In a display of continued intransigence, Ethiopia announced last week that the third filling of the Great Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), planned for August-September, would not be delayed. This irresponsible approach to a very sensitive issue seen by both Egypt and Sudan as an existential threat is sadly typical. In effect, the director of the GERD project told not just Egypt and Sudan, but many regional and international partners who have been mediating negotiations with Ethiopia that all their efforts were useless and dispensable.
In a ceremony attended by Ethiopia’s Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, the GERD official said the construction of the dam would not stop “for any reason” and would be completed within two years. He added that statements from Egypt and Sudan on the dangers of the GERD “do not concern” Ethiopia, claiming that Addis Ababa has not violated the 2015 Declaration of Principles, which were signed by the three countries, concerning the filling process. Reiterating arguments made by Prime Minister Ahmed, the GERD director insisted on ignoring many Egyptian and international studies confirming that the dam, with the ongoing process of unilateral filling by Ethiopia, was likely to cause grave dangers to both Egypt and Sudan.
Egypt, the last downstream River Nile country, which has no other source of water for drinking or irrigation, will certainly suffer. Sudan, with the GERD very close to its border with Ethiopia, is entitled to receive assurances that the dam will not result in massive floods in case of any flaws in its structure. Further claims that Ethiopia has shared information on the GERD with Egypt and Sudan and intends the two downstream countries no harm are meaningless and untrue. Little information, if any, has been shared, and it always comes following unilateral moves by Addis Ababa, and not at all in the spirit of negotiation or willingness to reach a binding, long-term agreement.
Such agreement, guaranteed by regional and international partners such as the African Union, the United States, the European Union and the World Bank, is the key demand by both Egypt and Sudan. Despite provocative statements that continue to come out of Addis Ababa, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri stated that Cairo was always ready for dialogue on the GERD, describing the file as an existential issue and a matter of national security for Egypt and its people.
“[Previously exerted] efforts have not yielded a legally binding agreement regarding the GERD’s filing and operation policies; nevertheless, Cairo is working hard to push matters forward in order to reach an agreement that [simultaneously] allows Ethiopia to develop and safeguards Egypt’s rights,” the minister said last week.
Egypt and Sudan have been negotiating with Ethiopia for more than 10 years to reach a legally binding and comprehensive agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD, which Addis Ababa started building on the Blue Nile in 2010. In that time an agreement was often ready to be concluded by all three countries, but it was always Prime Minister Ahmed who would decide to pull out for no good reason.
Yet all those following recent events in Ethiopia have no doubt that the Ethiopian government is using the GERD for pure populist purposes aimed at rallying support for the embattled premier, who has not managed to maintain stability in his country since taking office. The suffering that the war in Tigray has caused millions of Ethiopians is only the latest, saddening example.
Addis Ababa, the headquarters of the AU, has argued for years that it would only accept African mediation, and rejected the decision by Egypt and Sudan to resort to the United Nations Security Council. However, the latest round of AU-sponsored talks between the three countries over the GERD in Kinshasa, DRC collapsed in April 2021, and all attempts to revive negotiations since then have failed. It is long overdue that the AU should take a clear stand and tell the world which party rejected mediation and the effort to reach an agreement.
Calculating that the world was busy with the war between Russia and Ukraine, with its devastating effects on economies especially among poor and developing countries, the Ethiopian prime minister has obviously decided that this was the right time to proceed with yet another unilateral, dangerous move.
Egypt, which maintains that the GERD poses a threat not just to the downstream countries but to international peace and security as it would set a dangerous precedent on how world countries deal with water disputes, cannot remain silent. Yet, as always, this would be done in a responsible manner and in consultation with the AU and other international partners. Egypt has repeatedly stated that it has no objections to Ethiopia using the dam to generate the electricity it needs for its development plans. However, it firmly rejects any unilateral Ethiopian action that compromises an already inadequate share of Nile water or changes its patterns.
Remarks by the GERD project director reveal again Ethiopia’s bad intentions and its endeavour to undermine ongoing efforts by international and African mediators to resolve the GERD crisis. They also confirm the Ethiopian government’s desire to impose a fait accompli on the downstream countries, something Egypt will simply not accept.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.