“They don’t concern us.” This is how blatantly Kiffle Horo, project manager of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), put it when asked how his country would respond to the concerns of downstream Egypt and Sudan as far as the third filling of the GERD is concerned.
Horo took over after the life of Simegnew Bekele, the former project manager who was widely seen as leading the colossal project, ended tragically in a yet-to-be-settled murder, even as official accounts still hold that he committed suicide.
During the decade-long negotiations on the GERD, Ethiopia has been sailing under false colours. Now, the GERD’s new project manager has thrown caution to the winds, saying that the interests of the downstream peoples and any existential threat that they would face as a result of the building of the dam are “not Ethiopia’s concerns.”
Worse, Horo also pinpointed what Egypt and Sudan have long feared. He said that during droughts, water would be collected in the GERD’s reservoir to complete its filling and no water would be allowed to flow from the GERD’s single gated spillway.
As a result, Ethiopia, under its ineffective Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, himself facing charges over orchestrating barbarian war crimes committed in Tigray during Ethiopia’s ongoing Civil War, has once again made it clear to the world that the issues raised by Egypt and Sudan during the talks on the GERD were not what Addis Ababa has labelled as “rhetoric”. On the contrary, Ethiopia’s unilateral actions would cause irreparable damage that neither the people of Egypt nor that of Sudan would be able to sustain.
To the GERD’s project manager and his government that has ruptured the country’s feeble social fabric, given the day-to-day ethnic clashes and the brand-new phenomenon of sectarian Muslim-Christian strife taking place in Ethiopia today, the GERD is a “holy mission” that needs to be accomplished, even to the detriment of Sudan and Egypt.
One must wonder. For an ailing economy like that of Ethiopia where the government strives hard to make ends meet mainly because of the structural flaws the economy of this Djibouti-heavily dependent country suffers from, what does Addis Ababa anticipate achieving from marching ahead with its irresponsible unilateral actions?
If there is one thing the Civil War in Ethiopia has revealed, it is that the system in the country is so fragile that it has not been able to win an offensive launched by a supposedly well-equipped military against an unprepared guerilla group, namely the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Had Ethiopia not received support from various powers, the TPLF could have entered the capital Addis Ababa and toppled the Ahmed regime.
What is Addis Ababa betting on? In practice, none of the powers that have supported Ethiopia will continue to back the landlocked nation if their interests with Cairo enter onto a collision course. At a certain point, they will back off.
The structural reforms Egypt has been undertaking for several years have enabled its economy to act like a “swing bridge”: the movement of heavy trucks can cause momentary shaking, but the bridge never falls. In other words, Egypt is a power that the world now needs to substitute for its imports of Russian gas that have been severely affected by Western sanctions. This is thanks to a recent Egypt-Israel deal with the EU to export liquefied natural gas (LNG) produced in Israel but processed and shipped through Egyptian facilities.
Does the incumbent Ahmed government in Ethiopia think the world will put at risk relations with Cairo for the sake of whimsical adventures by one who once dreamt of being “emperor”? Above all, could Ethiopia sustain the damage of a direct confrontation with Sudan and Egypt? Definitely, no. What is left, then, for Addis Ababa apart from stopping going round in circles and sitting down at the negotiating table to agree on a binding and win-win legal agreement on the GERD?
Whatever the case may be, Egypt will not give up its inalienable rights to the Nile water and will continue to defend the right of the Egyptian people to life. In no way will the country forfeit a single cubic metre of its legally enshrined water quota, that is, if it does not work on doubling it to suffice the growing needs of its population.
Whether or not this appeals to the GERD’s project manager or to the Ethiopian leaders at large, this “does not concern us.” What concerns Egypt is the uninterrupted flow of the Nile, its continued access to the Nile water, and other countries abstaining from erecting future installations on the Blue Nile without prior consent, as is stipulated in the legally binding historical water agreements.
These may constitute the basis for a permanent settlement of the issue of the Nile water without which Ethiopia will continue to be at loggerheads with the downstream peoples in Sudan and Egypt. Indeed, Cairo possesses all the means to impose it on the ground. For a decade, Ethiopia has been thinking that Egypt would remain helpless in the face of arrogant statements and behaviours by “unseasoned” politicians and officials like Kiffle Horo and others. Rest assured that this is a tragic flaw. If the worst comes to the worst, Khartoum and Cairo will act accordingly.
Egypt-Sudan relations are at their best today thanks mainly to the huge support Sudan’s leaders have received from Egypt to stand up to potentially lethal crises and difficulties that are engulfing the nation. Sudan will not risk the support of Egypt for the sake of the propaganda put out by anti-Sudanese Revolution Islamists and supporters of the ousted regime of former Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir.
The GERD will not shift the lives of the Sudanese or bring them more water for cultivation or cheap electricity, as the media affiliated with Al-Bashir used to claim. Instead, it will inflict incalculable damage on the peoples of Egypt and Sudan. It will make them lose thousands of hectares of their limited arable land due to water scarcity. Therefore, the two nations need to make common cause to defend the very existence of their peoples.
Moreover, the GERD will not change the lives of the Ethiopians themselves, as they face pressing issues which cannot be swept under the carpet. These are the issues that the Ethiopian government needs to “heed,” instead of slipping further down a slippery slope that will lead to unthinkable damage to the peoples of Sudan, Egypt, and Ethiopia itself.
* 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 9 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.