Satellite pictures show that Addis Ababa has opened one of the gates of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) in order to release nearly 50 m3 of water without consultation with downstream countries Sudan and Egypt.
The move aims to clear water in preparation for raising the height of the middle wall of the dam ahead of the July rainy season.
Preparations for the fourth filling started at the end of February, said a diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity, and underline Addis Ababa’s insistence on taking unilateral steps when it comes to GERD.
Addis Ababa’s announcement that the dam is 90 per cent complete came days after Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri issued a fresh warning to Ethiopia against unilateral action on the dam.
“All options are open, and all alternatives remain available. Egypt has its capabilities, and its foreign relations,” said Shoukri.
He pointed that after years of tripartite negotiations, Ethiopia has failed to reach a legally-binding agreement on the filling and operation of the dam, saying “Egypt signed the Declaration of Principles with Ethiopia as an expression of goodwill, but it has not been met with flexibility on the Ethiopian side.”
Ethiopia dismissed Shoukri’s remarks as “irresponsible”. A statement issued by the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry described them as a flagrant breach of the UN Charter and Constitutive Act of the African Union (AU), claimed they were “a clear violation of the agreement on the Declaration of Principles”, and demanded Egypt “stop its malicious and unlawful pronouncements”.
The statement called on concerned parties to take note of “Egypt’s flagrant violation of principles of international relations”, adding “no interest can be advanced through threats and intimidation.”
The statement also urged the parties to re-engage in AU talks to reach a negotiated solution, a call the diplomat described as “procrastination and an attempt to buy time” on the part of Ethiopia.
The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Arab League (AL) both took a supportive stand towards Egypt. Meeting last week, the GCC rejected any measures that would affect Egypt and Sudan’s rights to Nile water and described Egyptian and Sudanese water security as “an integral part of Arab national security”.
It called for an agreement to be reached in accordance with international law and the UNSC presidential statement issued in 2021.
Meeting in Cairo early March, the AL Council agreed to place GERD on its agenda as a pressing issue, a decision Shoukri described as underlining the “joint Arab approach” to the issue.
In response, Addis Ababa accused the AL members of “politicising” the Nile dam issue, acting as the spokesperson of one state and disregarding international law.
Over the last three years, Ethiopia has unilaterally implemented three fillings of the dam and last year started the partial operation of the first turbine despite objections by Egypt and Sudan.
Khartoum and Cairo fear Africa’s largest dam will reduce their share of Nile water and have repeatedly called on Addis Ababa to sign an agreement on the filling and operation of the dam that secures their water rights and protects the interests of their populations.
In his speech before the UN 2023 Water Conference this week, Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation Hani Sewilam said Egypt’s already compromised water security was being compounded by the absence of a legally binding agreement on GERD. He described transboundary water cooperation as an existential issue for Egypt. Its absence threatened the livelihoods of 150 million citizens in Egypt and Sudan and could lead to the exacerbation of irregular migration.
“These unilateral, non-cooperative practices violate international law, including the 2015 Declaration of Principles, and are not consistent with 2021 UN Security Council presidential statement,” he said.
He also pointed out that Egypt’s per capita share of water had fallen to 500 m3 annually, half the figure the UN has determined is necessary.
Sewilam said Egypt had invested huge sums “to raise the efficiency of its water system, including $10 billion during the most recent five-year plan”.
The UN Water Conference, held last week in New York and co-hosted by the governments of the Netherlands and Tajikistan, aimed to raise awareness of the global water crisis and agree a raft of international water-related targets.
In 2015, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan signed the Declaration of Principles which prioritises cooperation and the peaceful settlement of disputes over water and called on Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan to agree on guidelines and rules for the first filling of GERD.
Multiple rounds of talks between the three governments have failed to produce an agreement over the filling and operation of the dam.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly