Ethiopia appears unwilling to enter into the spirit of cooperation that should characterise relations between Nile Basin countries and instead remains adamant on perpetuating a state of rivalry with Egypt. An Ethiopian Foreign Ministry document from 2002 makes clear water lies behind this rivalry. For a decade and a half Addis Ababa has marketed a discourse which may sound constructive to Ethiopian officials but lacks any sense of commitment to the human security of the peoples of Egypt and Sudan.
Ethiopia exhibited its rigidity and lack of flexibility once again in talks held in Cairo on 14 and 15 September. During the meeting between ministers of irrigation, Ethiopia’s delegation rejected an Egyptian proposal for a schedule for filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) reservoir that would avoid severe harm to the more than 100 million people living downstream from the dam.
In late August the Egyptian Foreign Ministry submitted a project proposing rules for filling and operating the dam that would simultaneously meet Ethiopia’s electricity generation goals and safeguard Egypt’s water interests. The proposal was based on previous talks between the two countries and the commitments stated in the declaration of principles signed in Khartoum on 23 March 2015 which require Addis Ababa, Khartoum and Cairo to agree to reach agreement over the dam’s filling and operation.
Egypt demonstrated a spirit of flexibility when Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said Cairo was willing to take on board any reasonable Ethiopian reservations. At the same time he underscored the dangers of Ethiopia attempting to impose a de facto reality.
Where Egypt stands in GERD talks
Cairo’s proposal came a year after talks were suspended following the uprising in Sudan, and five years after discussions began between technical committees from Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. Throughout this period Egypt has consistently offered Addis Ababa assurances and enticements. In 2015 Cairo presented a proposal for a framework of principles governing cooperation between Cairo, Khartoum and Addis Ababa and has proposed numerous joint development projects to help build the Ethiopian economy.
Egypt has demonstrated its eagerness to cooperate in the management of water resources in other parts of Africa. The 2.9-megawatt hydroelectric Stiegler Gorge Dam in Tanzania was partially financed by Egyptian entrepreneurs and built by the Arab Contractors, one of Egypt’s leading construction companies, putting paid to Addis Ababa’s claim that Egypt is “selfish”.
The lack of progress in concluding any of the required technical agreements over GERD has forced Egypt to pursue escalatory measures. Cairo convened a meeting of European ambassadors to Egypt to explain, on the one hand, Egypt’s cooperative approach and proposals and, on the other, Ethiopia’s unilateralism and seeming indifference to the magnitude of GERD’s potential economic, environmental and social repercussions on Sudan and Egypt. Egypt has also presented a full account of the Egyptian-Ethiopian crisis to the Arab League.
Addis Ababa's negotiating tactics
Ethiopia ignores the fact that Egypt is forced to recycle a large portion of its water supply in order to meet its need for 114 billion cubic metres of water. Its stipulated share of Nile water is less than half this amount. Ethiopia also ignores the fact that, in the event of a sudden drop in water resources Egypt would lose 200,000 acres of agricultural land, precipitating shortages in basic food supplies needed to meet the requirements of poor and low-income sectors of the Egyptian population. Reductions in water flow will lead to shortages of potable water and could impair electricity production at the High Dam. In the meantime, Ethiopia can easily meet its own electricity needs from dams built on other rivers.
Addis Ababa appears blind to the ramifications its negotiating tactics can have on international investments in oil production in Ethiopia. Investors need regional stability. Companies operating in Ethiopia must be able to export oil freely through the Red Sea to foreign markets. In this respect Egypt holds a trump card which, should it be played, will be profoundly unfavourable to Ethiopian interests.
GERD’s drastic economic impact on downriver nations threatens new waves of legal and illegal migration across the Mediterranean, and will feed the spread of extremism.
None of which takes into account the potential dangers posed by a reservoir with a capacity of 74 billion cubic metres, contained behind a structure for which no reliable technical proof has offered that it can sustain such pressure. A 2013 report by international hydraulics experts warned that the information that has been provided on the dam’s technical specifications was insufficient to reach a satisfactory conclusion about its safety.
Sudan should be the first to worry
The Sudanese should be the first to worry about possible flaws and fissures in a mammoth concrete structure built over geographical faults at the foot of the Ethiopian plateau.
The new interim government in Khartoum is expected to engage a team of Sudanese technicians to review the potential impact of the dam on their country and its people. Though Addis Ababa has been supportive of Sudan as it passes through a crucial juncture the possible detrimental impacts of the dam on the Sudanese people’s welfare and strategic interests could easily stir tensions. Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok is a highly qualified academic and economist who has held crucial positions with international organisations concerned with development in Africa. An individual of stature and integrity, he is certain to be guided in his decisions by the higher national good and could easily opt to reopen GERD to public discussion in Sudan and demand more thorough impact studies.
Sudan’s centrality to the questions surrounding the dam helps explain why Ethiopia reacted so quickly to developments in the Sudanese revolution, especially following the breakdown in talks between the Military Council and the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC). But Addis Ababa also had other motives. Landlocked Ethiopia relies on Sudanese ports as one of its maritime outlets and has long imported 50 per cent of its fuel needs from Sudan, a figure that has recently risen to 80 per cent. Any interruption to this fuel supply would be disastrous for the Ethiopian economy.
Ultimately, Sudan is poised to play a key role alongside Egypt in the regional and international actions that have become imperative in order to resolve the escalating dispute over GERD which could jeopardise security south of the Mediterranean.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: GERD talks: Pessimism prevails