Unwarranted escalation

Al-Ahram Weekly Editorial
Wednesday 2 Jun 2021

Despite Egypt’s good intentions towards Ethiopia and its commitment to diplomacy to solve the grave disputes surrounding the dangerous effects of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on its scarce water resources, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed shocked all parties concerned, both African and international, by announcing that he would build over 100 dams across the country to provide much needed development.

By making such statements, Ahmed is not only closing the door in the face of negotiations mediated by the African Union and the United States, but flagrantly furthering his escalation against Egypt and the vital interests of its people.

Water is a matter of life or death for over 100 million Egyptians who have depended on the Nile for thousands of years. Ancient Egyptians even went as far as worshipping the river, recognising that without its waters there would be no agriculture or any chance of survival in the middle of vast deserts.

Egypt clearly stated that it fully understands and supports the right of the Ethiopian people to make the best possible use of their natural resources in order to achieve much needed development and growth. Since taking office seven years ago, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has demonstrated every good intention towards Ethiopia, travelling to Addis Ababa to address the parliament and confirm to the Ethiopian people that Cairo will never stand against their interests.

The latest statements by Ahmed confirmed his insistence on disregarding Egypt’s good will and agreement to negotiate in good faith for over 10 years to ensure that the GERD would not reduce Egypt’s legal share of Nile waters while it serves Ethiopian interests. What the Ethiopian premier announced is a continuation of a regrettable approach that disregards the rules of international law.

As stated by the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Egypt strongly rejected the statements made by Ahmed, adding that such statements show again Ethiopia’s ill intent over the Nile. The statements reveal Ethiopia’s engagement with the Nile River and other international rivers it shares with neighbouring countries as “inland rivers that fall under its sovereignty and are exploited to serve its interests,” the Foreign Ministry said.

What should send a clear alarm signal to all concerned partners, is that the intentions revealed in Ahmed’s statements violated the rules of applicable international norms that regulate utilising international rivers and obliged Ethiopia to respect the rights of other riparian states. 

Ahmed’s statements risk an aggravation of tensions between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, especially since he continues to refuse reaching a binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam. The latest statements on plans to build yet another 100 dams without any consideration for Egypt’s and Sudan’s water rights, came as several reports indicated that Ethiopia had actually began filling the reservoir in early May, as further construction work on the GERD had allowed the second filling to begin.  

Ethiopia’s rejection of several proposals by Egypt and Sudan on the negotiation mechanism, which includes international quartet mediation, has led to the collapse of the Kinshasa talks sponsored by the African Union in April. Since then Egypt has repeatedly warned that the second filling would lead to tensions in the region and cause instability in East Africa and the Horn of Africa.

Sudan also fears that the GERD will put the operation of its Roseires Dam and the lives of 20 million Sudanese citizens at “a very high risk” if an agreement regulating the operation and filling of GERD is not reached before the second filling. It warned that it would take legal action if Ethiopia moves forward with the second filling of the GERD in July without first signing a legally binding agreement.

Such facts, and Ethiopian Prime Minister Ahmed’s latest statements, demonstrate that the international community does not realise the risks of not reaching an agreement on the filling and operation of the dam. Egypt will resume close contacts with all concerned parties, led by the AU and other partners in Africa. Cairo was also very positive in dealing with the new mission led by US Envoy for the Horn of Africa Jeffrey Feltman who toured Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan last month, and is expected to visit the three countries again soon. The option of heading to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) by Egypt and Sudan too cannot be ruled out.  

In all such diplomatic contacts, Egypt will stress that any water projects and facilities must be established after coordination, consultation and agreement with the countries that may be affected by them, at the forefront of which are the downstream countries. Nevertheless, Ahmed’s statements are nothing but a continuation of the unfortunate Ethiopian approach that disregards the rules of international law regulating the use of international rivers, which require Ethiopia to respect the rights of other countries bordering these rivers and not to harm their interests.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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