The statement issued on 20 January by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed entitled “The GERD (Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam) as a Site of Cooperation” may be a step in the right direction, but only if it is followed by concrete steps that confirm Addis Ababa’s intention to truly cooperate with Egypt and Sudan to solve their differences over the dam’s expected disastrous consequences for the two downstream countries.
In his statement, Ahmed altered his traditional, arrogant and populist tone concerning the GERD, declaring instead: “It is time for our three countries, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan to nurture the narrative towards building peace, cooperation, mutual co-existence and development of all our people without harming one another.” This is an advice that could have saved the three countries lengthy and fruitless rounds of negotiations over 10 years had Ahmed followed it himself.
Yet, he chose instead to abuse the negotiations sponsored by the African Union and the United States, in order to waste time and to establish facts on the ground, without any regard for the valid concerns of Egypt and Sudan, or the dozens of proposals made by the two countries in hopes of reaching common ground that truly serves the interests of all.
Responding to Ahmed’s statement, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri stressed that Egypt has always been prepared to resume talks with Ethiopia regarding the GERD in case the “political will” was present to reach an agreement. Long before Ahmed’s recent statement, Egypt and Sudan had expressed their readiness to resume the African Union-sponsored talks on GERD, which stalled in April last year over Ethiopia’s intransigence. The outbreak of Civil War in Tigray region, which nearly toppled the government in Addis Ababa and caused widespread atrocities, displacement and suffering, further complicated the prospect of negotiations. Hopefully, Ahmed’s positive statement on the GERD is not a ploy to divert international attention away from the atrocities committed by the Ethiopian army in Tigray.
Meanwhile, the general positive and conciliatory tone of Ahmed’s latest statement failed to address a key demand by Egypt and Sudan: the need for a legally-binding agreement on GERD to guarantee their water interests, safeguard their peoples’ right to Nile water and prevent any harms to Sudanese dams.
Despite warnings from Egypt and Sudan about any unilateral steps regarding GERD before an agreement is reached, Ethiopia unilaterally implemented the first phase filling in 2019, and the second phase of filling in July 2021 without the two countries’ consent. In his statements, Shoukri said such a legally binding agreement should meet the needs of all parties, including Ethiopia’s right to development as well as the right of Egypt and Sudan to their share of Nile water.
Ahmed’s insistence on rejecting a binding agreement forced Egypt to directly address the UN Security Council, which in September adopted a “presidential statement” calling on the three countries to resume negotiations under the auspices of the AU. Egypt and Sudan welcomed the Security Council statement, while Ethiopia said it would not recognise any claim that may be made on the basis of this unanimous decision.
Moreover, Ahmed’s claim in his recent statement that the GERD holds “multiple benefits” for Egypt and Sudan meant that he continued to disregard all the serious concerns expressed by the two countries on the storage schedule and levels of filling the dam without any prior agreement among the three nations. He also made no reference to Ethiopia’s adherence to the rules of international law and practices concerning transboundary water resources, particularly those stressing that no harm should be caused to downstream countries because of unilateral measures by upstream nations.
Claiming in his statement that “Egypt also benefits from water conservation at the GERD, instead of wastage of billions of cubic metres of water to evaporation and in downstream flood plains,” disregarded the fact that Egypt’s government had already launched several mega projects aimed at conserving water, as well as desalinating sea water. This is to provide enough clean drinking water for a population of over 100 million, as well as the water needed for agriculture. Allegations that Egypt recklessly uses the Nile water are simply false and contradicted by official figures and international studies.
Egypt is considered one of the most water-scarce countries in the world. It receives around 60 billion cubic metres (bcm) annually – mainly from the Nile – while its needs stand at around 114 bcm. This fact places the over 100 million people country well below the international threshold for water scarcity, at 560 cubic metres per person annually. Those figures alone, if considered seriously by Ethiopia’s premier, would prevent him from making false claims about Egypt wasting water.
Since this crisis began, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has confirmed that Egypt respects and fully understands Ethiopia’s development needs, and even stands ready to help through its expertise to achieve that goal. He has also repeatedly stressed that dialogue and negotiations are the path Egypt has chosen to solve the GERD dispute. Yet the red line remains the same: Egypt will never give up a single drop of its water guaranteed by international binding agreements.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.