Waiting for the ‘Ethiopian Godot’

Mostafa Ahmady
Tuesday 1 Mar 2022

Egypt cannot be expected to wait forever for Ethiopia’s leaders to address its concerns about the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, writes Mostafa Ahmady

Hours after Ethiopia unilaterally started minimal operations of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), an exuberant Abiy Ahmed, the prime minister of Ethiopia, did not mention Egypt when addressing the Ethiopian House of Representatives on the cooperative benefits he said the GERD would bring to the region. 

Abiy told Ethiopian lawmakers that “if Ethiopia generates energy and Sudan produces food through irrigation, sharing the energy and the food will be more than enough.” One wonders whether Abiy has already excluded the largest dependent on the Nile’s water, Egypt, from this future format. 

Over the past few months while the Ethiopian civil war has been raging, Ethiopia has repeatedly accused Sudan of serving the goal of a “third party” in a reference to Egypt because of the “unprecedented alliance” between Cairo and Khartoum over the implications that the GERD will have on both their peoples. 

With the civil war now having come to an end despite reciprocal attacks by both the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the forces of the Addis Ababa federal government, Ethiopia’s leaders have once again shifted gears from unfortunate economic hardships and the ages it has seemingly taken to heal societal “cracks” in the country to emphasising the so-called all-time “guardian” of Ethiopian unity and prosperity, the GERD. 

It is just a matter of time before the Ethiopian government fully “reemploys” its “obsolete” language on the right to “use our natural resources” equitably for the benefit of our “impoverished” people, as if the “Abay waters,” as Abiy usually likes to call them, were “the Staff of Moses” that would end Ethiopia’s plight overnight. 

Such a vicious circle of talking about Ethiopia’s “intention” not to harm downstream peoples while acting on the ground to inflict damage that Addis Ababa underestimates and claims does not represent a “significant” threat represents a point of no return if the peoples of Egypt and Sudan start to feel the heat of the GERD’s negative implications and press their governments to take immediate action to safeguard their inalienable right to life. 

Addis Ababa has been betting on buying time not to engage in genuine talks leading to a permanent compromise on the GERD. Such a policy has paid off for some time. It has also been contingent on many factors that have favoured Ethiopia. 

However, Sudan has seen a regime change, to the detriment of Ethiopia, since the ousted regime of former Sudanese leader Omar Al-Bashir was a staunch supporter of the GERD right from day one, and the country is thus witnessing waves of instability hobbling it from taking action.

Ethiopia itself has also been engulfed in an all-out war with fellow citizens in Tigray, Oromia, and Beni-Shangul Gumuz, the seat of the GERD. The ineffective leadership of the African Union, both under the chairmanship of South Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to push for a “tangible” outcome from the marathon decade-long negotiations on the GERD has turned the continental bloc into a backdoor window for more procrastination in the already slow-paced progress of the dossier.          

But the story will not end that way as an existential threat cannot be left unanswered. The war between Russia and Ukraine, the two largest supplies to Egypt and Sudan of wheat, a daily staple to Egyptians and Sudanese just as injera is to Ethiopians, means sky-rocketing price increases for two economies already battered by the untimely outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and particularly for that of Egypt. 

Though Egypt produces roughly half of its essential needs of wheat, it is still the largest importer worldwide. Cairo explicitly voiced its inability to buy the crop at higher rates even before the triggering of the Russia-Ukraine war, and it tested the waters on the need to cut the subsidy on the staple for local consumers, roughly 67 million people from its total population, who are still dependent on generous government spending on their basic needs. 

In other words, the price of wheat per ton has already skyrocketed beyond imagination in the worst-case scenario for the Egyptian government, which now cannot afford to lose one acre of its local wheat to problems of water scarcity.   

The current waves of protests in Sudan cannot be seen, moreover, away from the pressing economic conditions from which the average Sudanese has experienced a heavy toll since the fall of Al-Bashir and the ensuing events that pushed the government to cut subsidies over “drained” foreign reserves, on the one hand, and a surging supply chain crisis because of the Covid-19 pandemic on the other. 

The Sudanese pound has hit an all-time low against the dollar, and since the Sudanese parties have been unable so far to agree on a “coalition” government to restore “normal” services for their citizens, things are not likely to improve in the short to medium term. As in the case of Egypt, Sudan does not have the luxury of being able to afford to lose any of its cultivable land, despite Addis Ababa’s rhetoric on the life of “milk and honey” the Sudanese would be able to lead once the GERD’s reservoir is fully filled.     

In practice, additional costs in the medium to long term owing to a possible scenario of water scarcity for the irrigation of strategic crops in Egypt and Sudan will produce unbearable conditions for millions in the two countries, both economically and socially. Culminating in unfavourable social conditions in the two countries because of “painful” albeit “unavoidable” economic reforms and subsidy cuts, these are what Ethiopia recklessly dubs as being not “significant harm.”

Acting to protect the water from Egypt and Sudan’s “quotas” of Nile water is not a chauvinistic call, but is instead a necessity given the dreadful situations the two countries may be left to confront. Ethiopia with its abundant water resources does not heed these scenarios because it simply does not and will not be left to suffer a water problem for eternity. Generating “excess” electricity, like in the case of the colossal GERD, is a reminder of the idea of using cereal crops in the production of bio-fuel. Both of these lead to the same unfortunate conclusion: people will starve now and in the future.

If the GERD is to serve as a “beacon” of “regional integration” as Ethiopia wishes, there is a crying need for a reason-based compromise in which it produces sufficient electricity for those deprived of access to it without tampering with the right to life of the peoples of Sudan and Egypt. 

For this to happen, rhetoric on there being no “intention” to harm is of no use. Action to close the deal on the GERD is now needed. Prior to the celebration of the power generation of the GERD, Ethiopia repeatedly said it would not wait for ages for Egypt and Sudan to grant it the “green light” to go ahead with using its “own” natural resources. 

Egypt also cannot be expected to wait for ages until the Ethiopian leaders decide on a so-called “win-win” recipe for the GERD.       

* 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 3 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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