The Nile is not for sale

Mostafa Ahmady
Monday 12 Apr 2021

Stability and security in the region and beyond will be jeopardised in the absence of a binding agreement on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam

Setting a dangerous precedent in the history of the Nile Basin, Ethiopia has now said it might mull over “selling” Nile water. 

Responding to a question from the TV channel Aljazeera on selling “extra” water after the full construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Spokesman of the Foreign Ministry of Ethiopia Dina Mufti said “why not? Everything is possible.” Though Mufti then phoned Aljazeera to say his country did not have any extra water to sell, the statement revealed much about the insanity that is driving Ethiopia’s foreign policy at the present time. 

Dealing with water as an income-generating commodity is not the brainchild of Mufti alone, but rather is something that is alive in the mindsets of Ethiopia’s politicians, think-tanks and academia. Ethiopian officials have long held the view that if oil has managed to transform the economies of the Gulf states for the better, why should Ethiopia not mull over trading for profit the much more precious and indispensable fresh water that runs abundantly in its different river basins? 

In practice, Ethiopia already trades groundwater to hot and dry Djibouti in exchange for “privileged” status in the Port of Djibouti, this being a lifeline for landlocked Ethiopia in international trading.  

The “Water Tower of Africa,” the way water-rich Ethiopia is often described, ignores the significant truth that if an upstream country, in whose land a river “originates” or “crosses,” decides to block water from flowing from its territories downstream, conflict and wars will be inevitable. This is also true if an upstream country blocks every possible means for settling water issues peacefully through serious talks. This would mean other countries that share the same water resources would be left with no other option but the use of force to protect their right to life. 

In other words, a deadlocked situation in the Nile Basin is an example that could be copied elsewhere on the globe. 

A de facto situation will usually be what countries opt to impose through the language they use. That is why Egypt’s assertion that stability and security in the region and beyond will be jeopardised in the absence of a binding agreement on the Ethiopian Dam should not be seen as an overstatement, but rather as a call to be heeded before things reach the point of no return. 

Ethiopia’s recent announcement on sharing data with Sudan and Egypt before the second filling of the GERD reservoir, inviting both countries to “nominate dam operators to exchange data among the three countries,” is another example of how the landlocked Horn of Africa country has recklessly dealt with this volatile situation. If the country is really willing to share data on the operations of the GERD, why did it fail to do so before the first filling of the dam’s reservoir a year ago, at least as a means of showing good faith? 

But no one has any faith in what Ethiopia says, and therefore Sudan immediately rejected the “invitation.” Ethiopia has been playing with words for over a decade now, and it has never committed to any understandings in that respect. The Washington-brokered deal made under former US president Donald Trump is a reminder of the fact that whenever a binding agreement is a probability, Ethiopia simply runs away.      

De-escalating this highly strained situation entails other serious moves being made by Addis Ababa, basically in the form of a binding legal agreement honouring the life-saving water needs of Egypt and Sudan. Neither downstream people can do without their historical shares of Nile water, and they cannot afford to lose a single drop of it, whatever it takes for them to ensure the uninterrupted flow of the river. 

Seven years into President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s period in office, Egypt has not opted to settle any disputes in a non-peaceful manner, not because it does not possess the necessary means to do so, but because the country has itself experienced the high cost of conflicts and military escalation in modern times. When it comes to Ethiopia, Egypt has been over-patient in dealing with the dam. It has acknowledged the right of Ethiopians to development by utilising the Nile, a right enshrined for all Nile Basin countries, as long as Egypt’s water rights are not impinged on. 

The president has reminded the world, along with the Ethiopians, that Egypt is not opposed to any form of development on the Nile. He reiterated in his address before the Ethiopian parliament during a visit to Addis Ababa in March 2015 that Egypt understands the right of the Ethiopian people to utilise the Nile to generate power. He has also appealed to the Ethiopian people to prioritise the language of common interests and benefits as the best means of ensuring a win-win approach. He has firmly warned Ethiopia against impinging on a single drop of Egypt’s water share, saying that “all options are on the table.” 

Egypt and Sudan are now coordinating fully over the damages they could both sustain if Ethiopia unilaterally fills its dam again. Sudan remains the biggest loser, as its small-sized dams will not enable it to compensate for any water losses. Sudanese Minister of Irrigation and Water Yasser Abbas therefore echoed Al-Sisi’s comment that “all options are on the table” when he was briefing local and international media on the failed Kinshasa talks on the dam. 

He detailed the way in which Ethiopia had adamantly rejected all proposals made by Egypt and Sudan, particularly the latter’s request to have the UN, the US and the EU sit round the table with the powerless African Union (AU), since Addis Ababa has had designs on the latter by putting forward the idea of so-called “African solutions for African problems.”

Ethiopian officials have only exploited this catchy, but ineffective, slogan with the GERD issue, and they have overlooked it when it comes to other serious problems. The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry recently denounced the silence of the “international community” on Sudan’s “annexation” of “Ethiopian” territory, an imprudent reference to Sudan’s exercise of sovereignty over its territory in Al-Fashaqa and Al-Gadarif. 

Ethiopian officials think they can outsmart their counterparts in Sudan and Egypt by pressuring the Addis Ababa-based AU in order to gain more time until they have finished the second filling of the GERD reservoir. Unfortunately, the former and ineffective chair of the AU, South Africa, did help them greatly in that department.

But buying more time is no longer on the agenda. Reckless and irresponsible statements will no longer be tolerated. As Ethiopia wants a win-win deal tailored to serve its malicious ends, conflict seems inevitable. This would be one in which the war-torn country would pay a heavy price. 

*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 15 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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