“What is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam [GERD] really about? Is it just about water, electricity, and agriculture or is it about the regional political weight of the disputing countries? I think it is about both, and this is what makes the decision on the next move for us very delicate,” is how one Egyptian official chose to sum up the complexity of the issues surrounding GERD for Egypt. He argued that whatever Egypt does in the coming weeks and months, it will have to keep one eye on its water rights and the other on its regional positioning.
According to the official, for five years Egypt has tried to “disentangle things”.
“The idea was to deal with GERD as a mega dam being built on the Blue Nile and to reach an agreement with Ethiopia, and with Sudan, which would allow the dam to generate the electricity that was its stated purpose without harming our essential water rights. We thought this could work but it didn’t.”
Now, just eight weeks before Ethiopia plans to begin a second filling of the GERD reservoir without any agreement in place with downstream countries, the official said it has become impossible to continue to approach the problem as a simple water dispute.
Egypt, he explained, has “some really serious concerns over the impact of GERD” on its already limited water resources which is why, “during the first few years of talks, we engaged in lengthy discussions about the number of years Ethiopia would cut water to fill the GERD reservoir and on how much water Ethiopia would block during seasons of drought and extended drought.” But since the failure of the Washington-sponsored talks in January 2020 it has become impossible, he says, “to dismiss what Ethiopia is really up to”.
According to this official, and to other sources close to the GERD file, Ethiopia is not just trying to solve its acute energy problems but is seeking full control of the Blue Nile. And that, say Egyptian officials, could lead to a situation in the future when Addis Ababa might contest Egypt’s “legal annual share of the Nile water” and even “try to get Egypt to buy water from Ethiopia in years of severe drought”. It is a nightmarish scenario that they insist is not something Egypt could contemplate.
While no one assumes such a disturbing scenario will automatically come to pass what is now clear, argue officials, is that Ethiopia wants to use GERD to enhance its influence in East Africa at the expense of Egypt and Sudan.
According to Hani Raslan, an expert on East Africa at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, Ethiopian Prime Minister “Abiy Ahmed has always looked to position himself as the leader of the Horn of Africa.”
“And today,” argues Raslan, “despite the internal problems he faces with so many military conflicts unfolding in Ethiopia, including in areas not far from GERD, Ahmed has still not given up on this scheme.”
Raslan points to the way Ahmed has tried to lobby regional and international powers as evidence of his determination to establish Addis Ababa as the most prominent player in the region. “I am talking about African, Arab, and Western countries — and at times he has been successful,” says Raslan.
Lulled by Ahmed’s offer to help mediate the political crisis that Sudan was facing following the ouster of Omar Al-Bashir two years ago — an offer, says Raslan, motivated more by enhancing Ethiopian regional leadership than any desire to promote democracy in Sudan — it took Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, and the Water Minister Yasser Abbas, some time “to realise what Ahmed was really up to”.
“Today,” says Raslan, “Sudanese officials know better than to count on Ahmed’s good intentions.”
In July 2020, Ethiopia went ahead with the first filling of the reservoir, involving around 5bcm of water. This year it announced that it would execute a second filling, involving triple the amount of water, to allow for two of the dam’s turbines to begin operating. While Sudan soft-pedalled its criticisms of Ethiopia’s first dam filling in the absence of an agreement, it has publicly threatened to pursue legal action against Ethiopia before the International Court of Justice and other legal forums ahead of the second filling.
Raslan argues this shift in the position of Sudan is important not only because it lends support to Egypt’s characterisation of Ethiopia as intransigent, but because it deprives Ethiopia of a chance to present itself as the leading regional player in the Horn of Africa.
Sudan’s threat of legal action against Ethiopia was announced as Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri was touring several African countries to lobby support for Cairo’s position. Shoukri visited Tunisia and Kenya, both non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, South Africa, the former chair of the African Union (AU), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the current AU chair, Comoros, Niger, and Senegal.
According to the Foreign Ministry spokesman, during his tour Shoukri delivered a message from President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to African leaders stressing the urgent need for Ethiopia to negotiate in good faith to reach an agreement that secures the interests of the three countries involved in the GERD standoff.
The need to pressure Ethiopia to negotiate in good faith, and with the will necessary to reach a mutually beneficial agreement for all three countries, was at the heart of the letters both Shoukri and his Sudanese counterpart Mariam Sadek Al-Mahdi sent to the UN Security Council earlier this month in the wake of the failed talks mediated by the DRC.
While Ethiopia had signalled that it might be willing to resume negotiations, it said it would only do so if they were conducted under AU auspices. Yet Shoukri and Sadek characterised the AU mediated talks as “fruitless” and “failed” in their respective letters to the UN Security Council.
Addis Ababa declined an offer from Hamdok to have a meeting at prime ministerial level in Khartoum in order to move beyond the failed talks in Kinshasa. It also refused an earlier Sudanese proposal to allow for a quartet of the AU, the EU, the UN, and the US to mediate a deal. And according to official sources in Cairo, it is trying to block a DRC attempt to hold a summit of the three countries and the chair of the AU and its bureau prior to the second filling.
The three countries have also failed to agree to a UAE proposal to facilitate back-channel diplomacy in the hope of hammering out “alternatives”.
According to a statement issued by the presidential spokesman, GERD was one of the issues President Al-Sisi discussed with UAE Vice President Mohamed bin Zayed during the latter’s brief stopover in Cairo on Sunday.
On Tuesday it appeared that Addis Ababa was preparing for the dispute to escalate, with Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry issuing a statement saying it rejected all Egyptian and Sudanese demands. Dina Mufti, spokesperson for the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry, also said Cairo’s and Khartoum’s use of historical agreements to back their claims to Nile water was “unacceptable”.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly