Egypt and Ethiopia's Nile dam: Waiting for disaster?

Egypt and Ethiopia's Nile dam: Negotiating in the shadow of disaster?
10 min read
20 August, 2020
Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan are negotiating over the Grand Renaissance Dam again, but talks are shrouded by opacity and fears of drought and famine remain.
Negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam have often broken down in the past. [Getty]
Last Sunday, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan began a new round of talks over the controversial Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile.

Both Egypt and Sudan have expressed optimism that the talks would lead to progress in resolving their simmering dispute with Ethiopia over the dam but in recent months, tensions between the three countries have increased.

A previous attempt at negotiations ended abruptly earlier this month when Egypt and Sudan walked out after Ethiopia tried to shift the focus of talks from the filling and operation of the GERD to the countries' respective shares in the Nile's waters.

This was only the latest in a long series of delays, breakdowns, and upsets to hit talks over the controversial dam, which have been going on for over five years since a Declaration of Principles was signed in 2015.

Read more: Who is losing the Nile?

Egypt and Sudan's refusal to grant Ethiopia a share in the Nile's waters has been a source of Ethiopian bitterness and resentment for decades.

A treaty signed in 1959 between Egypt and Sudan allocates 55.5 billion cubic metres of the Nile's water to Egypt and 18.5 billion cubic metres to Sudan, without including Ethiopia, even though the Blue Nile originates in Ethiopia and supplies an estimated 85 percent of the water reaching Egypt.

This treaty, like preceding ones, was signed when upstream Nile states were European colonies, or were considered weak enough to be excluded from treaties. Sam Charles Hamad, an independent Egyptian writer and analyst, told The New Arab that Egypt was making a mistake by relying on the 1959 treaty, which Ethiopia was not a party to and has never recognised.

Egypt and Sudan's refusal to grant Ethiopia a share in the Nile's waters has been a source of Ethiopian bitterness and resentment for decades

"[Egypt is] relying on these imperialist-era treaties that give it 'historic rights' over the Blue Nile. The first of those treaties was the British in 1929 attempting to secure water for Egypt so it could keep producing cotton… [Former Egyptian President] Nasser] in 1959, despite portraying himself as a great anti-imperialist, re-ratified that treaty, as if Egypt has divine right over the Nile. There's no reason in the world that Ethiopia should comply with these imperialist and unfair treaties."

Differing conceptions of negotiations

Today, while all three countries are officially committed to reaching an agreement regarding the GERD, there is little indication of what such an agreement will look like, and Ethiopia, which has almost completed building the GERD, seems to have very different ideas regarding a future agreement than Egypt and Sudan.

Read more: Ethiopia's Great Renaissance Dam: A
catastrophe for Egypt?

Egypt is seeking a binding agreement that will regulate the filling and the operation of the GERD and guarantee that the share of Nile water reaching it under the 1959 agreement will not decrease. Ethiopia has continually resisted signing a binding agreement, rejecting one drawn up by the US in February on the grounds that it was "biased in Egypt's favour". It says that it has the right to fill the dam at its own pace.

When Ethiopia first began filling the dam's reservoir in July, the development was greeted with alarm by Egypt and Sudan. Sudan immediately reported that the level of Nile water reaching its territory had been reduced.

The filling was followed soon afterwards by a tweet from Ethiopian Foreign Minister Gedu Andargachew which appeared to state that "the Nile River had become a lake" from which Ethiopia could "have all the development that it wanted". The tweet concluded, "In fact the Nile is Ours!"

Egyptians were outraged and a social media war which had already been brewing between Egyptians and Ethiopians increased in intensity. In their replies to Andargachew, some Egyptian Twitter users expressed their willingness to go to war to defend Egypt's share of the Nile's water. Egyptian negotiator Alaa Al-Zawahiri told the website of the Al-Arabiya television channel that "Addis Ababa is saying that the [Nile] river belongs to it but there is nothing supporting this in international law," and challenged Ethiopia to provide proof of its rights to the Nile.

The New Arab contacted the Ethiopian Embassy in the UK for clarification of Andargachew's comments.

"Unfortunately, the comments attributed to the Minister of Foreign Affairs were mistranslated and taken out of context," the embassy said in a written reply. "Following the successful first-year filling of the GERD reservoir, the minister was expressing his joy at the fact that the river would soon begin to benefit Ethiopia. Ethiopia has always been and remains committed to the equitable and reasonable utilisation of Nile water resources without causing significant harm."

Egypt is faced with an increasingly confident and assertive Ethiopia, which says that the GERD is essential to its future development, while Egypt's own power and influence appear to have waned

The embassy also said that the filling of the dam was conducted in line with the 2015 declaration of principles.

"This year's above-average rainy season and runoff conditions within the Blue Nile Basin created the ideal circumstances for the successful first-year filling of the GERD reservoir. This filling was conducted as part of the Dam's normal construction schedule and in line with the 2015 Declaration of Principles which continue to guide tripartite negotiations today."

Read more: Rabaa wasn't just a coup, it ushered in a new, totalitarian era in Egypt

However, there has been no confirmation from Egypt or Sudan that the filling of the GERD was agreed beforehand and the dispute over future filling of the GERD remains the main issue of contention that the two downstream countries have with Ethiopia.

