Ethiopia’s leadership has a strange negotiating style, technically and diplomatically, on matters of life and death such as the mega dam it is building. The dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) peaked again following a phone call from US President Donald Trump to Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok last week urging a solution to the crisis before it spins out of control. Ethiopia merely shrugged off the US president’s appeal to show more flexibility and take Egypt’s concerns into consideration, and issued new ultimatums. They would not abide by colonial era treaties, they would proceed with the construction and filling of the dam, and there was no point speaking with anyone who refused to accept this, officials in Addis Ababa said.
The following day, the EU urged the resumption of negotiations over GERD, saying that an agreement on the rules for filling the dam was “within reach”. However, Ethiopia persisted in its intransigence. It claimed that such a statement could undermine the negotiations that are being mediated by the African Union (AU). Unfortunately, all the rounds of talks convened by the AU chair have failed utterly to bridge the gap between the parties, which was perhaps as Ethiopia intended. Even as negotiations were in progress, Ethiopia began the first filling of the dam. Ethiopia’s claim that it refused to compromise its right to benefit from Nile waters was nothing but a flagrant smokescreen as Egypt has repeatedly acknowledged the Ethiopian people’s right to development and to share the Nile in a manner that benefits all countries of the Nile basin.
Washington is also keen for Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa to return to the negotiating table and reach an acceptable agreement that observes Egypt’s right to life. Surely Egyptians’ right to water in order to ensure their right to life should take priority over the Ethiopian government’s ambition to build a mega dam that far exceeds its electricity generating needs. It is important to bear in mind that the original design for the dam was much smaller. Then the specifications changed to create a project that now threatens to gravely reduce Egypt’s quota of Nile waters.
The US administration expressed its regret that Addis Ababa failed to appear for the anticipated signing of an agreement that Washington had brokered and that offered a unique opportunity to end this potentially dangerous dispute. Ethiopia opted to jettison that opportunity and start from scratch. At the time it said that “African problems should be solved by Africans”, so it would work with the chair of the African Union. This, of course, proved a mere ruse because, as we can see, it is now talking about proceeding with the second stage of filling the reservoir with no consideration for the concerns for the water needs of downstream nations, or for the need to share technical data related to the safety of the dam’s structure and operations.
The international community now realises which party is violating international law out of determination to monopolise decisions on a hydraulic project that could cause major humanitarian disasters. The international community knows that the Nile is Egypt’s life-giving artery, which makes it impossible for Egyptians to compromise on their right to their full quota of Nile waters. At the same time, Egypt cannot continue with the current mode of Ethiopian bargaining, which proceeds from the premise that Addis Ababa is in a much stronger position than Khartoum and Cairo just because Addis Ababa can control how much water they can get.
Ethiopia’s disgraceful unilateral behaviour violates all international laws and conventions on international watercourses, and the international community must act to stop it. This said, despite Ethiopia’s harmful statements, Egypt continues to reaffirm its support for Ethiopian development efforts and the need to bring electricity to areas that are still deprived of it. Cairo has also reiterated its willingness to help. As the Egyptian minister of irrigation said only a few days ago, “our arms are wide open to Ethiopia for cooperation.”
Egypt believes that there is always a middle road that can resolve a crisis. It understands that each party to this crisis has certain concerns and aims. Sudan is naturally worried about the technical safety of the dam. Egypt needs concrete reassurance regarding arrangements for periods of regular and extended draught. Ethiopia is eager to begin generating electricity as soon as possible. But there is always a diplomatic way to reconcile these concerns.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly