Egypt does not oppose the Ethiopian Nile dam per se, but it rejects Ethiopia's attempt to force fait accompli policy by filling and operating the dam unilaterally, Egyptian Irrigation Minister Mohamed Abdel-Ati said at a high-level ministerial conference in Berlin on Friday.
"Egypt wants to achieve cooperation by a legally binding and fair deal for filling and operation rules of the Ethiopian dam, in a way that fulfills the interest for all, a matter that Ethiopia refuses and [instead] seeks to impose a fait accompli and take unilateral measures without reference for downstream countries," Abdel-Ati told the conference, which tackled water issues worldwide.
Ethiopia’s giant dam, which is known officially as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) and has been under construction since 2011 on the Blue Nile River, a crucial source of water to Egypt and Sudan, has been a source of tension with downstream countries for a decade now.
While Ethiopia hopes the multi-billion dollar hydropower dam will support its economic development goals, Egypt, which depends on the Nile for over 95 percent of its freshwater, fears the dam will affect its water share if a legally binding deal is not reached.
Sudan, the other downstream country, fears the GERD will put the operation of its Roseires dam, and the lives of 20 million Sudanese citizens at “a very high risk” in the absence of a binding deal.
Cairo, Abdel-Ati added, is not against development in Nile basin countries; on the contrary, it supports by all possible means development efforts in all African countries.
"Egypt is open to cooperate with all African countries, especially Nile basin ones, provided that the concerns of downstream countries are to be considered," the Egyptian minister assured during the Berlin-hosted conference.
The latest rounds of negotiations between the three nations, which were held under the aegis of the African Union (AU), stalled in April as Egypt and Sudan sought a legal deal on the rules for filling and operating the dam as well as a mechanism to settle any dispute may arise in the future, the only way the two deem they can secure their water rights, but Ethiopia only wanted to sign a package of non-binding guidelines.
Minister Abdel-Ati said Egypt is keen on continuing negotiations to reach a legally binding and fair deal that meets the objectives of all parties involved, including preserving Egypt's water rights.
The negotiations, however, must be characterised by "efficiency and seriousness to maximise their success opportunities after the previous rounds negotiations deadlocked as a result of Ethiopia's intransigence,” he pointed out.
"Egypt's flexibility in negotiations has been met by intransigence from Ethiopia to avoid the commitment to what has been agreed upon. But Egypt will never accept the unilateral action to fill and operate the Ethiopian dam," he stressed.
Both downstream countries lay blame on Ethiopia for the collapse of the latest round of the AU-sponsored negotiations as it refused the involvement of international mediators to help solve the outstanding points.
Egypt and Sudan demanded the formation of an international quartet led by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the current president of the AU, with the participation of the United States, the European Union and the United Nations to mediate between the three countries.
The proposal was brushed aside by Ethiopia, which insists on continuing negotiations only under the brokerage of the AU, despite lack of any tangible progress during the negotiations, which started more than a year ago.
Tensions have escalated further recently over the GERD as Addis Ababa plans to fill its controversial dam for the second time this summer with 13.5 billion cubic metres of water without agreement with Cairo and Khartoum.
The three countries have resorted to international diplomacy in the past weeks, briefing regional and international counterparts, including the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), on their stances and developments in the latest deadlock in negotiations.
The UNSC will likely meet next week to discuss the tripartite dispute, according to French UN Ambassador Nicolas de Riviere.
This session is not the first about the crisis, as the 15-member body held a session in June 2020 at Egypt's request due to what it described as Ethiopia's "intransigence" in negotiations.
During the session, the council urged the three countries to reach a consensus and warned against unilateral actions.
The three countries agreed to continue negotiations under the aegis of the AU, but Ethiopia held 4.9 billion cubic metres of water behind its dam a month later without coordinating with Egypt and Sudan.
Water shortage and illegal immigration
Egypt, one of the most water-scarce countries in the world, needs 114 billion cubic metres (bcm) annually, but it receives an average of 60 bcm only, mainly from the Nile River in light of the very limited amounts of rainwater and groundwater in the desert. Egypt fills the gap by reusing agricultural drainage water.
Minister Abdel-Ati stressed any shortage in the country's water resources would cause "severe" damage to Egypt, since at least 40 million citizens work in the agricultural sector.
"The shortage of 1 billion cubic metres of water will cause 200 thousand families to lose their main source of livelihood in agriculture," the minister said.
The loss of job opportunities, minister Abdel-Ati noted, could lead to "a state of societal instability," he told Friday's conference. "This will lead to a large wave of illegal immigration to the European countries or youth's joining terrorist groups," he went on saying.