Apocalyptic scenarios

Today Egypt is faced with an increasingly confident and assertive Ethiopia, which says that the GERD is essential to its future development, while Egypt's own power and influence appears to have waned. Ethiopia's ability to construct the dam and take unilateral actions regarding it, shows the shift in the balance of power.

Meanwhile, the lack of clarity regarding the negotiations – what kind of agreement they envisage, whether they are only about the technical issue of the speed of the filling of the dam or whether they will include other questions such as shares in the Nile - has led to great uncertainty and continued foreboding over the dam's potential effects on Egypt. Sudan does not use all the 18 billion cubic metres of Nile water allocated to it under the 1959 treaty and would therefore not experience as much disruption from the dam as Egypt.

Click to enlarge

But some studies regarding the GERD have suggested that a speedy filling would reduce Egypt's 55.5 billion cubic metres of water by between eight and twenty billion cubic metres. The studies also predicted that the GERD would reduce the electricity generated by Egypt's own mega-dam, the Aswan High Dam, by between 25 and 40 per cent. Egypt and Ethiopia have not yet agreed on how fast the dam should be filled and some experts have put forward apocalyptic scenarios if the dam is filled too quickly.

In 2018, sources at Egypt's Ministry of Irrigation told Reuters that if water from the Nile decreases by one billion cubic metres, one million people would be affected and 200,000 acres of farmland would be lost. Ashraf el-Attal, an expert on the grain trade, calculated on this basis that Ethiopia fills the dam over three years, 51 percent of Egypt's farmland could be lost, while if it fills it over six years, 17 percent of its farmland could be lost.

The frequent stalling of negotiations has, in recent weeks, been accompanied by ominous indications that Egypt may be considering a military option to deal with the issue of the GERD

Alaa al-Zawahiri has accused Ethiopia of stalling any agreement regarding the filling of the dam. "In negotiations, Ethiopia always focuses on issues far away from the filling and operation of the Renaissance Dam, and we've called on their delegation many times to keep negotiations focused on the filling of the dam and the way the filling will take place during dry years, in order to stop water supplies to Egypt and Sudan being affected," he told Al-Arabiya.

Is conflict a possibility?

The frequent stalling of negotiations has, in recent weeks, been accompanied by ominous indications that Egypt may be considering a military option to deal with the issue of the GERD. Following the 1959 treaty, Egyptian leaders have on several occasions hinted at and even openly threatened war on Ethiopia if it began dam projects on the Nile, and sometimes provided support to Ethiopian rebels with the aim of keeping the upstream country weak and divided.

Click to enlarge

At the end of July, a Kenyan news site reported that Egypt was seeking to build a military base in the unrecognised state of Somaliland, north of Ethiopia, although there are questions surrounding the reliability of this report. Last June Ethiopian General Birhanu Jula warned Egypt that his country was willing to defend the Renaissance Dam by force.

Commenting on this, however, the Ethiopian Embassy in London told The New Arab, "Ethiopia does not wish to see nor expect that there will be any military escalation over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. All parties remain committed to seeing through the AU-led tripartite process and resolving any outstanding technical issues through dialogue."

Egyptian opponents of President Sisi's government have argued that Egypt is incapable today of taking any military action against Ethiopia and this severely weakens its position in negotiations.

'No cards whatsoever'

Maha Azzam, the head of the Egyptian Revolutionary Council, an umbrella group of activists opposed to Sisi's regime, told The New Arab, "Egypt holds absolutely no cards whatsoever. It saw the developing crisis and simply ignored it until it became an obviously massive danger. Egypt strategically remained overly dependent on the Nile over the past six decades, mismanaged its water and ignored the fact that the Nile passes through several sovereign territories that have the ability to block or divert its flow."

She added that Egypt has overestimated its ability to stop Ethiopia from taking any potentially harmful action. "In its approach, Egypt appears to have relied on its misconception of itself as a major regional power that could pressure Ethiopia, which has simply not happened. It has therefore boxed itself into a corner where it might have to threaten hostilities that it may not win."

Egypt holds absolutely no cards whatsoever. It saw the developing crisis and simply ignored it until it became an obviously massive danger

Sam Charles Hamad agreed that Egypt's negotiating position was much weaker than it made it out to be.

"Egypt's negotiating position is I think quite absurd, given it was birthed after genuinely pathetic sabre-rattling from Sisi and the regime, who have threatened military action," he told The New Arab. "Egypt doesn't have any leverage on this. Ethiopia could walk away entirely from [negotiations] and what could Egypt do? It's not any kind of regional power anymore and it has very weak armed forces."

While the likelihood of the dispute over the dam turning into open military conflict between Ethiopia and Egypt is very low, and both sides have stated that they wish to avoid to see this happening, the opacity surrounding the negotiations and the different conceptions the parties have regarding them make the situation surrounding the GERD highly worrying.

While Ethiopia sees the dam as vital to its development – and also says that it will create a win-win situation, with both Egypt and Sudan benefiting from the GERD's electricity – there are no guarantees that the massive dam will not reduce the supply of water to Egypt and create drought and famine. While negotiations continue, the possibility of a breakdown remains present and it appears that the GERD will remain a source of worry and uncertainty for the Egyptian people for some time to come.

Amr Salahi is a journalist at The New Arab

Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to stay connected