The polite diplomatic façade was maintained but the words of the Egyptian and Ethiopian representatives revealed a belligerence that was hard to disguise.
The recent meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss Ethiopia’s huge hydro-electric plant, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (Gerd), straddling the Blue Nile, was held by teleconference.
The social distance that the participants observed underscored the diplomatic gulf.
It is a gulf that threatens to sweep up the populations of the two countries into a nationalist fervour and mutual distrust.
The Gerd, which sits on the Nile’s main tributary, is upstream of Egypt and has the potential to control the flow of water that the country almost entirely relies on.
It also will be, when fully operational, the largest hydro-electric plant in Africa, and projected to provide power to 65 million Ethiopians, who currently lack a regular electricity supply.
The construction, which began in 2011, is almost complete.
For the Egyptian and Ethiopian representatives at the UN meeting, the very existence of their countries was at stake.
“A threat of potentially existential proportions has emerged that could encroach on the single source of livelihood of over 100 million Egyptians,” the country’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said.
Using similar language, Ethiopia’s UN ambassador Taye Atske-Selassie countered: “For Ethiopia, accessing and utilising its water resources is not a matter of choice, but of existential necessity.”
When to fill up the dam
The rhetoric may disguise that after nearly a decade of talking, the two countries have managed to agree on a lot of things, but the crucial questions of how and when to fill up the dam, and how much water it should release, remain unresolved.
Years of bilateral and multilateral talks, expert commissions, an agreed Declaration of Principles between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan, the third country affected, have still not settled these basic issues.
And now we are at a point where Ethiopia says it will unilaterally start filling up the dam in the next few weeks to coincide with the rainy season. It is a process that is expected to take up to seven years.
For Ethiopia, the construction and filling of the dam are not two separate events, one of the country’s negotiators Zerihun Abebe told the BBC.
“The Egyptians tried to confuse the international community” by suggesting that they are different things, he added, and argued that the 2015 Declaration of Principles allowed for Ethiopia to go ahead.
But this is not how Egypt sees it.