Nile tensions spill over

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 15 Apr 2021

Al-Ahram Weekly examines what lies behind this week’s bitter verbal spat between Addis Ababa on one side, and Cairo and Khartoum on the other


In an unusually abrasive statement, the Foreign Ministry of Ethiopia slammed Sudan for allegedly changing its position on the impact of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on Sudan’s water security during the flood season, and criticised Cairo for its lack of appreciation of Ethiopia’s “generosity” in offering to not significantly compromise Egypt’s water security.

The statement was issued on Monday morning, hours after Egypt and Sudan declined an Ethiopian offer to share information on the second filling of the GERD reservoir by mid-July.

“We cannot go round in circles forever. Ethiopia promises one thing then does another. It is now abundantly clear we cannot leave a matter as crucial as the management of the flood to the good intentions of Addis Ababa,” said a Sudanese diplomatic source. “We said we want a legally binding agreement. Ethiopia does not. This is the core of the trouble.”

In Cairo, a government official shrugged off Ethiopia’s criticism.

“I think what is galling for officials in Addis Ababa is that they know there is growing sympathy with Egypt’s position,” he said.

“Many capitals had bought into the delusional Ethiopian narrative that Egypt wanted to control Nile water. Now, the world can see it is Egypt that has gone the extra mile in an attempt to satisfy Ethiopia’s wish to generate electricity, but without causing huge harm to Egypt’s frail water security.”

According to Egyptian and Sudanese sources, Ethiopia is also agitated by the increasingly close coordination between Cairo and Khartoum on this crucial file.

“We are seeing very close coordination at the highest level,” says former Sudanese diplomat Ali Al-Sherif. “Both countries will face serious, if different, hazards if Ethiopia presses ahead with unilateral action in the absence of any agreement.”

Amany Al-Tawil, head of the African Affairs Unit at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, believes Ethiopia is now desperate to break the alliance between Egypt and Sudan.

“Ethiopia may not be facing enormous international pressure but it is clearly unhappy about the coordination between Egypt and Sudan. The last thing it wants is for both countries to go together to the UN Security Council to protest against Addis Ababa’s intransigence.”

The possibility of Cairo and Khartoum jointly approaching the UN Security Council if — or rather when — Ethiopia begins unilaterally its second filling of the GERD reservoir, is still being discussed between Cairo and Khartoum. Earlier this week, on his way home following three days of failed talks in the DRC capital Kinshasa, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri stopped over in Khartoum for consultations over Egypt and Sudan’s next move.

Last year, without the support of Sudan, Egypt petitioned for Security Council intervention in the dispute on the grounds that it posed a serious threat to international peace and security. The UN Security Council asked the African Union to host talks to try to resolve the matter. South Africa, the then chair of the African Union, failed to secure a breakthrough.

Egyptian sources close to the negotiations say the talks went around in circles and were a ploy by Ethiopia to waste time.

While Cairo and Khartoum are unlikely to expect the Security Council to put serious pressure on Addis Ababa to honour its obligations, “under international law Ethiopia cannot take unilateral action that influences the flow of the Nile in a way that harms downstream countries,” says Al-Sherif.

According to Al-Tawil, “Ethiopia cannot claim that it is refusing an agreement on the pretext that this violates its sovereignty.

“GERD is built on a shared river and according to international law the construction and management of such a mega dam requires the consent of all countries involved.”

The crucial sticking points in a decade of failed talks can be boiled down to two basic points, cooperation and exchange of information on all stages of the filling and operation of the dam, especially during extended drought seasons, and a dispute settlement mechanism.

Despite the absence of a legally binding agreement, in July last year Ethiopia began the first filling of dam with 5 bcm of water. The second filling this wet season will involve 15 bcm to allow for the operation of two out of GERD’s 13 turbines.

Last month, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi said that he would not allow Egypt’s water rights to be compromised “by a single drop”. In statements earlier this month, Al-Sisi said “all options are open — though it would be best if the three countries could cooperate.”

This week Shoukri told an Egyptian talk show “it would be a good thing if Ethiopia could do its second filling without any encroachment on Egypt’s water rights.”

According to a well-informed political source who spoke on condition of anonymity, Cairo is still examining scenarios and no decision has been made on its next steps.

The first move will possibly be to allow the DRC to resume its mediation. Al-Tawil says the US had put “some behind-the-scenes pressure on Addis Ababa to move towards an agreement during the Kinshasa talks and could possibly augment its pressure to avoid an eruption of tension over the Nile, and in the already troubled east Africa region.”

If the talks were to stumble or fail, Egypt could recall its ambassador in Addis Ababa and expel the Ethiopian ambassador to Egypt, something it considered but did not do during the unilateral first filling last year.

Egypt, the political source adds, could then ask for an emergency African summit or seek a clearer position from the wider international community.

“Egypt has the right to demand the presidency of the AU inform the UN Security Council that it has failed to resolve the problem and needs the UN to consider the situation,” he explained.

Meanwhile, he said, Egypt will continue to lobby for African and international legal support and consolidate all forms of cooperation with other Nile Basin countries.

This week in Cairo, visiting Tunisian President Kais Saied and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov offered Egypt solidarity and stressed the need for a political agreement to resolve the outstanding issues over GERD.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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