The Nile: A red line

Mostafa Ahmady
Wednesday 7 Apr 2021

Ethiopia must heed Egypt’s red line on its share of Nile water in the negotiations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Addressing the world last week after the freeing of the Ever Given giant container ship that was stranded in the Suez Canal, the most strategic and cost-effective international shipping route, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi delivered a strongly-worded message to those it may concern.

“No one will be able to take a single drop of water from Egypt’s share of the Nile’s water,” the president said, adding that “otherwise, there would be instability in the region beyond imagination.”

Decade-long negotiations with various Ethiopian governments headed by Ethiopian leaders Meles Zenawi, Hailemariam Desalegn and Abiy Ahmed have reflected one single Ethiopian message: we will go ahead with the project for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), and we will continue to impound the water in the dam’s 74-billion-cubic-metre reservoir without an agreement in that department. 

Egypt is disappointed with Ethiopia’s continued obstinacy, since the course of the negotiations has shown that Egypt’s fears and concerns are grounded. Ethiopia does not want to generate power, but rather it wants to seize control of the Nile that has been flowing for millennia to downstream peoples in Sudan and Egypt. It will indubitably continue to try to do so no matter what. 

Fiddling while Rome burns, the Amhara Ethiopian Minister of Foreign Affairs Demeke Mekonen, who is now steering Ethiopia’s policies, said Ethiopia would finish the final phase of the GERD. In practice, the Amhara clique, so powerful within the ineffective Ahmed cabinet, has implicated the 44-year-old Ethiopian prime minister in many unfavourable battles at home and overseas. Now, the Amhara are in control of the situation in Tigray, and after a bloody and barbarous war in which supposedly fellow Ethiopians in Tigray have been massacred, raped and left homeless, the prime minister of Ethiopia looks helpless. 

He cannot infuriate the Amhara, whose militias along with invading Eritreans have had the upper hand in settling, even on the surface, the conflict in Tigray in favour of the federal government. 

But the Amhara clique is leading Ethiopia into the abyss. There is a volatile situation on the border with Sudan, in which the Amhara want to maintain the status quo by cultivating Sudanese land, getting the Amhara ethnicity to continue to settle there guarded by Amhara gangs, and gaining $750 million a year as net profit out of exporting produce cultivated on Sudanese territory. When Sudan redeploys on its territory, the Amhara-led Ethiopian ministry of foreign affairs (MFA) tells the Sudanese to pull back before any talks on settling the border issue can resume. 

The MFA has also told the US envoy that the reservoir of the controversial GERD will be filled on time in July during the rainy reason. Moreover, the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation has handed a plan to the Benishangul Gumuz administration, the seat of the GERD, to remove some 5,000 hectares of forest in preparation for the second filling of the dam. 

Ethiopia has not heeded the adverse effects of the second filling of the dam, estimated at 18 billion cubic metres of Nile water, on both downstream Sudan and Egypt. For Sudan, the second filling without coordination means that its Roseires Dam, which produces 1,800 Megawatts of electricity, out of a total of 2,800 Megawatts in the country, will be inoperable.

Much more alarming is the fact that the lack of data-sharing between Ethiopia and Sudan on the operation of the GERD poses a serious threat to the safety of the Sudanese Dam’s reservoir, estimated at 7.4 billion cubic metres of water. Or, as Sudanese officials put it, an existential threat to the lives of 20 million Sudanese who live on the banks of the Blue Nile. 

The release of water from the Blue Nile without coordination with the Sudanese on the precise data of the volume of discharge from the GERD threatens Sudan with another tragedy much worse than the one that happened last year with the first filling when flood water inundated every corner of the country, killing hundreds, demolishing 100,000 homes, leaving millions displaced, and exacerbating the problems of an already ailing economy that is battling to survive.   

For Egypt, the second filling of the GERD reservoir coupled with the so-called “future water usage” floated by Ethiopian officials would mean an acute drop in Egypt’s water rights, a reduction which the nation of 101 million people cannot accept, not now and not in the future. There is no need here to remind the world that Egypt’s share of 55.5 billion cubic metres of waters per annum from the Nile in no way suffices to meet the needs of the country’s growing population, whose per capita share of Nile water has already hit a new low of 500 cubic metres.  

Arab support for Egypt and Sudan’s rights to the Nile is crucial in that department. Though most Arab countries have unequivocally shown their support for the downstream nations, most notably the influential Saudi Arabia, others are still diffident, to say the least. Such shaky support, while acting behind the scenes to back the ineffective government of Abiy Ahmed, particularly in his savage military offensive on Tigray, is worthy of pause. 

All countries may have the right to pursue their “own” interests, but this should never come, by any means, at the expense of the inalienable rights of the Arabs’ historical defender: Egypt. This is the time for closing ranks and standing firmly with one another and for employing leverage in favour of downstream peoples in Sudan and Egypt. 

The GERD issue is in Egypt’s good hands, and the country has the means to defend its rights. But as President Al-Sisi put it, “hostile action implies serious repercussions that would last for years.” Egypt’s military power is unrivalled not only in Africa, and not only in the Middle East, but the country is wisely exercising the highest level of self-restraint and does not want to flex its military muscles against its brothers and sisters anywhere. 

Indeed, Egypt favours negotiations as its number one option, but this case is only doable should the other party listen up and provide a “real” and not a “fancy” solution to the stalemate caused by the Ethiopian government’s reckless behaviour. War is not a walk in the park, and it can be easily avoided should Ethiopian officials heed their people’s best interests and shy away from using them to achieve narrow political gains. 

In the same way that Turkey, ranked eleventh on the global firepower index, has wisely heeded President Al-Sisi’s famous Sirte-Al-Jufra Red Line in Libya and has revisited some of its non-constructive policies in Egypt’s Western neighbour, it is the time for Ethiopia to heed Egypt’s second red line: the Nile.

*The writer is a former press attaché in Ethiopia and an expert on African and international affairs.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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