go against their desire that Ethiopia does not start the filling process until an agreement about how the process will be managed is reached.

A proposal by Addis Ababa to extend the scope of a deal on the operations of the GERD project to cover the waters of the Blue Nile scuttled ongoing negotiations early in the month, as Sudan and Egypt suspended the talks.

However, on Sunday, August 16, the three countries agreed to resume negotiations on Tuesday, August 18 under the auspices of the current African Union (AU) Chairperson, South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa.

“Let dialogue, dear brothers and sisters of Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, let dialogue be your only choice, for the good of your dear populations and of the entire world,” Pope Francis appealed in his August 15 message.

The Holy Father is the latest Church leader to address the controversy around the GERD project. 

In late July, the President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Ethiopia, Berhaneyesus Cardinal Souraphiel termed the dam the tool for Ethiopia “to get out of poverty, to guarantee school accessible to everyone – especially in the lockdown period when it was not possible for many children to connect from home.”

The Ethiopian Cardinal added, “As a Catholic Church, we have expressed a clear position that aims at a just solution for fair use of these international waters.”

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