Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said his country was pursuing “diplomacy and patience” on the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) issue, although he added firmly that “no one will compromise on Egypt’s water quota.” This rather firm statement by the Egyptian President came after Ethiopia announced plans to unilaterally implement the third phase of filling the mega-dam reservoir in August and September, despite the fact that it has not yet reached a legally binding agreement with Egypt and Sudan to fill and operate the dam, for whom the waters of the Nile are a matter of life and death. Addis Ababa has unilaterally embarked on the first two phases of filling the reservoir over the past two years and began the first phase of power generation at the dam in February this year, ignoring the strong objections of the two downstream Nile countries.
There was a sharp and literally angry response in Cairo to the latest statement by Kifle Horo, the new head of the GERD project, who put it rather cynically when asked how his country would respond to Egyptian and Sudanese concerns about GERD’s third fill: “It’s none of our concern.” How can this not concern Ethiopia when water resources form an essential part of the two countries’ economies, and Egypt itself is famously said to be a gift of the Nile? In doing so, Egyptian columnist Mostafa Ahmadi notes, the Ethiopian government and officials have revealed their true attitude towards the construction of GERD, clearly rejecting the interests of the peoples of Egypt and Sudan.
Incidentally, Kifle Horo was appointed to this post after former general manager Simegnew Bekele tragically died. Official reports claim that he allegedly committed suicide, although there are persistent rumors in the media that he was killed by unknown assailants. Many journalists in Addis Ababa link the killing to his professional activities and hint at the involvement of “certain forces from neighboring countries.”
At a ceremony attended by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, the project manager made it clear that construction of the dam would not stop “for any reason” and would be completed within two years. He added that Egypt’s and Sudan’s statements on the dangers of GERD “do not concern” Ethiopia, arguing that Addis Ababa had not violated the 2015 Declaration of Principles, which the three countries signed, regarding the filling process. Reiterating Ethiopian arguments, he insisted, according to the Egyptian media, on ignoring the many Egyptian and international studies confirming that a dam with an ongoing process of unilateral filling by Ethiopia is likely to cause serious danger to both Egypt and Sudan.
Egypt, the last country downstream of the Nile with no other source of water for drinking or irrigation, will certainly suffer. Sudan, with GERD very close to the border with Ethiopia, is entitled to strong assurances that the dam will not cause massive flooding in the event of any deficiencies in its structure. Further claims that Ethiopia has consistently shared information about GERD with Egypt and Sudan and intends to do no harm to the two downstream countries are nonsensical and untrue, Al-Ahram reports. The information conveyed was scarce and mostly came after unilateral moves by Addis Ababa, not at all in the spirit of negotiations or willingness to reach a long-term binding agreement.
Such an agreement, guaranteed by regional and international partners such as the African Union, the European Union and the World Bank, is a key demand of both Egypt and Sudan. Despite the statements that keep coming from Addis Ababa, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said Cairo is always ready for dialogue on GERD, describing the issue as an existential one and a matter of national security for Egypt and its people.
Egypt and Sudan have been negotiating with Ethiopia for more than 10 years to reach a legally binding and comprehensive agreement to fill and operate the GERD, which Addis Ababa began building on the Blue Nile in 2010. At the time, the agreement was partly ready to be concluded by all three countries, but Prime Minister Ahmed decided to withdraw from it without good reason. Nevertheless, anyone following the recent events in Ethiopia, Al-Ahram wrote, has no doubt that the Ethiopian government is using the GERD for purely populist purposes, aimed at garnering support for a belligerent prime minister who has failed to maintain stability in his country since taking office. The suffering that the war in Tigray has caused millions of Ethiopians is only the latest sad example.
Addis Ababa, the headquarters of the African Union (AU), has for years maintained that it would only accept African mediation and rejected the decision by Egypt and Sudan to approach the United Nations Security Council. However, the last round of AU-sponsored negotiations between the three countries over GERD in Kinshasa (DRC) ended in a complete collapse in April 2021, and all attempts to revive the negotiations since then have failed. It is high time, Cairo believes, for the AU to take a clear position and let the world know which side has rejected mediation and efforts to reach an agreement.
Egypt, which argues that the GERD poses a threat not only to downstream countries but also to regional peace and security, as it would set a dangerous precedent for the way countries settle water disputes, has consistently made its claims to Addis Ababa. However, as always, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry notes, this will be done responsibly and in consultation with the AU and other international partners. Cairo has repeatedly stated that it has no objection to Ethiopia using the dam to generate the electricity needed for its development plans. Nevertheless, it strongly rejects any unilateral action by Ethiopia that jeopardizes an already insufficient share of water in the Nile or changes its structure.
Be that as it may, and in this the Egyptian leadership is united, it will not give up its inalienable rights to the Nile water and will continue to defend the right to life of the Egyptian people. Egypt says it does not intend to lose a single cubic meter of its legally binding water quota, that is, unless it works to double it to meet the growing needs of its population, which has grown to 100 million. And this means that the need for Egyptians to have permanent access to the Nile’s water forces Cairo to keep a close eye on all countries and demand that they refrain from building future dams on the Blue Nile without Egypt’s prior notice and consent, as stipulated in the legally binding historic water agreements.
It should be said that a similar view is held by Sudan, which considers the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam to be a threat to its water supply and, together with Egypt, insists on a binding tripartite agreement to fill and operate it. These disputes have already led to a border dispute in the Al-Fashaka region and to heightened tensions between rival powers Sudan and Ethiopia over land and water in the Horn of Africa. Khartoum recalled its ambassador from Addis Ababa and called on Ethiopians to settle the dispute over Nile water at the negotiating table. But the Ethiopian government continues to insist on its right to unilaterally dispose of the waters of the Blue Nile. And such a view could sooner or later lead to widespread hostilities between the three countries to resolve the GERD dispute.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.