KHARTOUM — Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on Monday signed an initial agreement on sharing water from the Nile River that runs through the three countries, as Addis Ababa presses ahead with its construction of a massive new dam it hopes will help alleviate the country's power shortages.
The dam had been an issue of contention among the three countries, with Egypt concerned it would reduce its share of the Nile established under a colonial-era agreement that gave Egypt and Sudan the main rights to exploit the river's water.
But on Monday, leaders of the three nations — Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Sudanese President Omar Bashir and Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn — welcomed the agreement in speeches in Khartoum's Republican Palace, linking hands and smiling at a signing ceremony.
"While you are working for the development of your people, keep in mind the Egyptian people, for whom the Nile is not only a source of water, but a source of life," el-Sissi said, addressing his Ethiopian counterpart after the three watched a short film about the Grand Renaissance Dam highlighting how it could benefit the region.
Cairo previously had voiced fears that Ethiopia's $4.2 billion hydro-electric project, announced in 2011, would diminish its share of the Nile, which provides almost all of the desert nation's water needs, especially under previous governments.
The agreement, hashed out by officials from the three countries weeks beforehand in Khartoum, outlines principles by which they will cooperate to use the water fairly and resolve any potential disputes peacefully, leaving details on specific procedures to be determined later after the release of joint, expert studies.
"The Egyptians don't really have any other options," said Ethiopian water researcher Seifulaziz Milas, adding that once the dam had been built and the land behind it flooded, the amount of water flowing down the Nile would return to normal. "It's just a question of filling up the reservoir, after that there's nowhere else for the water to go besides downstream."
Until recently, Ethiopia had abided by the colonial-era agreement that gives downstream Egypt and Sudan rights to the Nile water, with Egypt taking 55.5 billion cubic meters and Sudan 18.5 billion cubic meters of the total of 84 billion cubic meters, with 10 billion lost to evaporation.
That agreement, first signed in 1929, took no account of the eight other nations along the 6,700-kilometer (4,160-mile) river and its basin, which have been agitating for a decade for a more equitable accord.
But in 2013, Ethiopia's parliament unanimously ratified a new accord that replaced previous deals that awarded Egypt veto powers over Nile projects. They said at the time that work on the dam, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Sudan's eastern border, will continue during consultations with Cairo, and that experts had already agreed that the dam would not significantly affect water flow to both Egypt and Sudan.
In his speech in Khartoum, el-Sissi said that Egypt was a dry country that used its 55.5 billion cubic meter-share of the water, whereas other countries through which it flowed received much more rainfall.
Experts have estimated that Egypt could lose as much as 20 percent of its Nile water in the three to five years needed for Ethiopia to fill the dam's massive reservoir.
Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan sign accord on River Nile