Ethiopia announced on Friday that it had completed the third phase of filling the reservoir for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile – a unilateral decision as always. Only a few days before, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi had said the ongoing disagreement with Addis Ababa would not be solved through emotional statements and loudspeakers.
Instead, he confirmed in statements on 6 August, Cairo remains committed to negotiations, patience and action on the ground, asserting that Egypt would never give up its legitimate right to a fair share of the Nile, the only source of drinking water for over 100 million Egyptians, according to international laws and binding agreements between Ethiopia and the two downstream countries: Egypt and Sudan.
Using a colloquial Egyptian expression, Al-Sisi said, “Egypt’s water is a responsibility that I will protect with my neck, and no-one will dare touch it.” It is well-known that, over the past decade, the Egyptian leadership has spared no effort to reach a fair, binding agreement with Ethiopia to regulate the filling of the GERD in a way that ensures that no serious damages would affect the two downstream countries.
The Declaration of Principles signed in 2015 by the three countries has been a clear recognition by Ethiopia that the project is not a domestic issue to be decided by its government alone, in total disregard for possible risks for both Egypt and Sudan. Ethiopia should not use the fact that the source of the Nile’s largest tributary, the Blue Nile, is located within its borders as a political tool against the interests of its neighbours. That would set a very dangerous precedent in international law, and open the door to endless disputes in several regions of the world where neighbouring countries share sources of vital drinking waters.
Egypt first attempted to reach an agreement with Ethiopia on a bilateral level. Visiting Ethiopia and addressing its parliament was one of the first foreign visits the president carried out on taking office. He later hosted the Ethiopian prime minister in Cairo for lengthy talks and signed the DOP in 2015. With Ethiopia continuing its policy of wasting time while establishing facts on the ground, Cairo sought the mediation of the African Union, making use of its growing positive relations with several key African nations.
Being the headquarters of the AU did not induce Ethiopia to accept African mediation, however, and again it intentionally thwarted several fair African-mediated initiatives. Considering the good relations that tie the United States with both Egypt and Ethiopia, Cairo later accepted mediation by former US president Donald Trump. A detailed agreement was ready to be signed, mediated by senior US officials and the World Bank, yet the Ethiopian delegation made a no-show, and Egypt alone signed the agreement to confirm its good will.
Facing such intransigence, Egypt had no option but to take its dispute with Ethiopia to the United Nations Security Council. Several meetings and briefings were held on the issue, despite Ethiopia’s opposition and its claim that this was a disagreement that should be solved by Africans alone. Yet this was not an argument that the world body accepted, and Egypt will continue informing Security Council members of all Ethiopian violations of the 2015 DOP and international agreements.
Last month, for the third year in a row, Egypt called on the United Nations Security Council to intervene on its behalf, sending a letter that promised to hold Ethiopia “fully responsible for any significant harm to Egyptian interests that may result from Addis Ababa’s violation of its aforementioned obligations”.
With long expertise in both water regulation projects and electricity production, Egypt has offered Ethiopia all the assistance it might need to double if not triple its production of electricity to achieve the justified economic development its people need and deserve. In this regard, and if development is a real aim of the Ethiopian premier, rather than a populist agenda aimed to use the GERD as a mobilisation cry to cover his domestic failures, the speedy, unilateral filling of the grand dam is not the only option available for Addis Ababa. Egypt will continue to extend its hands to Ethiopia, offering cooperation instead of needless confrontation.
Meanwhile, the Egyptian government is exerting tremendous efforts to increase available sources of drinking and irrigation water. Several mega projects aimed at preserving drinking and irrigation water have been launched. Besides renewing and bedding irrigation canals throughout the Nile Delta, the government has also built a number of sea water desalination stations.
The third GERD filling that ended on Friday will indeed not affect Egypt and Sudan’s share of Nile water in the current season, as Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced. However, this is not because of a responsible Ethiopian policy, but due to the high levels of rainfall anticipated for the next flood season. This scenario cannot be guaranteed in years of drought, and that is one key reason why Egypt and Sudan insist on a binding agreement that sets an extended schedule for the filling of the dam without affecting Egypt’s share of water, or causing damages or floods in Sudan.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.