Ethiopia’s downstream disaster scenario

Ezzat Ibrahim
Thursday 18 Jun 2020

After futile rounds and more time lost, Egypt has thrown up its hands in despair at the lack of progress made in recent meetings between the water resources and irrigation ministers from Sudan and Ethiopia. In its official statements, Cairo has described the ongoing negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) as a continuation of Ethiopian intransigence and its design to impose a de facto reality. The breakdown in negotiations fits perfectly with the scheme that Ethiopia has been pursuing for years with the aim of monopolising the management of the sources of the Blue Nile and building dams to whatever specifications it wishes, then filling and operating them without agreeing with downstream nations over rules and principles. In other words, it has set course for a flagrant violation of international law and a scenario that, as an official Egyptian statement put it, “compels Egypt and Sudan to either sign a document that puts them at Ethiopia’s mercy or watch Ethiopia take unilateral measures such as beginning to fill the GERD reservoir without having reached an agreement with the downstream nations”.

In the recent meetings, Egypt adhered the “21 February Document” as a baseline for negotiations. The Ethiopians had promised to submit a comprehensive proposal to the meetings while Sudan reaffirmed its position as laid out in the compromise solution it presented 9 June. However, the disturbing proposal on the rules for filling and operating the dam that Ethiopia presented during the tripartite ministerial meeting last Thursday brought the talks to a halt. As the official Egyptian statement put it, the proposal was “technically and legally unacceptable”. Rejected by both Cairo and Khartoum, it demonstrated a clear lack of the will to reach a just and equitable solution and betrayed the Ethiopian intent to utilise the waters of a transnational river without restraints and without regard for the rights and interests of other countries that rely on these waters.

Both Egypt and Sudan, as they have repeatedly made clear, want all parties to commit to a binding legal document that governs the filling and operations of GERD in a manner that safeguards the rights of all three countries. Addis Ababa, in contrast, wants to force Cairo and Khartoum into signing a “non-binding agreement” thereby relinquishing their rights and conceding to Ethiopia’s unconditional utilisation of Nile waters through its unilateral control of the filling and operation of GERD. Ethiopia plans to toy with the lives of more than 140 million Sudanese and Egyptians living on the banks of the Nile. This is patently obvious from the fact that the Ethiopian proposal contains no guarantees for periods of drought and extended drought, and no form of protection for Egypt and Sudan from the significant harm that they could suffer due to the filling and operation of the dam. Particularly revealing in the Ethiopian paper is Addis Ababa’s unwarranted claim to an absolute right to alter the rules for filling and operating the dam unilaterally, on the basis of electricity production levels at GERD, without having to take into consideration the welfare of downstream nations.

One is surprised at the brazenness with which the Ethiopian proposal aimed to jettison all agreements and understandings that the three parties had previously reached over the course of their negotiations which have dragged on almost a full decade. This includes the understandings reached during the negotiating rounds brokered by Washington and attended by the World Bank, not least being the “21 February Document” that Addis Ababa only subsequently claimed was biased against it. Ethiopia will stop at nothing in its ruses to buy time, evade talks and avoid commitment until it acts on its ultimatum to begin filling the dam unilaterally in July.

The Ethiopian attitude is regrettable and unacceptable. It is devoid of the cooperative spirit and the sense of good neighbourliness which Africans wish would prevail between their nations, especially those that share water or other natural resources. It is an aggressive mode of behaviour that should galvanise regional and international organisations and parties to step in quickly before the situation grows worse, and above all before Ethiopia puts the lives of millions of people in the Nile Valley at risk because they have only a single source of water — the Nile — while Ethiopia possesses river basins each fed by dozens of tributaries.

Ethiopia is playing games with the Nile to accomplish domestic political ends. To Egypt, where millions of lives depend on the Nile, this is no game. It is doing its best to contain a perilous situation. But the international community had better act quickly in order to forestall the disaster scenario that Ethiopia has set into motion.

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