The GERD at an impasse

Mostafa Ahmady
Tuesday 2 Aug 2022

In refusing to negotiate seriously with downstream nations on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Ethiopia is pushing the region to the edge of the abyss, writes Mostafa Ahmady


Amid the pressing economic issues that have hit Egypt and the world at large by dint of the dire implications of the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it might have been wrongly thought that Egypt had put aside a matter of life or death to the very existence of its people, namely the Nile River and its now-obstructed flow caused by the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

Ethiopia has spent almost a decade constructing this dam on the Blue Nile, its main tributary, which for millennia has provided the downstream peoples of Sudan and Egypt with the means of life.

However, this issue has never been a more urgent one for Egyptian decision-makers. Egypt, the livelihoods of whose people hinge on the uninterrupted flow of the Nile, has been firing on all cylinders, taking the issue to the highest possible levels in a diplomatic offensive that started with the African Union (AU) and has since moved on to the UN Security Council.

Seeking mediation from the AU failed because despite the attempts by successive chairs of this continental bloc to find a so-called “African solution for an African problem,” the issue became bogged down in talks at the seat of the organisation in Ethiopia. On the international level, Egyptian officials have drawn the attention of the Security Council to the issue, pointing out the dire impact it would have on the stability and security of the region in the absence of a legally binding agreement regulating the work of this colossal project. 

When the three countries involved, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt, were edging closer to striking a deal on the GERD in Washington DC after the US agreed to host talks sponsored by the former Trump administration, Ethiopia suddenly abandoned them, citing issues of sovereignty and fairness, as if it were the only upstream nation in the world from which a major transboundary river’s water originates. 

This narrow-minded understanding of the very nature of transboundary rivers coupled with intransigence and arrogance on Ethiopia’s part have been the main reasons why the downstream nations of Sudan and Egypt have not been able to reach a binding legal deal with Ethiopia in more than a decade of talks. 

Though the Biden administration was at first less interested in engaging itself in the issue of the GERD compared to the former Republican administration of Donald Trump, it has recently become more interested in the talks. 

A meeting on the sidelines of the Summit for Security and Development hosted in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in July saw presidents Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi of Egypt and Joe Biden of the US speak for the first time face to face on the matter. A positive gesture came out of the meeting in the form of a joint statement in which the US “reiterated support for Egypt’s water security… and the imperative of concluding an agreement on the filling and operation of the GERD without further delay.” 

Even more importantly, the statement called for the basing of any deal on the GERD on “the statement of the president of the United Nations Security Council dated September 15, 2021, and in accordance with international law.” 

Regrettably, this has been ignored by the Addis Ababa regime, though the joint statement “fully” acknowledged “the interests of all parties” in the GERD issue, including Ethiopia’s right to generate electricity without causing harm to the peoples of the downstream countries. Since the issuing of the statement, Ethiopia has been mobilising its state-run media to label the US a “biased” mediator, recalling memories of the so-called “era of colonialism” in another reshuffling of the cards that Addis Ababa has been hell bent on since day one of the negotiations. 

In a bid to provide further momentum to the talks, the US dispatched its envoy for the Horn of Africa, Mike Hammer, to the region to hold talks with Ethiopia and Egypt on the GERD. While in Cairo, Hammer will have listened to the repeated requests of Egyptian officials to find a legally binding deal on the GERD that will safeguard Egypt’s inalienable right to its share of the Nile water while at the same time allowing Ethiopia to generate the electricity it needs to sustain its development. 

However, in Addis Ababa Hammer will be treated to a completely twisted narrative on the GERD. He will be told that Ethiopia contributes each and every drop of water to the Nile with “zero” benefit, while Egypt does not contribute a “single glass of water” to it and yet wants exclusive rights over the river. Ethiopia, he will be told, wants to lift its people from “abject poverty” by providing electricity to more than 70 per cent of its huge population. 

One wonders, though. This country, which claims to lack power for local consumption, has recently struck a deal with neighbouring Kenya to sell it 200 Megawatts of electricity and has promised to double that amount soon. While charity no doubt begins at home, Ethiopian officials have been leaving others in the dark with all their talk of “exporting” the country’s “surplus”. If Ethiopia has surplus electricity such that it can sign deals to export it to its neighbours in Kenya, Djibouti, and even downstream Sudan, then what is the problem with finding a solution on the GERD?

The problem is that Ethiopian officials cannot see beyond the end of their own noses. The country’s GERD Public Participation Coordination Office Director Aregawi Berhe, appointed by Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, said in recent press remarks that “the GERD is much like the Aswan High Dam that Egypt constructed without consultations with Ethiopia.” 

Raising one’s eyebrows is surely not enough. Like many Ethiopian officials, Berhe holds the view that Egypt should not have made use of water that was being wasted in floods each year and that because it decided not to waste it, Ethiopia now has the right to act unilaterally in the way it likes. Berhe has failed to understand a simple truth that students learn in school, namely that damming water in a downstream nation can have no impact, either big or small, on an upstream one because water naturally flows downwards.   

Fanning the flames, Berhe said that Ethiopia “has the right to build other dams in the future.” This is the core of the problem because other malicious goals entertained by Ethiopia have been disguised in the so-called right to generate electricity. The Ahmed regime apparently wants to dictate the rules on how to handle the issue of the Nile’s water. Ethiopia, as its government repeats, listening to no one and nothing that is said to it, says that nothing will stop it from moving ahead with finalising the GERD, even to the detriment of Sudan and Egypt. 

While Egypt has already informed the UN Security Council that it will “take all necessary measures (under the Charter of the United Nations) to ensure and protect its national security, including against any risks that Ethiopian unilateral measures may cause in the future,” Ethiopia’s unilateral third filling of the GERD’s reservoir is testimony to the fact that after Ahmed has disrupted the harmonious social fabric that Ethiopia has boasted of for three decades since the 1990s, his government now looks determined to push the region to the edge of a cliff on the GERD.

This is an ominous scenario that the world’s major superpower, the US, and other influential partners must work hard to avoid. 

* 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 4 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

Short link: